Good morning, friends.
Sara read Mark's version of the Syrophoenician Woman's encounter with Jesus earlier, so please allow me to read Matthew's account, found in Chapter 15, verses 21-28:
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 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.”
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.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
I'd like to begin my thoughts today with a question: what the heck is going on in this scripture?
One thing is clear: this woman is three times an outsider. She's a Greek. She's a she. And she's a Gentile.
But is Jesus really calling her a dog...insulting her and humiliating her, only to then turn around and heal her daughter?
My inquiry turned up two prevalent yet distinct interpretations of this passage among scholars. The first modernist-deconstructionist view is highly critical of Jesus, claiming that this exchange proves he was a flawed teacher, socially regressive, someone who—like the world he lived in—saw ethnicity first and human beings second. The other classical-structuralist interpretation is overtly apologetic: Jesus just wanted this woman to lower herself by acknowledging her position as outside of the traditional covenant so that she would be position to accept His grace. These folks argue that His milder use of language isn't really all that harsh—for example, he used the Greek diminutive for "dog," implying a small dog such as a household puppy, and not a wild beast.
I don't know about you, but neither of these perspectives resonates with me. Both seem not only cursory, but also out of sync with who I believe Jesus was, and who Jesus continues to be in our world today.
And maybe as a Quaker, I also love exploring the third way when the first two just don't fit.
After a Friend recently reminded me of the tension she felt when reading this passage, I did some digging into three subjects I found relevant in unearthing what was really going on here: the historical nature of questions, the methodology we refer to today as the Socratic Method, and the New Testament accounts of questions asked by Jesus.
The first required a little broader research, the second a reflection on my time in law school when the Socratic Method of deeper and deeper questioning was used almost daily to coax terrified first year students into cohesive answers, and in the third, I found the work of Martin Copenhaver, pastor and author of "Jesus is the Question" to be a very worthwhile read.
And from these reflections, I found three interesting connections:
1) All great religions and teachers use questions as a primary method of instruction;
2) Christianity is no exception—Jesus asked 307 questions in the New Testament, and answered as few as 8 questions directly; and
3) Questioning is foundational to Quakerism, and our practice of querying is directly derived from these earliest and most powerful practices for personal spiritual growth.
But first, what is a question, really? My favorite definition is actually from Wikipedia, the source of all accurate worldly wisdom. Those editors say:
A question is a linguistic expression used to make a request for information. The information requested should be provided in the form of an answer.
That's helpful, but how do you answer a question? If Jesus is a model, it's frequently with another question—one designed to help the person who asked it.
In a 21st century context, we find that answering a question with a question is impolite and off-putting, as if the recipient has insulted our status or intelligence by not just answering us directly.
Imagine for example me asking you "what is 2+2" and you responding "well, what is 10-6?" The answer to the second question is the same as the answer to the first, but we would consider it precocious and maybe even downright rude in our modern culture.
But throughout most of history, and in almost every religious tradition, it was considered a respectable way of engaging and searching for deeper meaning, especially with an equal or one who you cared about.
From the West, where Socrates was refining the Method of Elenchus, which we know today as the Socratic Method, to the East, where in the Sutta Pikka the Buddha identifies the third type of appropriate response to a question as another question, cultural and religious leaders throughout antiquity saw the benefit of questioning as a powerful spiritual tool.
Certainly, Jesus would have been familiar with the long-established tradition in Judaism of introspective questioning, which has been carried forward to this day perhaps most potently in Talmudic interpretation and instruction.
And perhaps more importantly, the early Greek audiences of the New Testament would have fully accepted and even appreciated the practice of spiritual querying which was so foundational to the Socratic and Aristotelian traditions of the their own societies.
The point is, this woman was presented with a question. A tough question.
But, you might say: this wasn't a question! There's no question mark. It's nothing but a harsh statement!
I don't know about you, but my Inner Teacher tells me that the third, and most plausible interpretation of this passage is that Jesus is indeed asking a question, and hoping to solicit a particular response. In fact, the greatest reward the woman could hope for in that moment was granted to her precisely because of her response.
But before we dive into the construction of the sentences involved in this passage, who are the players?
First, Jesus: who is the very embodiment of Love. And if Jesus is Love, how would Love address people? Part of why I believe we find this passage so unsettling in the 21st century is because it seems so incongruent with the person of Jesus as Love. Jesus is also, of course, the bread being consumed in this allegorical household.
Secondly, the woman...an outsider. One of the dogs under the table at the feet of the children, who are not invited to sit at the table, but who are still a part of the household.
Then there is Israel: the children at the table. They can eat liberally, and like those who are always and completely filled, they may take some of the crumbs that fall at their feet for granted.
And then there are the disciples, who in Matthew's version urge Jesus away from the entire conversation.
So let's return to the sentence itself. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” is a presumptive statement that clearly encourages a response. The woman was free to respond in a number of ways.
Today, she might have said "how dare you call me a dog?"
She could have said "Sure, call me whatever you want, but please just heal my daughter."
But notice how the woman addresses Jesus in Matthew. She begins by calling him the "Son of David." She acknowledges him as the culmination of a long an holy lineage adjacent to hers. She expresses absolute faith that even one crumb from His table can heal her daughter.
And she then addresses the real question being asked by Jesus: which is, roughly: should His grace not be poured out first for Jews before Gentiles?
She responds with a $64,000 question as her answer, and I paraphrase:
"Regardless of status based on our ethnicity, are we not all part of the household of God, worthy of salvation?"
This is some real intellectual Judo. Martin Luther, himself a struggler, saw that, like Jacob in the night, this woman wrestles directly with God. And like Jacob, she wins her reward.
In the wrestling, she earns her daughter's healing...but through her wrestling, we also earn a great prize in the form of an invaluable lesson:
Hierarchy based on human distinctions like gender, class, and race are dead in Christ.
To quote the theologian John Piper, Jesus is the end of ethnocentrism. Perhaps nowhere is Scripture is this message more salient than in these parallel passages in Matthew and Mark.
Sometimes, questions may look like statements. These can require special attention, because leaving them unanswered can have dire consequences. What if the Syrophoenician woman had remained silent? What if during proclamations of injustice we as Quakers remain silent? What if, in the days of American Slavery when our black brothers and sisters were declared property, we as a Society of Friends had shied away from the real questions: who are God's children? Can you be both the child of God and the property of man?
I am a convinced Friend in part because of our questioning nature...because through questions, we find answers. Perhaps more importantly, we find ourselves as recipients of God's grace—worthy as His beloved children to receive it.
A learned biblical pastor in a different denomination once told me that to understand salvation one has to begin with one's own insufficiency. Only though acknowledging one's own unworthiness can we find ultimately find grace.
As a Friend, I have grown to challenge this presumption, and I would respectfully offer this response: We are the children of God. Imperfect though we most certainly are, we are people worthy of acceptance, of love, and respect nonetheless—hence, the sacrifice of Christ and the story of God's grace poured out for all of us—which we just celebrated at Easter.
As Quakers, we are fond of saying that there is that of God in everyone...but now for my query of the day: do we always see it? This woman saw it. She saw Jesus for who she was. And she saw herself as she was, a member of the house entitled to grace.
Did she elevate herself? No. Did Jesus really call her a dog and then reward her for her groveling? No. He rewarded her insight, her assertiveness, her understanding...and he held her loved ones in His healing light.
Friends, we are the inheritors of a long, deep, and beautiful spiritual tradition. It's easy to criticize many of the expressions of modern Christianity as shallow. Televangelists shout little sound bites as answers to our deepest spiritual questions. This simply isn't how it's done. Just look at our Greatest Teacher who, like many wise people before him, knew that the way to true spiritual growth was through questioning and reflection.
I also believe that as Friends we have an of obligation: to remind our larger Christian community that rather than declaring "truths," we should be asking questions. Let's keep our old queries alive, and write new ones to help us address our modern times. Let's instruct less and inquire more.
Rather than merely arrive at conclusions, I hope that we as Friends can continue to be the seekers and the seers. The questioners and the reflectors. The challengers who are rewarded for our patient insight into the hearts, minds, and lives of others.
We have, after all, but to ask.