I am very grateful to Revd Paul Wignall, Diocesan Director of Reader Ministry and colleague in the Diocesan Ministry Team, for exploring this week’s lectionary Gospel (Matthew 15.21-28) which focuses on the meeting between Jesus and a Canaanite woman.
Further offers from both clergy and laity to write for this weekly lectionary blog would be very welcome. Please contact me, Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship. firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the things we know for sure about Jesus of Nazareth is that he told stories. His stories could intrigue and shock, delight and challenge, give hope and comfort. I’m sure they entertained as well. His followers remembered those stories and told them often when they gathered in their little grief-filled circles of healing and hope after his crucifixion. Of course, human nature being what it is Jesus’ stories shifted in shape and emphasis depending on the person retelling it. And there were new stories, in Jesus’ style, continually being slipped in as bread and wine and fish were shared in the name of their risen Lord. We call these stories parables: deceptively simple tales of ordinary people in easily recognisable situations, given a twist to make you think, a little jolt to make you sit up and look at the world in new ways.
Gradually, Jesus himself and the things he did became the subject of the stories too. As has been well said, parables about Jesus were added to the treasure trove of parables by Jesus. The four gospels are carefully and beautifully assembled mixtures of these two kinds of stories. Jesus himself becomes the parable: what he said, what he did, what happened to him; to make us think, be surprised and shocked, intrigued, angry (perhaps), hopeful, above all challenged to live as he lived.
I think that one of the most challenging parables about Jesus is today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel (15.21-28) about an encounter, not in Jerusalem or Galilee, but out on the margins – the region of Tyre and Sidon – and with, for a Jew, one of the most marginal of people: a Greek woman. It’s not the only telling, of course: Mark gives us an earlier version (7.24-30).
Submerged columns in the ancient harbour of Tyre, south Lebanon, with the modern city of Tyre (Sur) in the background. (Creative Commons)
Parables, whether by Jesus or about him are meant to be told; performed if you like. A storyteller uses all her skill to create mood and place and character, to puncture expectations and raise questions. Try it yourself: read the stories out loud, alone or in a group. Change the mood. Change how the characters speak, shift their emotions around. See what happens. Bring them alive.
This pair of retellings of a story give you plenty of clues. Mark’s marginal woman comes quietly, cautiously, to Jesus. Matthew’s woman arrives noisily, even a bit aggressively (try performing it that way, you’ll see what I mean). Mark’s Jesus responds in kind: softly, with the delicious play on the word ‘children’ – the Jewish people / the marginal ones. Matthew’s Jesus responds in different kind, giving as good as he’s getting: you’re not my problem, I’ve other priorities. The disciples don’t help: “Send her away; it’s so embarrassing!” But she moves in closer, demanding he pays attention. His push back is harder still: you expect me to throw what I bring to the dogs whining around our feet (people like you)? She won’t let go: even the scavenging pack of dogs are allowed the crumbs. Only then does Jesus change tack, shifts mood, responds, offers mercy, peace and healing.
At first sight, Matthew’s Jesus seems uncharacteristically unpleasant towards the woman. But again, set this story in Matthew’s own context. It follows a group of sayings about ritual purity and impurity, part of a thread that runs through the whole gospel, an ongoing debate with pharisaic Judaism seen (as sadly christians were beginning to do by the 80s AD) in the worst possible light (15:10-20). Despite what he says there, it looks as though Jesus wants to play the purity card himself, refusing to throw things of value to the dogs (the impure gentiles). But the woman turns the tables on him and, in his name, turns aside all questions of what is pure and impure. In God’s eyes there can only be mercy, grace, and healing. The next part of the gospel speaks of healing for everyone (15.29-31).
We can put it another way too. Mark’s way of telling the story creates a conversation between Jesus and the woman. They talk to one another, listening and speaking carefully (look at the words, read them out loud, feel one reaching out to the other). In a conversation we conspire together (heart touches heart, breath intertwines) to find a way forward, towards concord. Matthew appears rather different. Jesus and the woman begin at a distance. This isn’t so much a conversation as a discussion from entrenched positions. A discussion. Never forget how close that word is to others: percussion, as we beat one another into a concussion from which are likely to flow only bad repercussions. But notice too how the woman (and ask, perhaps, just why Matthew lets it be the woman) lowers the temperature, shifting the attack into a challenge, and the discussion into a conversation. Is Matthew inviting the church too, so hung up at times on questions of purity, of who is inside and who outside, to shift from the attacking mode of discussion into the challenge of conversation, to listen?
Jesus our Way,
Strange story teller who has become for us the story,
Living word through whom the eternal God shines out,
Meet us face to face in our time.
Stay with us and open for us the scriptures,
Illumine our eyes and set our hearts on fire,
So that with you as companion on our journey,
With joy we will be enabled to discover
That the key to unlock this mysterious library is always love.
(adapted from a prayer included in CTBI Lent resource, ‘Opening the Scriptures’)