Niccolò Aliano’s Sermon

21 Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. 23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. 24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. 26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. 27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. 28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

Ironic Jesus: A sermon preached by Niccolò Aliano at St Vincent’s on Sunday 25th February 2018

When Allan and I first decided on this date for me to preach, we had a look at the readings appointed and he commented: “The Gospel is quite difficult.” And I thought, “No problem, I’ll preach on the Epistle.” And then I looked at the Epistle, and it was more difficult than the Gospel. And I went back to the Gospel and, yes, the Gospel was difficult. Or actually, rather than difficult, it was strange. Did you also find this passage strange? Unusual? Doesn’t Jesus seem out of character?

On the surface, it is quite a straightforward episode. A woman’s daughter is tormented by a demon. The woman asks Jesus to heal her. Jesus hesitates and quizzes her. The woman passes Jesus’ test. Jesus heals her daughter. Yet the way in which both Jesus and his disciples treat this woman is bizarre to say the least. The disciples ask Jesus to ignore her: “Send her away,” they say. Jesus calls her a dog, perhaps the worst insult you could think of in the first century. “[25] She came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ [26] He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” Why would Jesus insult this woman? What has she done wrong? This is even more strange if we bear in mind that not long before he had fed the multitude with only five loaves of bread and two fish; he had helped Peter who could not walk on water; he had healed many sick people in Genessaret. But now this. 

At first I could not understand, so I did what you might imagine. I looked at commentaries and other secondary texts. They didn’t help me. One mentioned that Jesus’s behavior must have been due to his tiredness: he had done so much of revelations and miracles that he just wanted to relax. Many pointed out to the parallels between this episode and that in chapter 8 when Jesus heals the servant of the centurion who says: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed.” True that, there are similarities. Other people say that in fact Jesus didn’t call the woman and his daughter dogs after all: in their view, the Greek word used in the original means “puppies,” and Jesus just called them “little dogs, puppies,” and simply wanted the woman to come up with a witty answer to test her faith. “Why should I give the food, all the miracles and revelations, which are reserved for the children of Israel, to whom I was sent, to the puppies begging for food under the table?” “Well,” the woman replies, “as a puppy I can still catch what falls off the table.” Yes, it is a fair explanation, it makes sense, but somehow it doesn’t ring right to me.

As I read and re-read this passage, an image kept surfacing in my mind. I could not help but see Jesus giggle, chuckle while he called that woman a dog. For some reason, in my mind, Jesus had a smile on his face. And then I remembered something else. One of the most important Italian novelists and playwrights of the past century, who remains one of my favorite authors ever, wrote a very famous booklet On Humor. I will not explain in detail what he says because he’s definitely more eloquent and clever, and just better, than I can possibly be with this. But he writes: “Irony implies a contradiction, a fictitious contradiction, between what we say and what we want people to understand.” And more: “It is one thing to pretend to believe, and another thing to really believe. And to pretend this is in itself ironic.” Yes! Jesus was being ironic. He said something, but he meant something else. Who was he being ironic with, though? With the woman? No, he was being ironic with his disciples! In this short episode of the Canaanite woman we lose sight of the disciples. They occupy less than a verse with their irritation at the woman. But the disciples are very much in Jesus’s mind when he calls this woman a dog. Why is this so?

Of the four Gospels, Matthew’s is undoubtedly the most Jewish. Though we are not entirely sure who this Matthew actually was, what we know is that he was a Jew. Not only does the traditional account of this book’s authorship attest to this, but throughout the Gospel there are numerous clues: a pervasive focus on Mosaic law and synagogue, for example, or also the prohibition, given by Jesus, against ministering outside Israel. And this is very important: this book was written by a Jew for Jews, and if we were to speak in modern publishing language, its target audience is the Jewish people. Bearing this in mind, let us go back to the scene with the Canaanite woman. Who were the Canaanites? People whom the Jews didn’t think much of. Or rather, they thought very badly of them. And I mean very badly. Deuteronomy 20, for instance, leaves no room for maneuver: “[16] But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. [17] You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded.” “You shall annihilate them.” The Canaanites are worse than the dogs! They are idolatrous and, if we believe ancient rumors, sacrifice their children! Or, at least, this is what the Jews thought of them. This is what was in the back of the minds of the first hearers of Matthew’s Gospel. 

Jesus’s decision to go among the Canaanites is so much more interesting if we have this background. And, quite frankly, it is senseless. Why would Jewish Jesus go among the “dogs,” as he himself says, accompanied by his Jewish disciples? Or maybe Jesus’s decision is ironic. It’s ironic that Jesus brought his disciples to these shores, in the region of Tyre and Sidon, two cities which had been damned by the old prophets. Jesus does not actually believe that the Canaanite woman and her daughter are dogs. He says they are dogs simply because he is speaking the language of the Jews. Jesus knew that the woman had faith, and he knew that the daughter would be healed of the demon. Jesus is God, after all, so he knows everything. He is not quizzing, testing the woman’s faith. He is simply holding up a mirror to his Jewish disciples and, through the author Matthew, to the first Jewish listeners of this Gospel. What Jesus actually thinks of the woman is what he says at the end: “[28] Woman, great is your faith!”

How mortified must the disciples have been! How embarrassed must the first Jewish audience have been! Just picture this: all goes according to plan, the Canaanites are some of our worst enemies, we think badly of them, the disciples don’t want to hear of this woman, and now this! The Lord himself, the one who had fed the five thousand, the one who had given such an inspiring message in the Beatitudes, shows us how bad we have been, how we had judged—wrongly!—this woman of great faith. What a great lesson in irony!

This is all fine and well, you may be thinking, but what does that mean for us? Surely we are not the first Jewish audience of this Gospel according to Matthew. We are not even Jews! That means a great deal for us. As Jesus is holding up a mirror to his disciples and to those first Jewish hearers, so is he reflecting us, too. We, twenty-first-century Western Christians, are no better than first-century Jewish Christians. We are so convinced of our goodness, so certain of our own righteousness, so secure of our moral high point, that we forget that those different from us may be in fact equally good, righteous, and virtuous. This is so true in our diverse society. We may dismiss, ignore, reject those who hold opinions different from ours simply because they’re different. How wrong is that! This happens not just in religion, but in so many aspects of our lives. In politics, for example, when we condemn those who do not think like we do with no reflection. In the workplace or during our studies, when we disparage the tasks and responsibilities of our peers. In family life, when we think that our life is better than others’ because we know how to take care of our own families while others don’t. And we do this without thinking, without understanding that we could gain such great insights from what people different from us do, say, think. We need to put aside judgments and see others for their intrinsic value as human beings. They fall, rise, cast shadows, and shine just like us. And if we realize that, we can understand more about ourselves and learn from them! Learn that the world is so diverse that no way is definitely better than all the others, but that we all must sustain each other and improve our lives by learning from one another.

Lent is a period of reflection. As we look forward to Easter, that joyful day of redemption, let us not forget all those moments when we did not value others. When we thought of those around us as dogs. And let us continue learning, in Lent and always, to use the Jesus inside each of us, that Jesus who saw great faith in a dog, to value everybody for what they are—humans. We fall and rise continually, but Jesus is there, setting the example for us.

I conclude. Jesus is a great example to follow, that’s evident. But I hope I have been able to show that Jesus is sometimes such an effective example by how he connects with his followers. As he met this Canaanite woman of great faith he was ironic with his disciples and us. And to finish with a last piece of irony: the hymn we sang earlier, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, was written by John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker who strongly disapproved of congregational singing and encouraged silent meditation. Too bad for him we just sang it, but perhaps this irony can help us value more the silent moments in our lives?

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.