Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I heard some theologian or other say that in the Gospel a few weeks ago the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter ended up teaching Jesus to be more tolerant. Jesus said to her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She challenged him to see that his ministry extended beyond the Jews. Even Jesus is open to seeing things in a new way. Is this possible that Jesus was a narrow-minded bigot who had to learn a thing or two from a Lebanese lady?
I wouldn’t worry too much. Whoever said this must be just a pop theologian. They come and go like the fins on a sixties’ Buick. If he’s Fr. WOW! today, he’ll probably be Fr. Who? tomorrow. The great heretic priest, Fr. Arius of Alexandria, rocked the Church in the early 4th century. The trouble he caused lingered around for about two or three centuries, but sanity prevailed in the end. He claimed that Jesus was not really the co-eternal Son of the Father, but sort of a first creature who got a great job promotion and was divinized. No real “Son” of God, no real Holy Trinity. This appealed to the Roman emperors who had just legalized the Christian religion. The word emperor doesn’t really mean super-king. It was Latin for “generalissimo.” Military commanders like neat chains of command. We Christians believe God is a family, not a military pecking order. Still, Arius’ ideas appealed to the emperors as having a much tidier theology than the Catholics. Armies are easier to handle than families. Because of his very convenient theology, Arius had some powerful backers, and St. Jerome, one of the orthodox foes of Arius, said that the world "awoke with a groan to find itself Arian." It seemed that everyone was jumping on the Arian bandwagon. After all, if the emperor and a lot of bishops agreed with Arius, who are we little people to disagree with our betters?
The truth, it seems, is not a democracy. Arianism fell out of fashion despite its popularity. Theological fads come and go. The Truth of Christ, the Tradition and the Scriptures remain. Now back to the question at hand and our pop theologian. The passage under discussion is Matthew 15:27 and following;
“A Syrophoenician (Lebanese/Canaanite) woman ... cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel... It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 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.”
I don’t mean to sound fussy, but the reason I call the fellow a pop theologian is that he can’t be much of scholar. He hasn’t read the text. Pop theologians always assume that their opinion is unquestionable, so they never question it themselves. The reason I say he can’t be much of scholar is that he tried to reconcile what seems to be a cruel statement on the part of Christ without looking at the Greek text of the New Testament. No matter what translations say, the word “dog” does not appear in the passage. In Greek, kýōn is the word for dog. A dog was a mangy, semi-feral, scavenging canine. The word that is used in the text is kynárion which means, puppy. It is a diminutive of kýōn.
A dog is one thing and a puppy quite another. Jesus called her a puppy. Who doesn’t love a puppy? Even I – who only like animals if they are properly cooked – like puppies. Puppies are members of the family. Jesus is drawing her out in a way that is gentle and even kind. In this story, I see Jesus smiling. Jesus knew all along what He intended to do, or better said, what the Father wanted Him to do. He wanted this woman to know how much her daughter’s healing really meant to her. Would she humiliate herself for the love of her daughter or would her ethnic pride be more important to her? It is to be remembered that Jesus, too, humiliated Himself in the encounter. He was a Jewish rabbi. A phrase at the time was “gentile (non-Jewish) dog.” Gentiles were unclean, as were dogs, especially gentile women! She had humbled herself in asking, just as did the Roman centurion in Luke chapter 7 about whom Jesus said, “I have never found faith like this anywhere, even in Israel!” Humble obedience is an essential component of faith, and Jesus told her that her humble love for her daughtered was true faith. In using the word puppy, He makes her a beloved member of the family of God which is made up only of the humble.
Our pop theologian doesn’t seem to understand that Jesus power was not arbitrary. Jesus didn’t work miracle on a whim or by His own will. He only did what the Father told Him to do. “I always do what is pleasing to Him (the Father).” (John8:29) And again, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me.” (John 5:30) Jesus didn’t work miracles because He was God. He worked them because He was the new Adam. His miraculous power came not from Him but from His Heavenly Father.
This is a completely different way of understanding the divine power of Christ. It was the function of his Sonship and perfect obedience. Jesus “…did not consider equality with God something to cling to, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being found in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6, 7) This means that Jesus left the throne He shared with His Father, taking off the prerogatives of divinity like a garment which He left on the heavenly throne. He humbled himself for love of His Father and for love of us. He never ceased to be God, the Son of God. He never ceased to be the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. He never ceased to be perfect, since the perfection of the God is sacrificial love. In his humanity, Jesus certainly learned. The creator of the world learned carpentry form St. Joseph and Jesus, the Word of God learned Aramaic on His Blessed Mother’s lap. But he did not learn to be less racist from a Canaanite woman. He did not learn moral truth from anyone. He was and is moral truth. The only instruction that Jesus needed was the Father’s voice, and this He always heard clearly, despite what you may have heard to the contrary.
the Rev. Know-it-all.