If you want a good example of what my last post was talking about, read the excellent critique by Dr Ian Paul of the recent trend to treat Sunday’s Gospel reading as a sign that Jesus was fallible and even racist, as one author puts it: ‘Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.’ I shan’t trespass on Dr Paul’s quite brilliant dissection of this nonsense, for nonsense it is, but what I will do is use it as a more detailed illustration of why we can’t just use our own reading of a text as normative. The reason that some writers come to the conclusion just quoted is that they bring their own preconceptions to the text and then seem to stand amazed that they have found them there. But what happens if you read it with the mind of the Church and with some knowledge of the background?
Yes, it is true that then, as now, ‘dog’ was meant as an insult. Nowadays you generally only hear this when it is applied to women, as in ‘stupid bitch!’ (Okay, okay, I had almost scraped his wing mirror, but the operative word is ‘almost’). None of the ancient commentators doubted that for a moment, but not being of the view that Christianity was “white” and needed a “Black lives matter” moment, they help take us to the heart of what is going on in these verses.
The tension is best understood if we take on the realisation that Matthew’s is the most Jewish of all the Gospels. We see this in microcosm here, where the emphasis we see elsewhere is particularly focussed: it is the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel who are the target of Jesus’ mission. The Jews are likened to ‘children’, on account, Theodore of Mopsuestia tells us ‘of the fact that they appeared to be devoted to God.’ (Fragments, 83.0. He has come to offer them the ‘bread’ of life. But we know they will reject it. As St Augustine put it (Sermon 77.11-12) “because of that pride, they were unwilling to respond to Christ the author of humility.” This is not true of the Canaanite woman, who in the face of being treated as she would have expected to have been treated makes no protest and shows two things the Jews lack – humility, and with it, faith. In short, it is the Jews who are being criticised here. As in the case of the centurion, it is the Gentiles who show faith when the people of Moses lack it.
So, if we read in the eye of faith and with tradition, we save ourselves from the folly our own arrogance can bring on us. That’s never to say that our own reason cannot help provide insights, but it is to say it’s best checked against what others have read before us. The very idea that Jesus was ‘racist’ would mean he was a sinner, and we are told that he was like us in all things save sin.
What we see here is that the Jews will need to learn the lesson that Paul will teach them, that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, and we all need to learn the lesson the woman shows us – that faith moves mountains and that we should trust in the Lord – because we shall never be confounded.
We need to beware of and check our own biases, which is not to say that there’s some ‘neutral’ reading possible. What there is, however, is a spiritually informed reading, made in prayer and with reflection and guidance. That’s why I love commentaries. If I only know what I bring to the Scriptures, I am unlikely to take anything else away, unless, as is sometimes the case, I feel the Spirit move me. But the latter, I note, happens more often if I have prepared the way by prayer and through study. The Good Lord gave me a brain and reason, I should be prepared to pay the tribute of using them. Then, of course, there’s a really good sermon, which can be the most wonderful way of igniting our passion to know more.