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How Christianity shaped Western Thought (Part 2)

If the historian Tom Holland is right (Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind) in thinking that the Christian belief that we are all equal under God is inextricably linked with western thought, one wonders how Jesus (supported by his followers like St Paul who spread the message) came up with this radical notion.  

Certainly, Jesus was inspired by Moses and the other key leaders from his own Jewish tradition. However, Jesus took it a step further, declaring that even people not from one’s own tribe or nation are worthy of love. Even our enemies are worthy of our love! Where on earth did he get this idea? 

There is an incident recorded in New Testament which gives us a clue, when Jesus has an encounter with a Canaanite woman in the non-Jewish territories near the cities of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15: 21–28). It is an extraordinary incident, in my opinion, because Jesus has a disagreement with someone and loses! He changes his mind, because of something someone says. It’s the only place in the Gospel that it happens and it is remarkable! It is a pivotal moment in his ministry, when he realises, I think, that God might be telling him something through someone else. 

Let’s first set the historical and geographical context of this encounter. Jesus journeys to gentile territory: the non-Jewish part of the country, up in the north, in what’s now Lebanon. We have no real, historical information why he did this. Perhaps he grew tired of the religious authorities in Jerusalem and the other Jewish territories questioning his teaching. We know they eventually grew tired of him, as did the Romans. Perhaps he wanted to have a bit of a break, in the hope that no one would recognise him. 

But he is recognised and a gentile woman with a sick child finds out where he is staying and comes to see him. This phrase, “my daughter is tormented by a demon” could mean any number of things. Often in ancient times if someone had an illness, which was not understood, they would be characterised as having an unclean spirit or a demon. The point of the event is that the woman’s daughter is sick. 

So, she comes to Jesus and begs him to heal her daughter. And Jesus refuses! It’s the only time that he is recorded as saying, “No” to healing someone. It’s quite strange. Why would Jesus say no? We have a clue in the woman’s identity. She was a Canaanite, as in she was a gentile (not Jewish). Jewish men, like Jesus, were absolutely forbidden even to talk to gentile women.  

One Bible commentator I’ve been reading has a theory about Jesus’ initial refusal to answer the Canaanite woman. He thinks that Jesus knew his reputation was on the line with the Jewish authorities. Not only is he exhausted by the demands of the crowds, and not only is he frustrated with his disciples not understanding his message, but he’s also worried that his message is failing to reach the Jewish authorities. If he agrees to heal a gentile woman’s daughter, the authorities will reject him altogether. Why? Because in the ancient world Jews were not supposed to have anything meaningful to do with non-Jews, especially something like praying with them for healing, which is what Jesus would be doing. 

In any event, Jesus rejects her request. He rejects her request nicely. Unfortunately, most English translations make his rejection of her come across as very harsh. One translation says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jews used to refer to gentiles as dogs, so this sounds incredibly insulting. But, in fact, the original Greek actually says “house-dogs” or “puppies”. So, Jesus’ response is gentler in the original Greek than our translation suggests. The same commentator I’ve been reading says that it’s not so much a rebuke of the woman, as a sad, little joke: a playful attempt to send her away. Nonetheless, it is a rejection of her request. 

She has the best comeback ever! She doesn’t lose it, which you might perhaps expect, given that her daughter is so unwell. No, she just comes back with a witty response, “Sir, even the house dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It’s the only time Jesus is bested in an argument. It’s actually remarkable that Matthew (and Mark) kept this event in his Gospel, because it shows Jesus in a less than perfect light, but here it is! Jesus’ humanity is on display. 

The Canaanite woman changes Jesus’ mind. She actually changes the course of his ministry altogether. As a result, he heals her daughter. It’s as if he’s saying, “The religious authorities hate me anyway, I might as well spread the Gospel message to everyone, Jews and gentiles alike.” 

This is the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. It is a pivotal point. I think this is the moment that Jesus accepts that his message (that God’s love and forgiveness is for everyone) has to be acted upon. This is the moment that he realises it’s either all or nothing. “Either I pursue this love business totally and without reservation, or I might as well give up now.”  

Sometimes you just have to commit to what’s right and go for it.  

Jesus decides to commit to spreading God’s love to everyone, not just his Jewish compatriots, and it’s as a result of his interaction with the woman in today’s reading. It’s a pity we don’t know her name, because she would surely be one of the saints. 

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain