Jesus and the Uppity Woman
The church and, I hasten to add, many other institutions in our society, have trouble with uppity women. This probably explains the bumper sticker, "Uppity Women Unite." Since the church has trouble with uppity women, it obviously has a great deal of trouble with the story told in Mark 7:24-30, and a slightly different version in Matthew 15:21-28. Why? Because one is perplexed, even embarrassed, by the portrayal of Jesus in that story. It's indeed shocking to contemplate that out of Jesus' mouth could come words that smack of racism and sexism.
Therefore, over the centuries biblical commentators and preachers, predominantly males, have attempted to deal with this problem by softening the harshness of Jesus' words in order to justify our Lord. For example, some propose that when Jesus compares Gentiles to dogs, the Greek word used for dog is more like a household pet, a puppy, a little dog. However, as one female scholar puts it, "Even if you call me a little bitch, I still find that terribly offensive!" Others try to excuse Jesus by saying that he only uses the "dogs" label in a playful way with a twinkle in his eyes and humor in his heart. If so, then it's a clumsy form of humor not unlike ethnic jokes directed at wops, spics, niggers, kikes, queers, and other equally demeaning labels. If that is humor, it remains unfunny to the targets of such so-called harmless playfulness.
Yes, the story of the uppity woman is disturbing, yet it is a favorite one of feminist biblical scholars. Why? Let's look very closely at this narrative, both versions, to see the potential learning it contains. And by the way, just so we don't think that a feminist critique of the Bible is a new thing, not quite 100 years ago Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her book, The Woman's Bible, wrote, "It was very ungracious of Jesus to speak of dogs; the woman's retort to that was bright and appropriate."
Our story commences with Jesus and some of his followers withdrawing to Tyre, north of Israel, the northernmost area of Jesus' travels. In other words, they enter a territory beyond the horizons of a Palestinian Jew, socially speaking, the land of Gentiles, outsiders, and pagans (another biased label). Since Jesus has recently engaged in some strenuous debates and conflict with his various critics, it was time for rest and reflection, time to get away from it all for a while. So he entered a house up north and did not want anyone to know he was there. And we can relate to that human need not to be recognized, the need to retreat for renewal.
Well, that proved impossible for Jesus; his fans had spread even outside of Israel. An unnamed woman (unfortunately, so many women in the Bible are presented without names) hears about Jesus and goes to where he is in order to plead on behalf of her ill daughter. This woman, we are told by Mark, is of Syrophoenician origin. Matthew labels her a Canaanite. No matter which! The point is that there are two strikes against this person in Jewish society; as a woman and a Gentile she is doubly marked. And we might add that her child is triply marked, an object of three-fold pollution, being female, Gentile, and a child. In that day and place, female children were not greatly valued: they cost the father money in terms of a wedding dowry; they were troublesome pieces of property until finally married, when women then became the property of their husbands. But this mother obviously values her daughter immensely. How else can we explain the risk she takes in going to see Jesus the Jew?
"And she came and bowed down at his feet. ... She begged Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter." How dare she break custom and interrupt the Jew Jesus, this uppity woman, this (according to the dictionary) "arrogant, presumptuous" woman! Her solicitation, scholars tell us, is an affront to the honored status of a rabbi like Jesus. No man, especially a Gentile man, unknown or unrelated to this Jew, would have dared invade Jesus' privacy at home to seek a favor. Indeed an uppity act calling for a rebuff!
In Matthew's account of this story, Jesus appears to reject her in three ways: first, by his silence to her initial plea; second, by asserting that his ministry is to Jews alone; third, by the crushing remark that it is unfair to give to dogs (Gentiles) the bread intended for the children (Israel). In Mark, where the dialogue between the two is much briefer, the rejection is given only once: "Let the children be fed first," denoting a hierarchy in Jesus' mission, "for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs," dogs being the traditional Jewish insult of Gentiles reflecting a long and sometimes bitter history of ethnic, cultural, and socio-political hostility between people in the Middle East, still very much alive there today, unfortunately. And lest that comment sounds too chauvinistic, just recall our own American history with our ongoing ethnic, cultural, and socio-political hostilities: Jew/Christian, black/white, Native American/European, real Americans/ those others.
The last part of this story's dialogue is truly amazing. The unnamed woman, taking the role always given to Jesus in his previous encounters with various critics, answers him with persistence and wit. It's noteworthy that Jesus' critics thought he was uppity in the way he spoke with such authority to them, so presumptuously and arrogantly, or so they thought. Now this foreign female dares to argue with the master, to spar verbally with this teacher of teachers, clearly inappropriate assertive female behavior. How dare that not-fully-informed wet-behind-the-ears student question a Grinnell College professor ... who has tenure! Uppity! How dare that layperson doubt the pastor ... who is ordained! Uppity!
"Sir," she replies, "even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." She defends the rights of her people to the liberating power of Jesus' healing ministry. Then comes the conclusion of it all, even more amazing, more unpredictable. Jesus grants her request. Surprise! In Matthew's version, it is because of her faith. In Mark, perhaps even more surprisingly, it is because of her argument. "Then Jesus said to her, 'For saying that, you may go home content. The unclean spirit has left your daughter.'" And it had, as she discovers when she arrives home. Because of her argument, the plea is granted. Is it possible that this is the only recorded instance in the Gospels when Jesus is bested in a verbal exchange? If so, that is a truly remarkable turn of events, given Jesus' powerful verbal mastery over his opponents.
At this point, we must be honest and confess that the idea that Jesus was ever in any way bested simply cannot be accepted by many Christians. You see the problem, don't you? Such a possibility detracts too much from Jesus' divinity, his ability to know all and do all. Yes, Christianity also affirms the humanity of Jesus, but that's just too human, too much like us. Thus there must be another way out, another reasonable interpretation to this most troubling narrative. And, as you might guess, scholars and preachers have tried to do so with integrity.
Let me share with you one of the most persuasive such interpretations for your consideration, offered by one of my former seminary mentors, James D. Smart. Smart posits that in Matthew's account of the story Jesus' initial silence to the woman's plea is a strategic hesitation directed towards his disciples; it is not because Jesus does not intend to respond to the need of a Gentile woman. Jesus wants to expose the discriminatory prejudice of the disciples whose immediate response is, "Send her away." Her importunity is an annoyance to them. Then when Jesus does speak, he speaks words that the disciples believe, not words which Jesus himself holds true: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Smart writes: "Here Jesus leads his disciples on to expose their prejudice against Gentiles. He was playing a deadly serious game with them. But at the same time Jesus was playing a game necessarily also with the woman, and it was essential to his purpose that she should understand, however rudely forbidding his words should sound on the surface. We have here, perhaps, an instance of how a person may say one thing with his words and something quite different with his eyes." Smart contends that the woman sees this and therefore continues her plea undaunted.
It is then that Jesus speaks his harsh cruel words equating this woman and all Gentiles with dogs, not pet dogs, says Smart. Why? "Jesus intended the words to be harsh and cruel because they had to expose the full harshness and heartlessness of nationalistic prejudice against foreigners," including the prejudice of his own followers then and today. Therefore, calling this woman a dog is not a sincere expression of Jesus' own mind, and the woman clearly understands this and makes her witty response that crumbs are enough for her. Smart's conclusion is, "The game is over. Not only has the prejudice of the disciples been exposed, but also the marvelous faith of the Gentile woman." End of interpretation; Jesus is thereby vindicated. Right! Right? I'm not sure. I am just not completely convinced. How does Smart know that Jesus is saying something quite different with his eyes?
Let us for a few moments entertain another possible interpretation of this troubling story for our edification. What if this Gentile woman caught Jesus with his compassion down? He was tired; he was retreating from recent conflicts, weary and perhaps wondering how it all would end. Jesus just wasn't feeling very loving. We can certainly relate to that. And perhaps Jesus had not fully decided his own stance toward Gentiles.
What if this Gentile woman did in fact prevail over Jesus in the sense that her argument opens for him an expanded vision of a Gentile mission, something he had not engaged in up to this point in his life? It is noteworthy that shortly before this episode in Mark, Jesus feeds thousands on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, and soon after this episode, Jesus feeds thousands on the Gentile side of the sea! Sharon Ringe writes, "She wins the argument and, in the short run, got healing, and, in the long run, opens the way for a Gentile mission." What if, as Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza proclaims, "This woman is the apostolic foremother of all Gentile Christians," which includes us who are non-Jews? Jesus concedes her the debate and, in the process, her ministry to Jesus frees him to include Gentiles in his new community of the kingdom of God. She reminds Jesus that God's gracious goodness, including even breadcrumbs, is enough to satisfy every child of God. Yes, now Jesus welcomes Gentiles as equals, thanks to her!
I am not arguing that this last interpretation of our story is the only correct one. But I am suggesting that we seriously consider this interpretative possibility. For what if, like us, Jesus did hold prejudices toward some different folk? Yes, that does make Jesus more human than we might like him to be. But is that bad? Does that detract unnecessarily from his person? I think not. Let me offer a personal comment on that. I do not remember the precise moment when as a child I discovered that my parents were fallible, were indeed human. I do remember how troubling that was to me for quite a long time. And yet, as time passed, I also found it strangely liberating. Now I knew that they could really understand my needs and longings and shortcomings, because they too had to grow and struggle and learn. And being human like me, our relationship to each other deepened over the years as a wonderful equality emerged.
Therefore, knowing a more human Jesus who needed to have his worldview widened, his inclusive vision deepened, brings me closer to my Lord and Savior. While still troubling, this human Jesus is liberating for me. To see him grow and change is an invitation to you and me to do likewise, indeed to welcome the challenge of any uppity woman or uppity man which brings us closer to God's way for all of us.
Scholars agree that our story, however finally interpreted, was in part directed toward the early church, which struggled over the issue of whether or not to include Gentiles in the Jewish church. However, the "inclusion view" of Paul and Peter finally won out and a great missionary endeavor commenced to share God's love with all. May this story remind the church and each one of us of this ultimate inclusiveness of God's loving and hopefully our loving.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2004