This Sunday we will hear one of those challenging passages that are hard to interpret at first. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. A Canaanite woman approaches the disciples and asks that her daughter be healed. The disciples want Jesus to get rid of her. He tells them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman comes to Jesus, worships Him and asks for help. His reply is shocking, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She accepts that she is a dog, and asks for scraps from the master’s table. It then appears that Jesus has a “come to Jesus” moment where he recognizes the greatness of her faith and heals her daughter.
Some Catholic commentaries explain that Jesus was a product of the time and place he inhabited. He held the tendencies that most people of his time held. As a woman, especially a Canaanite woman, this mother was on the bottom rung of society. They say her persistence helped Jesus “evolve” and see His saving mission in a broader sense. I reject this interpretation for a few reasons. First, if Jesus were so anti-gentile, what was he doing in Tyre and Sidon? Second, at this point there are already examples in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus heals both women and gentiles, so the interpretation doesn’t fit the context.
But the larger problem with this interpretation is this: it means that either bigotry and ethnic/racial prejudice aren’t sins, which they clearly are. Or, the alternative, which is even worse, it means Jesus wasn’t the spotless lamb, like us in all things but sin, and therefore died for his own sin, not ours. Our Catholic faith holds that Jesus was sinless, and affirms that racism is a sin so there has to be a better way of reading this passage. There is, fortunately, a third alternative. Jesus is being ironic. He’s using a specific irony called sarcasm.
Irony and sarcasm aren’t rare in the Bible. Elijah uses sarcasm in a confrontation with the priests of Baal. They are calling down fire from heaven on their sacrificial bull and it’s not going well. Elijah suggests they shout louder, as their lord Baal might be busy taking a dump.
Jesus uses irony throughout the Gospels. Every time he responds to the Pharisees starting with the words, “Have you not read…” he’s using subtle irony. Of course the Pharisees have read what Jesus is about to tell them. The Pharisees had poured over the scriptures countless times and could recite every word from memory. He also makes use of sarcastic forms of irony.
At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’” (Lk 13:31-33)
Not only does he call Herod a fox (actually a vixen, Jesus uses the feminine form) but he then basically tells the Pharisees, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to die now and rob you of the chance to kill me in Jerusalem.”
The idea that Jesus used sarcasm at times might be unsettling to some. It’s a form of irony that is usually reserved to express contempt or scorn. And that is exactly how Jesus uses it in this story. He pours contempt and scorn on the ethnic and racial supremacy of His time, of all time. His target audience was not the Canaanite woman, but his disciples, then and now. I don’t think Jesus would have spoken this way if He didn’t see the woman’s heart and know that she could grasp the subtlety. Her wit and humility gave Jesus the space to teach a valuable lesson. But the lesson on bigotry isn’t the real gem here.
The Canaanite woman is the treasure buried in this reading. The worst part about wrongly interpreting this story is that you might miss out on her. For her, Jesus was a mere rumor, but she persisted in faith. He was a Jew, the enemy of her people, but she persisted in faith. The disciples, among them the Apostles who were the first bishops, told her to get away. She persisted in faith. Her faith was greater than the obstacles and in the end she was rewarded. Her reward was not to be exalted as an example while the disciples were humbled. The true reward wasn’t even the healing of her daughter. Her reward was the one we all should seek—Jesus Himself.