21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”Matthew 15:21-28, NIV
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Not long ago I had a conversation with my oldest daughter about the above passage. In the course of our conversation I realized once again that interpretation of scripture does not begin after we’ve read a passage, but the reading of the passage is itself part of the act of interpretation. I touched on this a little bit in a previous post, but with this passage it became that much more clear to me.
My daughter’s concern with this passage was that Jesus seems to be indifferent to the plight of this woman’s daughter and then appears to speak downright insultingly to her. This is a common common response to this passage, I think. I have had those concerns myself.
My daughter and I talked about how Jesus’ mission really was first and foremost to the Jews, that ministry to the Gentiles (i.e., everyone else) was left to the apostles after Pentecost, though Jesus also alludes to this expansion of the kingdom. Still, Jesus nevertheless seems unreasonably rude to this woman.
So then we talked about why this passage troubles people: it’s mainly because it seems so inconsistent with how Jesus tends to speak to and deal with people. I can think of at least a couple of places in the Gospels where Jesus happily grants Gentile requests for healing without bringing up his mission to the Jews or making seemingly insulting comments. I suggested that because of this inconsistency in Jesus’ behaviour, perhaps we should consider that maybe we’re missing something in this passage or misreading it.
It’s interesting, for instance, that this Canaanite woman goes along with Jesus’ “insult” and has a comeback. That’s when it started dawning on me: what if this story is not about this woman or Jesus’ mission at all? What if this story is about the disciples and how they perceive things that are “unclean” or defile (which is what the passage before this is about)? What if it’s simply about faith?
In other words, what if Jesus isn’t insulting the woman? What if as he’s saying these things, he winks and smiles at the woman with a glint in his eye, but is really saying it to or for the benefit of his disciples? It might be that “dogs” was a Jewish insult and Jesus was challenging his disciples in their attitudes and the woman’s appearance simply presented an opportunity for Jesus to teach his disciples something. The woman, seeing Jesus’ wink and smile, would have been in on the “joke”—Jesus has invited her into this teaching moment.
This is conjecture, of course. We can’t be sure what Jesus’ tone or facial expression was. But my point is simply this: we tend to read scripture in a certain way; we assume a certain tone in the voices of the speakers. Jesus tends to be heard as a dead serious speaker, rarely, if ever, joking around. So our tendency when we read a passage like this is to imagine Jesus frowning, crossing his arms, and turning away from this woman. But that, too, is conjecture. We simply don’t know. And we simply shouldn’t assume—either way.
Adding tone and using our imagination is virtually unavoidable when reading scripture. But as we do so, we are already interpreting the passage without realizing it. So it is good to at least be aware of this, and beyond that, to try out different tones and inflection as we read and hear scripture. This is a good reason for the public reading of scripture or audio Bibles, to hear different voices speak scripture in different ways.