Proper 15(A): Living Faithfully
By: Colin Cushman
This week’s reading presents us with two quite different stories. While in reality they probably shouldn’t actually go together, when we read them side by side, interesting dynamics and character development emerge. Both stories address a big question: How do we faithfully live as people of God?
Our first story narrows down our question: What does it mean to be a Jew? The scene opens on Jesus incensing his foil, the Pharisees, about keeping ritually observant behaviors. Regarding the proper Jewish diet, Jesus claims that what goes in the mouth just winds up in the sewer, whereas what comes out of the mouth is what is truly unclean. The Pharisees clearly take the opposite position. Their whole project is to expand the domain of the ritual purity laws. They don’t want to just apply them when they go into the Temple, but to incorporate them into one’s entire life. They refuse to instrumentalize these ways of being, instead wanting to actually live out one’s religious convictions full-time.
Jesus and the Pharisees were not the only Jewish groups bickering. In the Second Temple Period, Judaism had splintered into many sects, each claiming to have “the right way” to be Jewish. The whole debate really argues about what it means to live faithfully as one who is following God. Matthew, of course being sympathetic to Jesus’ perspective, shows Jesus winning this debate. In Matthew’s portrait, as the teacher par excellence (the new Moses), Jesus regularly confounds his disciples with his profundity. Here, the disciples don’t understand his message, conveniently providing the explanation for the similarly confused reader.
Everything you eat, Jesus claims, is transitory and just passes straight through you. (Which is wrong by both ancient and modern somatic conceptions.) Thus, food can’t be unclean. Rather, he says, tapping into the prophetic tradition, the heart is the source of real impurity. Unlike our modern understanding, in this culture, the heart is not primarily about emotions. Rather, it’s the center of rationality. Thus, Jesus is really saying, “What goes out of the mouth comes from one’s innermost being.” From one’s core self. Impurity is not about the food or the emotions or the individual ritual observances. Rather, impurity comes from you yourself. Your behavior is a reflection of your essence, who you are in your character. And the sins Jesus lists off are all sins against someone else. (In that culture, wives were seen as property, so sexual sin is defiling the other man’s property, and is thus a relational offense.) For Jesus, purity is not a question of emotions nor of doing the right symbolic actions, but of self and character, especially in relationship with others.
Our second story takes us somewhere quite different—both thematically and geographically. This famous story is set in Tyre or Sidon—Israel’s neighboring coastal regions, populated by the widely-influential empire of the Phoenecian sea-peoples. There, Jesus runs into an unnamed indigenous woman who pleads with him to exorcize her daughter. After initially refusing, Jesus commends her faith and performs the exorcism remotely.
However, Jesus’ response is quite insulting! He compares non-Jews to dogs and thus excludes them from his work (even though he willingly performed healings for Roman officials elsewhere.) In this culture, dogs weren’t beloved like today. They were the vultures of the land: mangy scavengers. Jesus discounts the woman’s request, citing that he had only been sent to the Israelites, rather than the Canaanite “dogs.” (Which begs the question: Then why was he in Tyre/Sidon?)
Yet here we have a woman caring for her daughter in a patriarchal world. And rather than being meek or demure, she grabs on and won’t let go until she wrestled a blessing out of Jesus. It’s a story of both a mother’s love for her daughter and of a woman exerting her agency in the face of obstinate men. Initially, Jesus ignores her, which doesn’t placate his disciples. They want him to more actively shut her up. When he finally does talk to her, Jesus refuses to do what, elsewhere in the Gospels, he performed indiscriminately.
But the woman refuses to give up. In a move of rhetorical jujitsu, she subverts Jesus’ analogy. Temporarily allowing the denigrating comparison to stand, she promptly undermines it by pushing the analogy beyond the boundaries that Jesus established for it. Her linguistic maneuver exemplifies the way that marginalized people work in subversive ways to try to gain victories where they are actually possible.
Interpreters are often deeply invested in helping Jesus to save face here. They often claim that he was just testing her. In reality, we only see these readings as plausible because of our insistence that Jesus be the good guy. Any straightforward reading of the text shows that Jesus was being a jerk who got his mind changed. Jesus understood himself called to serve the Israelites. He had a one-track mind, tunnel vision, a singular focus. He didn’t want to be side-tracked. But in doing that, he missed the human suffering that was happening right beside him, especially on the margins.
If you do want to give Jesus credit, though, he does allow himself to be convinced. Not only is he big enough to change his mind, he does so against the pull of his honor/shame culture. Being challenged and bested by a woman like that inherently brought shame on Jesus—unless it was promptly countered, perhaps through anger or physical violence. However, as elsewhere, Jesus shucks this expectation, rejects the honor/shame system, and allows himself to learn and grow. Thus in the end, the Canaanite woman enters into a rich pedigree of Biblical characters who argued with God—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job, Hezekiah, Mary—many of whom won. Not to mention that she (a non-Jew!) was commended on her faith, even more so than many other Jews in the story.
Whereas in the first story, we saw Jews fighting other Jews about how to best be Jewish, the second story presents a cautionary tale, showing what happens when you get too focused on best being a Jew. Of course, we modern readers can fruitfully expand the scope of these same themes. How do we negotiate what it means to be faithful to God? But as we do so, how do we make sure we’re not missing the very real human suffering happening outside of our tunnel vision? In today’s world, these types of question have become very important, and these Biblical stories help us to reflect on them.
Colin Cushman is the pastor of Seabold United Methodist Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington. His area of focus in his own research is on the intersection of Biblical Studies and oppression. He is happily married to his wife Madi who is an excellent mental health counselor working with children and youth.