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The Provocative Jesus

Two versions of the same Gospel story, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

First, Mark’s version:

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. 

Then, Matthew’s version:

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread 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, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Mark calls her “Syrophoenician”, Matthew “Canaanite” – either way, a pagan, an outsider to the community of God’s people. She comes to the Jewish man of God as a beggar. Matthew writes that she called him Lord and Son of David. Perhaps that is the title that she heard other people calling him, for she a pagan would not “son of David” in her vocabulary. But more likely it is simply Matthew’s insertion, as Matthew among the four Gospel writers is the most concerned to refer to Jesus as son of David – 9 separate times in Matthew, only 2 in Mark, 2 in Luke, and none in John. And only in Matthew’s version does Jesus speak of “the house of Israel.” And only in Matthew does Jesus commend the woman’s faith! In Mark he simply commends “this word” (διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον) that she spoke to Jesus. I prefer to see Mark’s version as the more original version. Both Gospel writers recognize the Jewish-pagan contrast at the heart of this story, but by calling the woman a “Canaanite” Matthew places the encounter in the context of the ancient conflict between the Israelites and Canaanites. Matthew’s hand in his version is heavy indeed.

The much-missed late Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan reflected deeply on this passage in the Epilogue to his book, Sorrow Built a Bridge, Friendship and AIDS, a book in which he recounts his care of people with AIDS during the 1980s in the Supportive Care Program of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Berrigan’s ministry toward people with AIDS was one more chapter in his extraordinary life of resistance to the culture of death that reigns over much of human affairs. The fight against AIDS went hand in hand with his life-long fight against war and nuclear weapons and against social and government institutions that are indifferent to suffering, poverty and exclusion.

After quoting the passage from Mark’s version, Berrigan went on to write:

I commend this text to you, and to my own soul. Many of us have, we are told, for different reasons, something less than a human claim on the bread of Christ; which is to say, on his attentiveness, his response, his healing. Certain claims are neither large nor persuasive. What, after all, is the worth of a canine claim, proceeding as it does from a dog’s life? … Those securely in possession, established where they sit – they are given to glances, words, slamming of doors in faces, such acts as might improve the occasion when a stray dog enters a banquet hall. Or a church.

Berrigan is speaking to me and you. He is provocative as he always was in his books and in his life work. As a Catholic who devoted his life’s work to human suffering and exclusion, he cannot avoid bringing the “bread of Christ” into his meditation – the exact thing that most Christians, and certainly we Orthodox, do not date to do. Imagine that, bringing the holiest of the sacraments into a discussion about AIDS and a pagan woman’s encounter with Jesus!

The church has more rules about participation in the Eucharist – the communion of the body and blood of Christ – than about anything else. The modern rules that most people grew up with are pathetic – rules about food, sex, and other trivialities. Of greater importance are the developments during the formative centuries of Orthodox theology and jurisprudence. The bishops who met at the various ecumenical councils could not find enough reasons to exclude as many people as possible from communion! They were certain that God had entrusted them with protecting the holy sacrament from defiled hands and souls.

Jesus provoked the Syrophoenician woman by calling her a dog. In doing so, Jesus was parodying the way most Jews mocked pagans. But the woman had substance, she would not go away just because a man treated her this way. She met Jesus’ insult head on and earned his respect and her daughter’s healing. When the church today refuses communion, are we treating people as “dogs”? Do we exclude where Jesus included?

Last Sunday morning an elderly man of a rather haggard appearance walked into our church during Matins and clearly wanted to speak with the priest. I was in the midst of a service and obviously I could not attend to him. I actually felt bad as I saw him leave the church, and I placed myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Was I like the priest or the levite who were more intent on their religious duties than to care for the wounded man? Had I put my liturgical responsibility above hearing a man’s cry for help? I struggled with those thoughts as I continued Matins and Liturgy. However, after Liturgy was over, I was told what this man uttered on his way out: “I thought this was a church for whites!” Clearly he was disappointed to see black people in our church. He walked into our church that morning, intent even to interrupt a service in progress, to ask for money. This happens quite often in our church as we are an inner-city parish. And yet, this needy man could not avoid spewing out his racist filth.

Very rarely indeed are moral lines clearly drawn or visible. Human behavior never ceases to surprise and confuse. But whether it’s a man spewing racial hatred or governments keeping people out or religions seeing the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are heading for disaster unless we begin to take Jesus seriously – not in the apocalyptic terms that many American Christians do, but in the terms he defines in the various Gospel stories that show us his true face.

The December issue of National Geographic magazine has a challenging article by Jared Diamond that paints in convincing terms competition for the earth’s limited resources as more and more people and nations aim to achieve the same standard of living we are used to. The results will be disastrous for the planet unless governments – starting with our own – take steps to decrease income inequality and the chasm between rich and poor. Unless a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources is achieved, the growing clamor of people to have what we have will spell disaster before this century is out. The article is available online. It’s well worth reading if you care about the world around you, or the world your children or grandchildren will live in.

The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is a parable for today. It should provoke us to think deeply about how we view others. But more importantly, it is a parable for governments and churches. Who do we exclude? Who do we treat like ‘dogs’? And when are we who call ourselves Christians start following the example of Jesus?

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“… and also much cattle”

In the Liturgy of Holy Saturday, the Orthodox Church includes 15 readings from the Old Testament – mostly readings that directly or symbolically refer to the Passover, to Resurrection, or to Baptism. These readings are remnants of the original all-night Paschal Vigil which developed in the church during the centuries of its prominence in the Roman Empire. Indeed, the entire baptismal character of this Holy Saturday Liturgy reminds us that the most important day for baptisms in the first millennium of the church was precisely this holiest night of the Paschal Vigil.

In many of today’s Orthodox churches, this original group of 15 readings has been reduced to just three (Genesis 1:1-13; Jonah 1:1-4:11; Daniel 3:1-23 & Song of the Three Youths from the Septuagint). Undoubtedly this is a surrender to the short attention spans of modern churchgoers, but it’s also a recognition that this is no longer the Paschal Vigil. It is a Liturgy on the morning of Holy Saturday, and there remains hardly any baptismal connection – though it is not uncommon for adult baptisms to be scheduled on this morning, as part of the Liturgy. The Greek traditions in particular have reduced this most sacred Liturgy of the year to a mere communion service for the once-a-year crowds. A shocking and inexcusable betrayal of what is best in the Orthodox liturgical tradition.

One of the three readings that still remain is the entire Book of Jonah. Undoubtedly the reason for its inclusion in the Paschal Vigil was the statement that Jesus made to the Pharisees that questioned him: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4; also Matthew 12:38-39). The church has always taken this statement of Jesus as a prophecy of his death and resurrection. So the hymnography of Easter constantly compares the 3-day burial of Christ to the three days that Jonah spent in the whale; with the resurrection itself prefigured by the emergence of Jonah from the whale.

But is that all there is to the saying of Jesus about “the sign of Jonah”? I doubt it. As so often happened in the Christian tradition, starting with the New Testament itself, proof texts from the Old Testament were used as “prophecies” of Christ, even when violence was done to the original context of the Hebrew writings. No wonder Jews have always been angry at how Christians have used (or misused) their scriptures!

Medieval icon of Jonah (click to enlarge)

Medieval icon of Jonah (click to enlarge)

Did Jesus himself explain what he meant by “sign of Jonah”? Yes, he did, and it’s a multifaceted explanation. In Matthew 12:40 he gives the interpretation that is favored by church tradition: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Not quite accurate, of course, since Jesus was not three days and three nights in the tomb, more like a day-and-a-half and two nights, but biblical time is never about scientific precision. It’s the symbolism that is important, not the scientific or mathematical accuracy.

But that’s not the only interpretation Jesus gave. In Matthew 12:41 he goes on to say: The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” Jesus here points to the whole of his ministry, not just his death and resurrection! The whole of his ministry had to do with repentance and wisdom, leading humanity back to God. But humanity will be judged for rejecting the ministry of Jesus.

In Luke 11:29-32, Jesus repeats the statements about the men of Nineveh and the queen of the South, but the interpretation he offered here did not include a reference to his burial and resurrection! Instead, he said: When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nin′eveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation” (Luke 11:29-30).

I believe Luke’s version is closer to what Jesus said and meant. Matthew tended to be more concerned with “fulfillment of prophecies” (even when the “fulfillment” was forced on the original Hebrew texts), but Luke seems to have had less need of this type of use of the Old Testament.

The episodes of Jonah's story (click to enlarge)

The episodes of Jonah’s story (click to enlarge)

What was the sign that God gave to the people of Nineveh through Jonah? Mercy. Jonah was sent to Nineveh to preach to them and warn them of God’s judgment (Jonah 3). Much to Jonah’s surprise, the people repented! But instead of rejoicing that his message had succeeded, Jonah became angry and despondent.

Chapter 4 of the book of Jonah describes a rather strange dialogue between Jonah and God which I’m not going to try to analyze here. Suffice it to say that the conversation revolves around God’s mercy. Jonah admits so much: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” God at the end exposes Jonah’s anger as misplaced and delivers the coup de grâce: “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” And that’s how the book of Jonah ends, with God’s concern for cattle!

20257367-standardWhy am I thinking of Jonah two months after Holy Saturday and Pascha? Because of Father Dan Berrigan. He died this year, at the age of 94, on April 30th, exactly on Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Church. Father Berrigan was a Catholic priest, known especially for his activism against the Vietnam War and social justice. I have been a reader of his many books for several years and I was reading some pages today in his book Minor Prophets, Major Themes. In the chapter on Jonah, I read:

This God, thinks Jonah, how is he to be borne? He changes plans without once consulting with his prophet. A courtesy to be sure, and long due. He bends low, lends ear to humans and their lunatic behavior.

[And what of God?] The last word belongs to Him. It concerns children and animals, which is to say, the future of living things. Whose well being, one concludes, was of small concern to Jonah.

But as to how this last word of God’s tenderness was received, what change it wrought, where it beckoned our hero?

Perhaps more to the point, where it beckons ourselves?

For “a Greater than Jonah is here.”

Today, also, the preachers of gloom and doom proclaim judgment on sinners but don’t expect mercy. Just like Jonah, they relish thoughts of punishment; God’s mercy and tenderness come as a surprise to them.

Mercy, tenderness, concern for the future of life – here is the real message of Jonah. And this is the message of Holy Saturday and Christ’s Resurrection. This is the message every day of the church’s life and on every page of Scripture. “And also much cattle” – all life is sacred to God. We don’t know if Jonah got it in the end. That is why a “greater than Jonah” came: to bring the message home, to plant it in our hearts.

The “sign of Jonah” is simply the coming of Christ to be our advocate, our friend, our companion on the path. He is a sign to us of God’s mercy and forgiveness. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so the Son of Man is a sign to us (cf. Luke 11:30).