Both of my sons are wordsmiths and the elder one has a particular facility for delivering groan-inducing puns with such lightning speed that even as you roll your eyes, you can’t help but be a little impressed—or terrified—by how dexterously his brain can associate many things with many other things. A few years ago, during a chat about Traditional Chinese Medicine, I explained that practitioners will advise their patients to nourish and build up the yin energies through autumn and winter and the yang energies in the springtime and summer.
I had barely finished my sentence when he said, “Well, obviously! What’s yanger than springtime?”
A gift for wordplay is the sign of an active, engaged mind, and I always appreciate seeing evidence of Jesus’s vigorous intellect in the bits of affectionate, word-based and rather Semitic humor on display in scripture; I marvel at Jesus’s deft tongue. In Matthew, Chapter 14, Simon and Andrew—probably kvetching at each other as they cast their nets into the sea—needed only one phrase to drop their nets and follow him, and the phrase was a dandy: “Hey, you fishermen . . . follow me; I’ll make you fishers of men!”
I take the point of the women who prefer the more gender-neutral “I’ll make you fishers of persons” but he was addressing fisher men at the time, and the joke—which is delightful—doesn’t really work once it has been neutered. Good straight-men (or straight-persons) know never to step on the punchline.
Given that, I always envision Jesus throwing back his head in good-humored appreciation when—as we see in tomorrow’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel—a Canaanite woman bests him, answering his challenge with one of her own:
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her.
His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.
Jesus loves us, this we know, for the bible tells us so, but he never loves us with the sort of syrupy instinct to sentimentalism that can sometimes overtake us when—in our parenting or our socializing—we allow our affections to override the need to speak a truthful word, because it might be seen as discomfiting, or hurtful.
In other words, Jesus never “loves us too much” to challenge us, and that scene above is a good example of it. I have read some commentators suggest that Jesus’s exchange with this woman is an occasion where he is being “dark” or “unloving,” but we really do choose how we receive a thing, and I have never received this gospel story in that negative way. Rather, Jesus seems to me to be acting here as a good teacher who wants his student to “stand and deliver,” so to speak.
Yes, I know—“stand and deliver” is the catchphrase of highwaymen and thieves—but the phrase and thinking works here because what it really breaks down to is, “hand over the goods, deliver to me what is valuable.”
I believe in Jesus’ case, he wants us to open up—to expose and bring forth to him our inmost selves; the valuable goods, as it were.
Jesus is the divine teacher, and a good teacher finds the way to bring out the very best in students—not to simply teach them rote memorization (although that has its place) but to make them “deliver of themselves”; to put something more behind their answers. He does it over and over in the Gospels—makes people declare what it is they want and why they are coming to him. His challenge says, “stand and deliver—so that you may be more fully the man or woman you are, and not some prostrate creature.”
Had this encounter between Jesus and the woman not involved a challenge—had Jesus simply shrugged and healed her daughter upon demand—it would not have been as memorable and a key bit of theological information would not have been passed along to us; the important message to the Gentiles (do not be afraid to seek your salvation here, it is for you, too) might have been lost.
Perhaps more importantly, on a personal level, the woman would not have been uplifted in a public way; she would not have had her cleverness—a gift of her individuality and a sign of her God-intended unique personhood—acknowledged. She would have simply been one more woman ducking her head and lowering her eyes. Instead—after an encounter with Christ—she had dignity and could hold her head up. I believe those are the reasons Christ challenged her.
This is a wonderful story and Jesus made here a generous challenge to a woman who had been raised in a culture that thought of her as mere chattel: show me who you are, he said. Stand up tall. Be yourself. Speak your piece. There is nothing “dark” in any of that.
And there could not ever have been, in any case, for Christ Jesus is all truth, and all light.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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