· In the New Testament ·
It was incredible, it had never happened to me before. A pagan woman opened my mind! A woman! And a pagan! I shall never forget it, it was the spark which launched me on a mission which goes far beyond my Jewish people. A universal mission. But let me tell you all about it from the beginning.
I was tired and not in the best of moods when I crossed the northern frontier of Galilee bound for Tyre. I had had a long and heated discussion on the concept of the pure and the impure with some Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem (Mt 7:1). Besides I had to act with great caution in my own land because the Pharisees and the Herodians were plotting to eliminate me (Mk 3:6). I wanted to rest a while, I didn’t want anyone to know where I was, so I crossed the boundary, I arrived in the pagan region of Tyre and came here, to the home of an acquaintance of mine, a Jew. I had not been back to a Gentile region since I healed a demoniac in Decapolis, in the country of the Gerasenes. The Gerasenes had been afraid and had begged me to leave (Mk 5:15-17). I was not hurt that I had been rejected because I had not come to teach the Gentiles but to reform my people.
Therefore, in order to rest, I decided to return incognito to a pagan region and I arrived in Tyre. But I didn’t succeed because although I had insisted on telling the sick there in Galilee not to talk about me, they did not manage to refrain from doing so. God’s powerful grace was too strong an experience, they were unable to keep quiet about it. Without me wanting it, the news of my actions and my teachings had become so widespread among my fellow Jewish citizens that it crossed the borders and reached the places where the Gentiles lived.
In Tyre a woman came to know that I was here and that I had entered a house, the one in which I am now telling you what has just happened to me. Well, the door was open and without asking permission she came into the house, ran towards me and knelt down. I saw her and I must admit she bothered me. I wanted to rest, I was in a bad mood, I was in an impure land and I didn’t want to see anyone. And even less a pagan woman who dared to come even here, without respecting the cultural barriers. My mind was invaded by thoughts that would justify my rejection of that impertinent woman. In the first place everyone knows that there isn’t much love lost between the inhabitants of Tyre and us Jews. They exploit our peasants, import our agricultural products but do not pay what they owe us. They discriminate against us because we are poorer, they boast that they come from the great city of Tyre, they think we are ignorant; in times of war they would probably kill those of us who had to cross the borders (Flavius Josephus). I was speaking precisely of this with my friend in Tyre, he was telling me about the tensions between the Jews and Gentiles who live here.
This was my state of mind when she rashly entered and knelt at my feet. To start with, I admit, I did not feel compassion, I only wanted her to go away. Thinking about it carefully, I do not even know why, I am not usually like this.
She was there, a cultured woman, her Hellenized bearing was clearly apparent. She spoke a Greek that was far better than mine. She was a native of Phoenicia, of the Roman Province of Syria, she could have addressed me in Aramaic. But she spoke in Greek. One could guess that she was well to do. I was a peasant with dusty sandals, a Jewish Galilean, a foreigner in Tyre. And she was there, humiliated, kneeling at my feet, not because I was a man but because her attitude was one of supplication. Signs of suffering were visible on her face. Little by little my weariness and my bad mood vanished.
“What do you want me to do for you?” I asked her. She had been silent, she was weeping, then with a very sweet voice, staring at my feet, she said to me: “my little girl is ill, she is possessed by a devil”.
I didn’t want to listen to her. Why had she come I thought. “Where is your daughter now?”.
“At home”, she told me, “with convulsions and running crazily from one room to another.
At that moment she raised her face and looked at me with imploring eyes. “The devil does not leave her in peace. Please heal her”.
I had kept quiet. I really didn’t think that Gentiles too would accept blessings from sons of Abraham.
I now realize that I was behaving just like any of my Jewish fellow citizens.
Then an offensive saying, common among us, sprang to my mind and I answered her metaphorically: “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”.
I know that calling pagans dogs is a serious insult. But culturally it is so interiorized in the minds and vocabulary of our people that we don’t realize that we are insulting those who do not profess the Jewish religion, our vision of the cultural world. Because for us the children are the Israelites and the dogs are the pagans. Any Jew knows that bread is given to the children, from a chosen race. Should we perhaps take from God’s children the blessing, the food, to give it to impure people? And even less to the people from here, who have always been our enemy. All these thoughts passed through my mind. It is normal for a Jew to think in this manner. And I am a Jew. This is what we’ve been taught, from generation to generation.
But... her response to my insult so deeply amazed me that it is still ringing in my ears. I had never heard arguments as convincing as hers. Indeed, taking up my discourse, she looked me in the eye and answered: “Yes, Lord yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”.
She then rose and again bowed her head. She remained standing. I was a little taller than her. We were both standing still in the same place, at the same time and under the same roof, and we were using the same language. But the house was neither hers nor mine, nor was the language in which we were communicating. We were different, she was a woman from another culture, another religion, another social class, another view of the world. I was a man, a Jew, a direct descendant of Abraham, with the mission to proclaim the kingdom of God to my people.
Behind her words I could glimpse her erudition. She was undoubtedly a highly cultured woman. Her arguments were truly convincing. She knew how to get what she wanted. She must love her daughter very much to demean herself in this way. First she knelt before me, the Jew, the peasant, the Galilean of whom she had heard that he healed and cast out devils. She then turned my discourse upside down, taking up my negative metaphor on pagans. She twisted my words and turned them into a discourse in her favour, while nevertheless accepting a secondary position.
“Yes, Lord”, she said to me respectfully, letting it be understood that she was in agreement about the fact that we Jews had a privileged position in God’s eyes, in the sense that we were the first on the list – not in a sectarian sense, that is, the only ones and the chosen, as our chauvinist chiefs would have us believe, but in the sense that we are the first to be called to become the light of the nations, to proclaim God’s love to all. She did not call me “Lord” to indicate that she had faith in me as the Saviour, as some might think (Mt 15:28). She had no intention of following me, as did the young man of Gerasa from whom I had cast out so many unclean spirits (Mk 5:8-29). She had her culture and her religion. Indeed she had faith in me, but in the sense that having heard of the miracles that I had worked in Gerasa and in Galilee, I could certainly heal her daughter. I [KATE1] realized this from the first moment that she approached me.
Well, she accepted a secondary position according to our Jewish perspective; but since the urgent thing was that I should heal her daughter she changed the spaces and times of my discourse. She transformed my scenario from an open separate space to a familiar shared space. In the open, separate space children have a right to food and must not waste it by throwing it to dogs, maybe stray dogs, impure because they eat carrion. But she challenged me with admirable diplomacy. She had imagined a home where everyone lives under the same roof, the children and the domestic dogs share the same house and the same food at the same time. The children themselves share with the dogs the crumbs that fall from the table. Wasn’t her answer surprising? With her three diminutives, (dogs, crumbs and children) she disarmed me, she made me recover the viewpoint of the smallest. She left me gaping and at the same time she roused within me an immense joy, for she had restored tenderness to me in the way in which I related to women.
“What a woman!”, I thought. She resembles those wise women of whom the rabbis speak who got the better of the great figures of history with their arguments. I remembered Abigail, the wise wife of that churl Nabal, who made David change his ideas and thus avoided a massacre (1 Sam 25:2-42). She also reminded me of the woman with the chronic haemorrhage, who had dared to touch my mantle, knowing full well that her state was impure (Mk 5:25-34). These are women from whom we men have much to learn. They broaden my horizon, they urge me to break barriers and they teach me to see that side of things which we men do not manage to grasp in daily life. I’m not ashamed to say so, that Syrophoenician woman made me change my mentality: she radicalized my mission. I had just had discussions in Galilee with some Pharisees and scribes of Jerusalem. I had reproached them for their double ethics, I had shown them with good arguments that what defiles proceeds from the heart and not from outside, from what is eaten or from eating with unwashed hands. This had been my last discourse before my encounter with this woman. But, as often happens, we do not apply to ourselves what we preach to others. She had set herself before me like a mirror, but I did not think about it until her words resounded in my ears: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs that fall from the table”. I had gone further in my discussion with the Pharisees and scribes, I had said that what defiles is in the heart and not outside it. This means that neither she nor her daughter should accept being called dogs. Yet at that moment I did not think of following up the metaphor to justify it, or of inviting her to eat at the same table. The only thing I thought of saying was “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has come out of your daughter”. She really deserved her daughter to be healed. And it was truly for what she said, for her words ( logos), that her daughter was healed. I did not want to cast out her demon, I did not want to listen to a pagan woman, I did not want a healing word to come out of my mouth. My mind was closed; I insisted on reforming only my own people and not on saving the others. But her reasoning had been crucial. Her words had transformed me and willingly I worked a miracle at a distance, I turned her sick daughter into a healthy little girl. Not, however, like a crumb which the children throw down from the table. Rather as an act of love for a mother who was suffering because of her daughter’s terrible illness.
She looked at me with gratitude, I am certain that she believed what I had said to her because she had on her face a look of satisfaction; her expression, previously anxious, reflected peace, as if I had removed a great weight from her. She turned and left in haste, almost running. I was left looking at her, still struck by her words. I imagined her as she entered her house and found her daughter at peace, lying on her bed. I imagined her kissing the little one. Her nightmare had come to an end, the demon had departed. Shall I see her again? Probably not. Our worlds are different. But I am certain of one thing: I will never forget what has just happened to me in Tyre. What a pity that I did not ask her what her name was!
My exhaustion and bad mood vanished, new horizons were opening. I was cheered. Last night I could not sleep, I was thinking that I had to speak to my disciples and discuss the new turning point to give to our ministry. I must go back to Decapolis to feed more than 4,000 people, women and men, of all cultures, and give them bread not crumbs; openly and not under the table. I must feed each and every one, until they are replete, and gather no less than seven baskets of left-over bread.
Elsa Tamez is Mexican-Costarican and lives in Columbia. She is Emeritus Professor of the Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana. She obtained a doctorate in theology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and a degree in literature and linguistics at the Universidad Nacional of Costa Rica. She has written various books and innumerable articles translated into various languages. Her best known works include: La Biblia de los oprimidos [The Bible of the Oppressed], Contra toda condena. La justificación por la fe desde los excluidos [The Amnesty of Grace. Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective]. El mensaje escandaloso de Santiago [The Scandalous Message of James], Luchas de poder en los orígenes del cristianismo [Struggles for power in Early Christianity: A Study of the First Letter to Timothy] She has been awarded various prizes for her contribution to the contextual interpretation of the Bible.
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