In this Sunday’s Gospel reading a Canaanite (gentile), woman asked Jesus to heal her seriously ill daughter. Jesus responded, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26)
There was a time when Scripture commentators tried to put a positive spin on Jesus’ words to the woman. Those attempts at ameliorating the harshness of Jesus’ words portray the comment as a friendly challenge meant to inspire the woman’s faith. More recently, scholars have pointed out that this language is very consistent with the way that Jews in Jesus’ time spoke about gentiles.
Dog owners like to think of their pets as having descended from wild and noble wolves – something like White Fang in the Jack London novel. The truth is much more banal. Domesticated dogs are the direct descendants of scavengers that came into contact with humans due to the abundance of edible garbage produced by human settlements.
Jews during Jesus’ lifetime referred to gentiles as “dogs” because of the respective eating habits of the two groups. Dogs, being scavengers, will eat almost anything. In the eyes of Jews, gentiles ate like dogs because gentiles had no qualms about eating things that Jews considered un-kosher.
Jesus’ words to the Canaanite woman were not a friendly attempt to challenge her to greater faith. Quite the contrary was true. At the time, Jews didn’t think that gentiles were really capable of having faith in the One, True God. Jesus’ words were precisely as dismissive as they sound to us.(*)
The rather harsh nature of Jesus’ reply to the woman conflicts with western society’s image of Jesus as tender, caring and nurturing. It is important to note, however, that the Gospels do not intend to convince us about Jesus’ good character. Rather, the Gospels intend to convince us of the absolute, indispensable nature of believing in the God who is not ruled by human desires.
This event is one of several in the Gospels that portray Jesus as totally obedient to God’s will, and not at all swayed by human opinion. (e.g., John 2:1-4, Matthew 22:16) In this event, Jesus rejected the woman’s initial request because he understood his Divine mission to be to call his fellow Israelites to a renewed fidelity to the Covenant with Moses. Jesus wasn’t being unkind; he was directing his attention where he thought it was needed: the faithful.
He changed his mind immediately when he realized that this gentile woman had authentic faith in God. (Matthew 15:28) This story depicts an essential aspect of authentic faith.
Everyone believes in something. Some believe in wealth, power and/or notoriety. Others practice more subtle forms of idolatry. There is a very popular image of God as an omnipotent concierge who exists solely for the purpose of meeting our physical, emotional or spiritual needs. This belief is equally as idolatrous as shallow materialism because it requires God to serve the human will. Any god that is subject to human whim is not God.
The only God worthy of our complete allegiance is the One God who is above all our thinking, willing and wanting. Jesus saw this sort of faith in the gentile woman’s persistence. She was convinced that Jesus wielded God’s own power; her conviction convinced Jesus of her authenticity.
Jesus didn’t intend his harsh words to be a test of faith, but his words turned out to be a test that the Canaanite woman passed with high marks. What kind of score would you receive if you took this test? Where do you place your faith? Do you put your complete trust in a created thing? Do you trust that God owes you something? Or, do you trust in the God who is above all, who knows better than you know what is best for you?
The Canaanite woman put her faith in God’s righteousness and justice rather than her own. She proved to Jesus that her faith was real, and not mere idolatry. This is the meaning of the “great faith” that Jesus ascribed to her. To have “great faith” is to forsake all other gods, including oneself, and to trust exclusively and completely in the God of the Scriptures.
A note on the Scriptures:
In light of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the resulting political conflict, it seems prudent to offer some social commentary on the pejorative language that Jesus used in today’s Gospel reading.
Anyone looking for guidance from the Scriptures about how to deal with modern social issues will do well to keep in mind precisely what the Scriptures intend as a goal and what is not intended as the goal of the Scriptures.
The Catholic Church maintains that the Scriptures are Divinely inspired. This teaching states that the Scriptures contain religious truth sufficient to lead the Church to salvation. This teaching does not state that the Scriptures provide reliable instruction about matters that are not essentially religious. Specifically, the Scriptures do not necessarily provide true teaching on subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, biology and the other sciences, history, social mores and the like.
The event in today’s Gospel reading provides an excellent example of the limitations of Scriptural teachings. The brief conflict between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is related by Matthew’s Gospel solely for the purpose of elucidating the nature of authentic faith. At the time Matthew’s Gospel was written the Church had begun an intensive mission to preach the Gospel to gentiles. Some believers objected to this mission on the grounds that gentiles (who were idolaters), were not capable of faith in the One, True God.
In order to reconcile two opposed opinions about evangelizing the Church looked to Jesus’ own interactions with gentiles. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is pleasantly surprised by the strong faith exhibited by a gentile. This event served both as justification for Matthew’s congregation’s mission to the gentiles and as instruction about how to judge the authenticity of a person’s faith. According to Jesus, anyone who puts their unwavering trust in God’s promise of salvation has demonstrated an authentic faith.
The social setting of this teaching about faith is of little importance. This story cannot be understood to say anything in particular about the social, ethnic, national, racial or other differences between people; it says only that authentic faith in God is possible to everyone.
Although there is nothing specific in this story that addresses issues like the current social and racial tensions in the United States, there is a general teaching in the Scriptures that is applicable to the recent violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures there is a very consistent definition of justice and righteousness. In the first place, justice and righteousness are descriptions of God’s faithfulness to God’s promises. God promised salvation to God’s People, and God has never abrogated that promise despite the many times that God’s People broke faith with God. Secondly, justice and righteousness are descriptions of how God’s People are to live, i.e., in imitation of God’s faithfulness. Today’s first reading says as much. (Isaiah 56:1)
“Faith,” in the Scriptures, means to be reliable and trustworthy in all one’s relationships. Reliability, or trustworthiness, with regard to God means to trust God above all else. Reliability, or trustworthiness, with regard to one’s neighbor means to act in ways that promote and sustain trust between individuals. The most serious sin described in the Scriptures is the sin of breaking faith, that is, of being untrustworthy.
The Scriptures demand the highest possible degree of coherence and consistency between one’s words and one’s actions. God is always just and righteous because God is always true to God’s Word. Believers are just and righteous to the degree that their actions are consistent with their verbal commitments. This Scriptural perspective on fidelity speaks directly to the issues of racial and class conflicts occurring in our country.
American culture states publicly that one of its uncompromising commitments is to the tenet that all people are political equals. The foundational documents of our government, the structure of our government, the nature of our legal system, even the nature of our economic system, are public statements about our belief that all people are equal under the law. Unfortunately, these are aspirational values, not the actual values by which we live.
The on-going racial and cultural tensions in the United States are very clear statements about the actual values that govern our lives. The senseless violence in Charlottesville provides graphic illustration of the disconnect between what we, as a nation, say we believe and what we actually believe (that is, the values that actually shape our actions).
The tolerance that individuals and government structures have been willing to give to white-supremacists and neo-Nazis is not merely a sign of our willingness to permit racism in our culture. It is a sign of something much more troubling.
Government leaders, business leaders and social leaders responded to the violence in Charlottesville at an embarrassingly slow pace. Their faltering response to the actions of a violent faction which espouses beliefs entirely contrary to our society’s publicly stated commitments betrays not only a deep-seated dishonesty inherent in American culture but a profound degree of self-destructiveness as well.
While we say we believe in equality under the law for everyone, we act in ways that are inconsistent with that stated belief. This public act of dishonesty springs from the dishonesty that we are willing to allow ourselves in our private lives. The fact that we are so comfortable with our delusional behavior should be very disturbing to every American, but it is not. This societal and individual tolerance for self-delusion creates a social setting in which trust is difficult if not impossible. In such a situation, everyone bears an unnecessary burden of having to live in a society which is fundamentally untrustworthy.
In the Scriptures, justice and righteousness are measured by the degree to which one’s actions are consistent with one’s stated commitments. Using this metric, American culture is demonstrably unjust and vicious; we saw sufficient evidence of this in our societal leaders’ reluctance to condemn the public display of bigotry in Charlottesville last week.
The teaching of the Scriptures is clear on this issue. Human nature is harmed, always and everywhere, by a lack of trustworthiness. Tolerating, or living in denial about racism, bigotry, misogyny, fascism, prejudice, injustice, discrimination and every other manifestation of unfaithfulness is equivalent to willfully destroying the trust that holds society together.
The on-going violence in our country is the logical consequence of the fact that our entire society, beginning with our governmental and societal leaders, refuses to come to terms with our excessive degree of self-destructiveness and the delusions that give us permission to be self-destructive.