She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Can I say that I find this story the single most intriguing account of Jesus in all the gospels?
Taken at face value, it would seem to portray Jesus undergoing a complete change of mind and heart toward this foreign “Caananite” woman he encounters. As it happens, there are a number of ways to read this story – each revealing at least as much about us as readers, as it does about Jesus. I’d like to highlight three ways possible to read the story.
First, some readers are not bothered by Jesus’s apparent condescension toward the woman or her request. She is in fact not worthy of Jesus’s attention. Nobody is. Humanity is entirely unworthy and undeserving of any divine mercy whatever. The few who get it should be grateful and the rest can’t complain. I’m troubled by the picture of both God and humanity in this view, but some form of it seems common. In any case, Jesus takes note of her faith and “throws to the dogs” a token of his goodness.
Fr. Robert Voyle introduced me to another reading of this passage, highlighting what he calls the “mischievous” energy of compassion Jesus employs. (Voyle identifies three essential energies of compassion: fierce, mischievous, and tender.) Jesus sees in this woman low self-esteem and high potential. He could say, “You poor little thing, let me grant your wish” (tender voice of compassion) – fixing her perceived problem but likely reinforcing her core issue of shame. He could also rebuke his disciples for their prejudice and take her under his wing, sheltering her from emotional harm (fierce voice of compassion). But he discerns a mischievous, though quite risky, tactic for empowerment in this moment. “Why should I do anything for a dog like you?” Wow. Jesus. What? From deep within, the woman’s blood boils. A dog? Did he just call me a dog?? She squares her shoulders, raises her head, and looks Jesus in the eye. “Even the dogs,” she sputters, her own fierceness rising – “Even the dogs get crumbs!” Whoa, THAT’S what were’ talking about, Jesus exclaims – NOW we see what you got, baby, bring it! Let’s have some more of that. Now I can really get to work with you!
I love Voyle’s reading here, and I love reading through all the gospels watching these three dynamic energies of compassion at work. But there is a third reading I also find not only possible but compelling, introduced to me by Dr. Vie Thorgren. In Thorgren’s reading, this is primarily a story of Jesus himself learning, growing, and re-centering in his mission and call.
For Thorgren, solitude and presence with the poor were Jesus’s two essential teachers during his adult life. He was continually aware of his need for both, as keenly as his need for bread and water. Solitude and the poor both centered him. Both created space for him to hear the voice of his Father and the music of the Spirit. Both allowed him to grow into the fullness of his humanity and the fulfillment of his mission. Some people find the notion of Jesus learning and growing in his adult life offensive, which I in turn find odd. He surely grew, learned, and developed as a child in multiple ways (Luke 2:40, 52). How strange and inhuman it would be if he did not learn as an adult. What a shame if he could not be a model of open-hearted and open-minded growth for us as adults?
This returns us to the most face-value reading of all. Was this in fact a critical, transformational learning moment for Jesus? If so, what did he learn? How did he listen? What shifts was he open to? In a similar way as his times of desert solitude, how did he allow this encounter to stir his spirit and open his eyes for steps ahead?
We who wish to be apprentices of Jesus would do well to let our imaginations roam with this. Reading the full passage, we notice that for a time as the woman was pleading, “He did not answer her at all.” What might Jesus have been wrestling with internally, as he allowed her cries to echo in his soul? What did he allow her to teach him?
Might we grow and change with Jesus as well?
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