The written word does not always convey the full nuance of what a person is saying. The reader has to imagine the exact tone of voice and the look on the speaker’s face at the moment the words are uttered.
I learnt this lesson as I puzzled over some words of Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel which I initially felt were, to say the least, unkind. I refer to the time when a desperate Canaanite mother pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter. (Matthew 15:21-28).
At first, Jesus seems to procrastinate, but the woman does not give up. After her final desperate cry for help, Jesus replies with the phrase that I used to find so difficult. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (Verse 26) At first sight this seems quite shocking.
During my college days I was privileged to be taught New Testament Studies by Professor R.V.G. Tasker. He was very keen to get us to look beneath the text, at the background and nuances that may not be obvious from the written words. He writes the following about this particular difficult sentence in his commentary on St Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus reminds her, very gently and almost playfully, of the familiar saying “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs”.
I wonder how many times she had heard that saying from pious religious leaders. Perhaps Jesus, had a twinkle in his eye, and maybe he even imitated their sanctimonious and unctuous tones of voice as he said it.
If this is the case the distraught woman will have immediately realized that Jesus was actually on her side! She is given the courage to answer back. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. Maybe in the past she had longed to say those words to those who despised her because she was a Gentile, but fear of reprisals kept them locked in her subconscious mind. Now at last she can say them, because she knows Jesus understands intuitively what she has suffered.
Bad things said or done to us in the past can linger in our memory and influence our current behaviour. This, of course, is one of the ongoing results of abuse, suffered by vulnerable people of all ages. The threatening clouds lodged in our memories need the healing light of Jesus.
Even though this woman knew of Jesus’ Jewish background for she addresses him as “Lord, son of David” she could enter into a profound moment of the healing of her bad memories of encounters with Jewish leaders in this account. Professor Tasker’s wise comments made me see that as Jesus speaks with gentle subversive humour he overcomes the harmful power of divisive religiosity in the poor woman’s mind. . This draws Jesus and the woman close together.
This speculation may be helpful but Matthew’s final sentence really brings us back to earth. He tells us the actual outcome of this humorous exchange. Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Verse 28). It’s all worth thinking about!
Roger M. Vaughan.