Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Shaw and the Canaanite Woman

Today's Gospel, Matthew's recounting of the encounter between Jesus and the
Canaanite woman, is a hard one; what are to make of Jesus' initial indifference to the woman, an indifference tinged, it would seem, with contempt.

Agnostic and socialist Bernard Shaw, in his Preface to Androcles and the Lion (1912; p. xl-xli in the 1914 Brentano's edition), gives us an insight worthy of considering:
Matthew, like most biographers, strives to identify the opinions and prejudices of his hero with his own. Although he describes
Jesus as tolerant even to carelessness, he draws the line at the Gentile, and represents Jesus as a bigoted Jew who regards his mission as addressed exclusively to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." When a woman of Canaan begged Jesus to cure her daughter, he first refused to speak to her, and then told her brutally that "It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs." But when the woman said, "Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table," she melted the Jew out of him and made Christ a Christian. To the woman whom he had just called a dog he said, "O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt." This is somehow one of the most touching stories in the gospel; perhaps because the woman rebukes the prophet by a touch of his own finest quality. It is certainly out of character; but as the sins of good men are always out of character, it is not safe to reject the story as invented in the interest of Matthew's determination that Jesus shall have nothing to do with the Gentiles. At all events, there the story is; and it is by no means the only
instance in which Matthew reports Jesus, in spite of the charm of his preaching, as extremely uncivil in private intercourse.
OK, leave aside Shaw's description of Jesus' attitude to the woman as "sin"; remember, he's an agnostic who famously said he can admire Jesus only because he doesn't believe in him. And Shaw's reference to "melting the Jew out of him" means, in the context of the lengthy Preface, that the woman overcame his tribalistic background, not an endorsement by Shaw of antisemitism,I believe.

The real point, I think, is how the woman defeats Jesus in argument--the only person I can think of in all the Gospels to do so. And how does she do so? In Shaw's superb phrase, "by a touch of his own finest quality." In other words, she gets it, and proves she gets it. She's not looking for Jesus as a magician, but for the healing that comes only from God.

You can view it as street theater, if you like. Jesus is not trying to found a cult of personality, based on magic. He wants us to internalize his message. The Canaanite woman's story must be viewed, I believe, in context. Where, throughout the Gospels, the disciples fail, time and time again to do so, the outsider, the Canaanite woman showed that she succeeded--well enough to rebut the Teacher when he, for whatever reason (fatigue? Bad day? To test her, as His answer to her perhaps suggests?), took the exclusive viewpoint antithetical to his own teachings.

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