Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Proper 15, Year A: St. Augustine on the Canaanite Woman

"Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting 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." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food 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, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly." Matthew 15:21-28, NRSV.

I have heard this text preached, on a number of occasions, as an instance of Jesus' humanity. After all, God would not be either a xenophobe or a misogynist, as this passage leads us to think he is. God would never ignore the Canaanite woman, nor call her little more than a begging dog. God could not ever be so prejudiced against women and outsiders. Instead, as I've heard it, this is an instance of the human Jesus learning something from a woman. Because God could not have anything against women or Canaanites, it is Jesus' ignorant human self that is changed and convinced to help the ailing daughter.

This is a compelling interpretation. It saves Jesus from a possible (and certainly unseemly) prejudice, and it offers the idea that a woman might very well teach Jesus a thing or two.

St. Augustine, however, did not read this passage this way. He writes that

"she . . . cried out, eager to get help, and kept insisting. But she was ignored, not that mercy might be denied but that desire might be enkindled; not only that desire might be enkindled but, as I said before, that humility might be praised." St. Augustine, Sermon 77.1

St. Augustine draws on another idea about who Jesus is. For St. Augustine Jesus is not a prejudiced human, but is instead a wise teacher. Jesus intentionally ignores the cries of the Canaanite woman, not because he despises women or Canaanites, but because he wishes to teach about how to desire what is good, like the release of a family member from demonic oppression. Further, he teaches that humility is good, and he rewards the Canaanite woman's humble pronouncement that she is one of "the dogs that eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Jesus, according to St. Augustine, thinks this kind of humility is desirable.

But who is this Canaanite, woman, according to St. Augustine? If she is read to be simply a Canaanite woman, we are left with an awful aftertaste. We are left with the possibility that Jesus wants women and outsiders to call themselves hungry dogs, humiliating themselves before the wise Jesus. But this is not how St. Augustine reads the Canaanite woman; he, instead, calls her a figure of the church.

This is very important. In the contemporary reading, where Jesus is taught by the woman through her sarcastic retort, we come away with a very different message. In this interpretation the woman is also a figure of our church, but now she is not only the church that overcomes prejudice, but she is also a prideful figure. She represents a church that knows better than Jesus does. The contemporary reading subverts both the authority of Christ and elevates prideful reproach of Jesus as virtuous.

But Augustine's reading, where Jesus is consciously teaching the church about the desire for what is good and how to be humble, avoids both a Jesus who despises a specific person or group and maintains his authority as a teacher. St. Augustine teaches about a church who through looking to Jesus for help discovers what is good. He teaches about a church that knows from whom salvation comes and responds to him with humility.

And this is what we need in these days, not a prideful church seeking its own ways, telling Jesus what to do. We need something else; we need a humble church, a church that does not look only to herself, but looks to Christ for salvation and guidance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


For several reasons, I think you offer an interesting commentary here by juxtaposing a contemporary and an Augustinian interpretation of this passage.

First, you deal with the issue of interpreting the meaning of scripture within cultural contexts. In our contemporary era, the Canaanite woman is sometimes seen as a woman who has found her authentic voice and who, rather than being silent, plays a part in her spiritual liberation by asserting her need for Jesus’ message of salvation. I have never thought of her reply to Jesus as being sarcastic, however. Rather, it testifies to her unshakable faith. But, the general interpretation of her as a woman who speaks courageously from her place as an outsider fits very well in our era of human history, in which liberation from structures of oppression is a broad concern.

Perhaps unlike some who see themselves as more orthodox in biblical interpretation, I see no inherent problem in interpreting biblical passages in a way that sheds light on issues that are poignant today but that probably were unimaginable to my forbears 500 years ago, or 1800 years ago, as I suspect you agree. It is part of the mystery of the gift of scripture that the lessons found in the accounts of Jesus’ life in the gospels are timeless. They offer a message of salvation regardless of the particular travails that humans get themselves into in any given era. Perhaps I reveal my Catholic roots by saying that not only does God act in mysterious ways, but the bible works throughout the ages in mysterious ways, as well.

But, like you, I wouldn’t say that contemporary readings of scripture are the only ones with value. (Most liberals and progressives wouldn’t say so, either, but some might.) Augustine’s understanding of the value of humility is close to my heart, too. Humility is not only a neglected virtue, it is almost an abandoned one in our era, at least in Western and developed world, and it has been cast aside by as many Christians as non-Christians. I confess I haven’t read much Augustine, but I suspect there is wellspring of inspiration for us in his and others’ writings about the relationship between humility and faith, and I believe that they are directly related.

Second, as for the notion of Jesus’ intent in the encounter, isn’t it frustrating that the gospel writers only tell us, for the most part, what Jesus said and what Jesus did? They don’t often tell us what Jesus was thinking. If we knew his intent, then we would know whether he was displaying prejudice or being a brilliant teacher.

Perhaps like you, I’ve never spent much time wondering about Jesus’ intent, although it’s occasionally helpful to speculate about it, while remembering the limits of speculation. We have all had teachers who rather than answer our question directly lead us down a path of questions and answers, so that we might get to the destination of understanding. We cannot know what Jesus was thinking when he chose not to respond to the woman’s first request. But, eventually we do learn what he said to her, and what he did. As you say, we can perceive the message of salvation through Jesus’ words and actions, even if we don’t always know his intent in each encounter.

Finally, this comparing of interpretations strikes me as highly symbolic of the plight of today’s church, especially Anglicanism. We compare our interpretation of a passage to that of hundreds of years ago, and rightly so. And we are—-to use that evangelical term-—edified by the comparison. To some degree-—and I would say it is a degree that is essential in understanding scripture—-we learn the meaning of the gospel by sharing our interpretations of it, as our theological forebears did before us. In other words, there is no single interpretation of the meaning of the gospel that has remained changeless throughout the ages. The message of salvation may be eternal and unchanging. But, we humans are fallen, and we come to understand its meaning and how to make it plain in our lives together.

Because of that, I’ve long felt that Anglicans, because our heritage accepts that there can be no single interpretation of scripture, are most like the Jews, who, if I understand Judaism, acknowledge that understanding Torah requires the interaction of multiple reflections and interpretation, even across time. If we are a communal church, then it makes sense to me that even the process of understanding the meaning of scripture would be a communal act. Few of our Christian church seem to expend any effort in understanding the ways in which we remain shaped by our Jewish roots, and the advocates of a monolithic interpretation of scripture, it seems to me, necessarily deny our pre-Christian roots, at least in terms of the way in which we approach scripture.

Monday, August 15, 2005 3:44:00 PM  
Blogger Preston said...

Thanks, Joe, for your thoughtful response. I wasn't sure many people were reading these posts, so I am glad to see that you've read it so closely!

There is no doubt that many passages from scripture can be understood differently, and can be within the realm of orthodoxy. This is not true of all passages, but I think ones like this have some breadth of interpretation.

But how broadly can we interpret passages like this and remain faithful? My choice to forward a common contemporary (mis)interpretation (eg. this one
looks a lot like what I described) of this passage is intentional, because I think that it is outside the breadth of orthodoxy. This needs to be named and identified.

The message, if we follow it through, leads us to a model of authority that is entirely backwards. I am all for the voice from the margin, but when we hear that the Canaanite woman knows what Jesus does not, and teaches Jesus, we see a reflection of a very bad habit in the church - the assumption that we know better, and that we could teach Jesus something.

I can't help but see, in this reference, an encrypted message about what it means to be the church now - it is to be sure that we know better than any of our traditional sources of authority.

And this is pride and arrogance.

Monday, August 15, 2005 10:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our parish priest recently preached that Jesus was guilty of prejudice against the Canaanite woman, and that Jesus also made some sort of mistake at the Wedding of Cana. In fact, isn't this some sort of heresy. Is not Jesus without sin? Does not Jesus have a divine nature? Jesus was without sin. To say that he did sin, seems to me do deny Jesus' divine nature. This is why it seems to me that St. Augustine was absolutely correct, and that the modern preachers are heretics.

Monday, August 22, 2005 4:11:00 PM  
Blogger Preston said...

Anonymous - yes, the orthodox Christian doctrine is that Jesus was sinless, for a simple reason, that salvation from sin is only possible by a saviour without sin. A common metaphor is of the drowning man - can another drowning man save you when you are drowning? No, you need someone on the shore to save you, someone who is not drowning.

As for whether prejudice is a sin or not, this is trickier. Prejudice is not necessarily a bad thing, it is simply a way that we make sense of the world in which we live. Often our prejudices are true, and there is no malicious intent and nothing bad results from them. There is, of course, damaging prejudice. We can all name examples of this, and many of us have felt the sting of wrong and hurtful assumptions about who we are as people. This is certainly sinful behaviour.

And yes, Jesus was divine. But Jesus was also human. This is a difficult doctrine in many ways, because one tendency is to allow the human in Jesus to be overshadowed by the divine. But we need to remember that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. This fully human side of Jesus may account for some of the human development we see in Jesus, and could very well account for seeming mistakes. To say that Jesus is mistaken is not to say that Jesus sinned.

My concern over the interpretation (that it sounds like you heard from your parish priest) is that it fits too snugly with the way authority is imagined in many of our churches. Authority rests much too often on human reason, without reference to other important and traditional sources of authority, such as tradition and scripture. The interpretation that I take exception to is primarily that we can tell Jesus what he does not know, a pattern I see often in the church now. The passage becomes encrypted with a modern prejudice against traditional authority, and this one is prideful, and probably sinful.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response. I am "Anonymous." I have been seething, as it were, over our pastor's remarks that Jesus was prejudiced against the Canaanite woman and guilty of a mistake at the Wedding of Cana. Here are my thoughts. I believe that we generally agree, but if we differ, no criticism is implied.

If a sin is a wilful act, then, in some instances, prejudice would not be a sin. Yes, Jesus had a human nature, but He is only one person and His human will acts together with His divine will. Prejudice, to me, means to "pre-judge" something without good reason or proper reason. Hence, prejudice, given that definition, can always be seen as a fault or weakness, although not necessarily a sin (if a sin is a wilful act). We can be raised with prejudiced attitudes, perhaps, but they are not sinful unless we have seen their irrationality, yet still choose to keep our wrongful attitudes (if they are wrongful). Then again, prejudice can have a good end, as when we give our children prejudices against strangers. However, it seems an inferior attitude.

Jesus, as the 2nd person of the Trinity, is God, and is thus omniscient. When Jesus walked on this earth, it seems true to conclude that He always enjoyed the beatific vision. As the 2nd person of the Trinity, Jesus always knew all things, and was and is God. God is perfect. Jesus is Perfect. Jesus, divine and human, cannot sin, cannot be prejudiced, and cannot make a mistake. Yes, Jesus, a divine person, had a human nature. But it is not of the nature of humanity to be sinful, that pertains to fallen nature, of which Jesus did not partake.

This seems to be the truth of the matter. But, of course, when it comes to God, we cannot know the entire truth, for we cannot entirely comprehend God. As St. Augustine said, more or less, "... through a glass darkly," or something like that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Preston said...

Miguel - no criticism taken, though criticism is welcomed. I appreciate your posts, because this is part of what it is to be Christian disciples - to speak the truth to each other.

Your speaking about the will of Christ is well taken. I had never quite thought about it this way, but you're right to say that Jesus could not have erred in his will. There seems to be some evidence of struggle, cf. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ had two wills, the human one and the divine one, but we cannot speak of two wills acting differently in the same person - so the fathers write that Jesus' two wills operate together, with different energies - as a hot knife will both cauterize and cut flesh. One operation, but two qualities and results, occurring simultaneously.

The issue of divine knowledge, and Jesus' omniscience will have to take some further reflection and study on my part. There are stories of Jesus' learning things - as when he dissappeared from his parent's to learn from the rabbi's in the temple. And, at the wedding of Cana, Mary does seem to tell Jesus to go ahead and give the people what they wanted, despite Jesus' initial reluctance.

But if any of these investigations lead us to say that Jesus sinned, we have placed ourselves outside of Christian orthodoxy, a place where I certainly do not want to be. Time and time again the church and her doctrines have taught me, and convinced me of their truth. I imagine that it will be no different in this case.

Friday, August 26, 2005 5:37:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...


I can't remember now which link led me to your blog. This is an interesting post. I wrote about this Gospel passage at my blog here.

I wonder if we can really get rid of the "awful aftertaste" we sense from this story by allegorizing the woman to mean the church. After all, isn't this an account of an event which actually happened? Didn't Jesus actually say these seemingly harsh things to an actual woman?

If we accept the interpretation of this story as a human Jesus learning from the woman, why must we see the woman as a figure of the church? If we're going to assign the church a role in this story, it seems to me that the more likely candidate is the disciples, who urge Jesus to send the woman away. I'd actually prefer not to allegorize this story anyway, and just see it as Jesus setting a good example for the church.

I don't think the "Jesus-as-human-learns" interpretation necessarily implies the sort of authority model you rightly object to, in which the church knows better than Jesus, and arrogantly corrects him. At least, I don't think it's present in two sermons which I recently heard/read. In this one, the way that Jesus overcomes his human "prejudices" is said to be an example of "profound righteousness", an example we should follow. (I agree that the word prejudice is tricky here. Like you, I don't want to imply that Jesus sinned. Maybe our inherited prejudices are only tempations which we all need to overcome? Maybe the sin is only in not moving beyond our inherited prejudices?)

And in this sermon, we were reminded that our collect that Sunday held up Jesus as an example of "godly life." Jesus isn't really an example we can actually follow if he never had to struggle, is he?

Both of those sermons interpret this story as Jesus learning and/or changing. But rather than saying we should also try to correct Jesus, these preachers encourage us to imitate Jesus.

If we focus on imitating Jesus (rather than focussing on imitating the Canaanite woman), does that help remove your objections to this kind of interpretation of the story? Or not?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 1:58:00 PM  
Blogger Preston said...

Brian - thanks for dropping by, and for your comments and questions. Let me take them one by one.

"I wonder if we can really get rid of the "awful aftertaste" we sense from this story by allegorizing the woman to mean the church. After all, isn't this an account of an event which actually happened? Didn't Jesus actually say these seemingly harsh things to an actual woman?"

Yes, this is an event that happened. These are things that Jesus said, if we believe the witness of Matthew, as we should. There is no compelling reason to say this did not happen.

But the point here is that Jesus did not do what he did to hurt or pick on this woman, but to teach her something very specific. In this way we are released from some of the bitterness because Jesus did not do this to this woman out of spite or malice.

The rest of the bitterness disappears when we see that this is not an example to follow – that is, to put down women and minorities to teach them something. Enter the allegorical: when we identify with the woman we identify as a church who needs to learn something from Jesus about humility.

"If we accept the interpretation of this story as a human Jesus learning from the woman, why must we see the woman as a figure of the church? "

This is a salient point, one which I glossed in the original post – extra points for you! Most sermons do not read this woman as the church. But, to give some backstory, this is exactly how I heard it preached. And, the more I think about it, the more I see this point elsewhere, lurking in the darkness, but unspoken. My trouble is, now that someone has preached this to me so clearly, it gives me the willies. It looks so much like contemporary approaches to authority in the church that I can't help but see it everywhere. Hence my thought that it is an encrypted message.

"If we're going to assign the church a role in this story, it seems to me that the more likely candidate is the disciples, who urge Jesus to send the woman away. I'd actually prefer not to allegorize this story anyway, and just see it as Jesus setting a good example for the church. "

I hope you see that you just did make a jump into allegory – there is no church in this passage. Any application of it to us necessitates some way to discover who the church is in the story, or who we are as individuals. And to my mind, sure, preach the church as the disciples. That would be ok, just not that interesting. It's just that I've heard "inclusion" sermons a million times.

"I don't think the "Jesus-as-human-learns" interpretation necessarily implies the sort of authority model you rightly object to, in which the church knows better than Jesus, and arrogantly corrects him. "

Yes. This happens only when two ducks line up: 1. Jesus learns from the Canaanite woman, and 2. we think of ourselves as a Canaanite woman. Yet, I do hold, that there is a great temptation when we hear that Jesus learns from the Canaanite woman to think of ourselves as the Canaanite woman. We are the church of inclusion, right? Isn't that what the CW is teaching here? Aren't the liberal parts of the church hearing some angry retorts for this "inclusion" position? The parallels seem pretty clear.

As for the sermons exhorting us to follow Jesus, by all means, follow Jesus. And yes, imitate Jesus. Certainly learn new things.

Just don't think that any of our knowledge will ever trump what Jesus has to teach us, as it is revealed in scripture and doctrine of the church. This is my primary objection. I am tempted to go on about human reason here, because Hooker I think is strangely used in this regard, as a defense of the autonomous operation of reason against scripture and tradition. But I won't . . . (unless I already did!)

"If we focus on imitating Jesus (rather than focussing on imitating the Canaanite woman), does that help remove your objections to this kind of interpretation of the story? Or not?"

So long as we don't follow Jesus as a prejudiced person, but I don't think you are saying that. Also, so long as we don't think of ourselves as people with special and unique divine knowledge that comes to us apart from our traditional sources, the ones that the church traditionally looks to as authoritative. But, I don't think that you are saying that, either.

Great questions. If I looked over any, it was only an oversight, not an avoidance. Let me stop before this comment becomes longer than a long post!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005 5:25:00 PM  

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