Long before there was the felt need for International Women’s Day in our ever-expanding advocacy culture, there was this story. It is the story of the Canaanite or Syro-Phoencian woman. It is the story of a very remarkable and strong woman and yet a most disturbing and troubling story. Crises bring out the best and the worst in people, it is sometimes said, but it is not ‘either/or’ so much as ‘both/and’. Sometimes the best and the worst are on display whether or not in equal measure is another matter.
This remarkable and strong woman is not an Israelite, that is to say, she is from outside of Israel, a non-Jew. And yet she shows what it means to be a true Israelite indeed, namely, one who wrestles or strives with God. Just so Jacob was renamed Israel. Part of what makes the exchange between this woman and Jesus so compelling is that it is really a form of self-criticism, a feature of the intellectual and ethical teachings of the religions and philosophies of the world. The story involves a critique of Israel and by extension to all and any who think that truth is something which they possess to the exclusion of others; in short, a denial of its universality. The modern version is the deconstructionist notion that there is only ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ which is really no truth. The idea of being self-critical is an important feature of the Christian journey of Lent but it is equally an important feature of ethical reflection in many other traditions.
This woman undertakes a journey in seeking out Jesus not for herself but for the healing of her daughter who is “grievously vexed with a devil.” That, too, is a contemporary concern in our culture of addiction, namely, the way in which we become dependent upon substances or digital devices and lose any proper sense of agency and responsibility. This strong woman has a hold of something which she knows and which she will not let go. This is her strength. It is a kind of prophetic insight or intellectus into the intellectual and spiritual principle of reality. It is not a kind of discursive reason, moving from one thing to another, but a simple and profound grasp of the truth itself as glimpsed and seen in Jesus.
That alone is wonderful but is almost eclipsed by the strange and troubling exchange. She asks for mercy for her daughter only to be greeted first with silence, then with dismissal and contempt by the disciples who complain to Jesus that she is bothering them. Jesus’ first response is really to them to state what in fact seems to be their thinking: “I am not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” thus dismissing her as well, it seems. To this she kneels and simply says, “Lord, help me.”
Perhaps the most difficult part of the exchange comes next. Jesus says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” It is a breathtaking rebuke and insult, it seems, calling her a dog. Dogs don’t figure all that prominently in the Scriptures - there is Tobias’ dog in the Book of Tobit, a figure of loyalty not unlike Odysseus’ dog Argos, who sees and recognises his master after twenty years and then dies, “having fulfilled his destiny of faith.” But the reference to dogs here by Jesus and then by her in her response points to her strength of character. For as Colin Dayan says in ‘With Dogs at the Edge of Life,’ “dogs bear the burden of revelation”; they connect us to God and to God’s creation. They are a bridge between man and nature, between man and God. They symbolise the idea of prophetic insight. And the concept of care as well, such as the dogs who lick the sores of Lazarus who lies neglected at the Rich Man’s gate.
The idea of prophetic insight is wonderfully illustrated in Vittore Carpaccio’s marvellous 1502 painting in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, a school founded by Slavs from Dalmatia for their immigrant community in Venice. The painting is of St. Augustine in his study. It captures the moment in the life of Augustine when he has a vision of the death of Jerome, the great translator of the Scriptures into Latin. He is looking up into a beam of supernatural light flooding in upon him. In the center of this study, chock full of books and the various instrumenta of Renaissance thought, is a delightful little white dog, a Maltese terrier, to be exact. The dog is looking along the exact same plane of light as Augustine. They are seeing the same transcendent reality. They are sharing in the same prophetic vision, a moment of intellectus.
The strong woman in the Gospel has a hold of a truth which cannot be taken from her, a truth which moves her desire. She won’t let go even in the face of extreme adversity and hardship, of abuse and indifference. What is going on here? She breaks into the heart of Christ who wills that his heart be broken into. Her desire and her wisdom are drawn out of her in her final response which causes Jesus himself to wonder. “Truth, Lord, yet the little dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” The insight is wonderful. She not only ‘out-dogs’ Jesus but reveals God’s care of the whole of his creation of which we too are a part. The little dogs reveal the care of God. Such is the prophetic insight of this strong woman.
How do we face the crises of our day? Do we give up and melt down in tears? Do we seek to flee and run away? Do we make excuses upon excuses? Do we see ourselves as the victims of others and so point fingers in judgement and in self-pity? Or do we persevere? This woman does not give up. She perseveres and so must we persevere in doing what we are given to do faithfully and with quiet confidence and determination. There is something quite wonderful about reading this story in Lent because we need always to persevere in faith and good hope. That spirit of perseverance is about having a strong hold on a truth which cannot be taken away. Such is her agency and such is her witness to us to persevere and hang on, sticking-with-it no matter what we face. Such is our freedom and dignity. Such is strength.
We have persevered with Chapel under the COVID-19 restrictions in good faith and with the confidence that the crisis will not be used to further other agendas such as making the restrictions the new normal, post-COVID. For that would be not to persevere with respect to the ethical and the intellectual. I hope and pray that everyone has a good and restful March reading break and comes back renewed and refreshed, ready to take on the remaining challenges of this uncertain and unsettling year. Persevere. For that is to strive with God.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy