Jesus Called Her A Dog!
I guess to some extent we are all prisoners of our genetic make-up and governed by community mores. The evolutionary scientists point to the selected characteristics which make us seek our support from those who look like us, those who share our feelings, beliefs and those who history tells us are most likely to give us protection and support for our beliefs. This gives us a good base for working together – and to keep our enemies at bay and under control. Countless examples through history show the development of tribal behaviour to the point where whole nations will band together and use combined efforts to gain economic and military advantage.
The catch is that knowing who is with us is another way requires being vigilant to where the threats to our well being might come from. To make this work in practice we need to selectively misremember our history so that we might seem to have good reason for accepting those like us – and by the same token adequate reason for rejecting potential rivals.
The Bible documents the struggles of the Israelite people as they sought to gain a permanent safe area they could call their homeland and the boundaries shifted many times. Neighbours with discernible differences of belief or appearance were to be kept at a safe distance and the teaching in the Jewish community in Jesus’ day reflected an understandable fear and prejudice against non Jews and those who challenged mainstream community beliefs.
We might assume that we have moved beyond such attitudes and hope that we live in a much more open and accepting society, yet even the Christian Church has many centuries of examples of intolerance and sectarian narrow-mindedness.
I guess many would have seen that impressive statue of Christ standing with his hands outstretched on the mountainside between Sao Palo and Rio. Well according to two friends who have visited the area and talked to locals, there are some in the community of Sao Palo say that he is standing in that position because he is getting ready to clap the first day someone in Rio does an honest day’s work.
We can smile at this prejudice particularly if we overlook our own deep seated prejudices against those of other faiths, or those with other patterns of dress, other customs or even our assumptions about those claiming different religions.
I was brought up to attend a Christchurch primary school in Fendalton where we learned much about the virtues of the British Commonwealth and much of what I now see to be slanted information about those with other backgrounds. The Chinese were waiting to take over the Pacific, Arabs presented as those who were to be distrusted (even although as far as I could tell, no-one at the school had actually met one), Muslims and Buddhists were atheists, Communists were the new threat to the world, Jews were only in business for the money, and homosexuals represented sinful behaviour only talked about in hushed whispers.
In short anyone other than us was somehow inferior. For many of us with fathers just back from the second world war, our war comics assured us that Japs and Huns and Wogs had revealed their true character.
And just based on what I hear, even this year, I would have to say that for many in my community similar prejudices are still with us today. The Europeans in the community can often be heard talking of lazy Maori and the need to keep those dangerous refugees at bay.
I once heard a Maori ask why where possible Samoans are buried 12 feet down, the answer being that deep down they are not too bad. I have heard Samoans tell racist jokes about Tongans and vice versa. Fiji Indians in unguarded moments talk scornfully about lazy Fijians while the Fijians talk of money grabbing Indians. I have heard second generation immigrants scoff at the FOBs (Fresh off the Boat) immigrants.
Given prejudice in our own community I wonder why we sometimes are slow to recognise prejudice recorded in the pages of the Bible.
Which brings us to today’s reading about the Syrophoenecian woman where Jesus, perhaps speaking from his own education appears to be reacting with prejudice. Surely in retrospect this should not surprise us.
Let’s look again at the story. The woman comes to Jesus begging for healing for her daughter whom she believes is possessed by a demon.
For those of us expecting Jesus to be perfect it may come as a shock to hear Jesus mouthing words of prejudice. “Let the children first be fed; for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (7.27). He then appeared to do a rethink and offered genuine help. The story was told and retold because the way Jesus abandoned his very conservative stance in favour of compassion and inclusion made him seem very different from his contemporaries. The person who told the story first cannot have been bothered by the initial negative light it casts on Jesus.
We don’t know and cannot know what was in Jesus’ mind when he spoke these words. Some try to “save” Jesus by suggesting it is all a bit “tongue in cheek”. Another way to deal with the problem is to follow Matthew, who instead adds further rationale for Jesus’ initial refusal, explaining the validity of the distinction is part of the scheme for Jesus’ ministry. In other words He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Mark may also have something like this in mind when he has Jesus say that children must be fed “first” (like Paul’s “to the Jew, first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16-17). But dogs are still dogs. The image is demeaning.
We can never know if what we have here is history or a story where the story teller was a little careless. Mark certainly had no compunction about portraying Jesus as saying what many would have said: Israel are God’s children; Gentiles are like the dogs (not nice little lap dogs or puppies; the intention is negative).
Whether it be in the story, or in reality, there is some good news. Jesus may well have started with the common negative view of unclean gentiles. It certainly would have been one that he had heard so frequently as he was growing up it would probably have been difficult for him not to have it influence his thinking. The good news is that Jesus refused to remain bound by such distinctions. He crossed the boundary. A woman from the coastal regions of Palestine persuaded him. Today we might even want to recognise her early attempts at equality! At the very least it might suggest the attitudes of the people in that area about women and their inclusion!
Yes we might well find argument to say Jesus was initially only trying to show the woman he had bee sent to speak to the Jews and did not believe his words of prejudice at the beginning of his encounter. He was after all the Son of God. Well maybe …yet if we are intended to learn from the story surely the real question is not whether Jesus had to step outside the prejudice of his day – but rather what our prejudices are and what we are intending to do about it.
Richard Fairchild in one of his sermons refers to an incident in Los Angeles some years ago where 600 would-be lawyers were sitting their finals paper. One of the students suddenly collapsed and stopped breathing. Only three students in the whole group stopped to help and for the next 30 minutes until the ambulance arrived they rendered CPR while the others carried on carried on writing as if nothing had happened. Since the paper was on ethics it raises the interesting question. Should those in the vast majority who ignored the incident be considered to have passed the practical?
If we reflect on that story of Jesus – or for that matter the story of the law students, it should also challenge us to think about our own ethics. When Jesus had his ethics tested we read that he set his traditional background aside and accepted the person his community would have rejected. If we claim to be members of his Church, it is not just a matter of talking in admiring terms about what he represents. When we encounter situations which challenge our own background or prejudice or are tempted to follow our natural inclinations to take the easy way out it is our ethics which are being tested, not those of Jesus – or for that matter not a bunch of lawyers sitting an exam. We can hardly say that we follow Jesus without at the same time attempting to follow his example in the way we make our choices about our own actions.