Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Did Jesus Sin? A response to a question about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman

Br. Robert Lentz, Iconographer
This past Sunday I told the story from Mark 7 about Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who asked him to heal her disturbed daughter. One of the reasons that I love this story so much is that it defies expectations and I love it when the Bible does that. Jesus is caught with his guard down.

In my reflection on this text on Sunday I noted that Jesus is unkind and offensive to the woman who approaches him out of concern for his daughter. I was challenged afterward by a family who took my reflections on the story and Jesus’ interaction with the woman home with them and responded to me with their own reflections and a question:
“We go around saying that Jesus was without sin, but in this…it seems like he at the very least made a serious mistake and in my mind calling someone a dog is pretty close to sin. Do you have a way to reconcile this?” 
This is not the first time in history this question has been asked! Sharon Ringe writes about this story and she says that “It is hard to imagine why the church in any stage of its development would want to present the Christ it confesses in such a light!”*

Indeed, why did this story end up in the Bible at all? Along with others who have thought about this text, I think that the reason that this text made it into the cannon was not in Jesus’ initial retort, but in his response after he is challenged. In Jesus’ the context, the epithet ‘dog’ was common in Jewish circles with reference to Gentiles. A foreign, single, low-status woman would have had to have had quite a bit of chutzpah to approach a Jewish, male rabbi, even privately as she did. The last person we hear of who intercedes Jesus him on behalf of a child is Jairus, a high-stature religious leader who could make his request openly and in public and who could not be further from the opposite of this woman in position and stature. Jesus' retort calling the woman a ‘little dog’ could have simply a knee-jerk one based on his cultural and religious immersion. So in that case, no, to Jesus what he did was not sinful, it was in fact appropriate.

Another possibility is that Jesus was quoting that common knowledge to the woman – a test to see how she would respond. In a way saying, this is what people say about you ‘little dogs’ (wink, wink) which then allowed her the opportunity to empower herself. Based on my reading,that doesn’t fly with me. And neither these nor any other explanations of why he said what he did get around the fact that it was insulting and belittling. In Jesus’ context it may have been appropriate but even to Mark’s first readers it must have been unsettling. To us – to me – it is deeply so.

Blogger David Henson writes a powerful article about this text and racism. In our context, what Jesus says to the woman reeks of both racism and sexism. At this point in our history, I think that we would label both of those sinful both at a systematic and at a personal level. But when the woman takes what Jesus says she turns it on its head and she is also taking a common form in the gospel and turning that on its head. And in doing so she blows this whole thing wide open! Usually – in fact in every other case – when there is an argument or controversy, it is Jesus who is the challenger, responding to a hostile question or statement, it is Jesus who corrects and puts into place an opponent. Here, the woman gives Jesus pause. And in his response he does an amazing thing and escapes those cultural and religious biases and listened to her. Henson says, 
“Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith, a moral exemplar, his teacher.

Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into the unfortunate privilege of dominance or prejudice. He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.” 
Sin or no, Jesus does what is so hard for all of us sinners. He opens himself to the other and to the Spirit’s work in him and through her. That is the miracle and the example Jesus offers to us, his followers. Jesus the human transcends his nature (our nature!) and the boundaries that humans create between each other.
*Sharon H Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Letty Russell, ed. 1985: Westminster Press,Philadelphia PA, pp 65-72.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

The very concept of racism depends upon the cultural work of Christ and the Holy Spirit over generations of believers all over the world. We take it for granted that racism=sin precisely because of the work of Christ, which should include the gospel accounts as well as our faithful response to them. I agree that the meat of the answer to this question ("Did Jesus sin?") is in examining Jesus' response to the Syrophoenician woman's answer, as a model for our own behaviour.