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Jesus, the reluctant exorcist

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IN today’s Gospel, Matthew 15: 21-28, Jesus walks from Judea to Tyre and Sidon on the coast of Lebanon. That’s some stretch, and you wonder why he bothered. They say it was to get away from the crush of people who wanted him to heal their infirmities. One commentary I read, from the Intervarsity Press, said that Jesus wanted to have some vacation with his disciples. Some vacation? Biblical commentaries can be wacky, and one imagines Jesus and his disciples trolling off to the seaside with their buckets and spades.

Tyre and Sidon were heathen places so you might imagine that Jesus would get some respite there, because the heathen wouldn’t be interested in him, a Jew. Instead, what does he find? A woman of Canaan – a despised heathen – recognises him straight away, not just as the wandering Rabbi, Jesus of the Nazareth synagogue, but as Thou Son of David. This is an echo of the Gospel in which the blind man sees Jesus as the Son of David while his disciples do not. It’s all very puzzling. The Son of David is the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel. Why should foreigners and heathen women be interested in the Jewish Redeemer? I don’t know any answer to this question, except it be that God revealed it directly to these strangers.

Anyhow, this heathen woman wants something. She wants an exorcism: My daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. Why ask Jesus? Why trouble him? Exorcists were ten a penny in those days. And in the early days of the Christian Church the theologian Tertullian said that any Christian – any Christian, mind, not just priests – who can’t perform an exorcism should be put to death. Nowadays we sensationalise and glamorise evil, making lurid movies about demonic possession. In the saner, early Christian days, they knew that evil is banal. They knew that evil is not glamorous but just a bit of dirt – the sort of stuff a competent housekeeper would soon be rid of. We ought not to be in thrall to evil but to see through its shabby, phoney pretensions and cast it out. 

Now here’s a strange thing: this woman comes distraught, pleading with Jesus, and he ignores her. He answered her not a word. Isn’t that rude and merciless? Whatever happened to Jesus the nice guy, gentle Jesus meek and mild, Jesus in whose mouth butter would not melt; Jesus the do-gooder who has ever since provided opportunities for the sentimental social-gospelling preachers? How rude of Jesus to ignore this woman! Didn’t he know his manners? The woman was a foreigner. My word, Jesus had certainly not taken in his diversity training!

The disciples, you think, might be shocked by his behaviour. But they aren’t. They are Jewish disciples, remember; and the Jews of that time hated the heathen. At last Jesus turns to the woman and promptly gives her the brush off: I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel. So, at first he ignores her cry for help. Then she endures the shouts of the disciples for him to chuck her out. Then comes this emphatic put-down in which Jesus says that he has nothing to offer her.

You would think she’d take the hint. But no – in this most heartrending moment she comes back to Jesus a third time and says, Lord help me! So, is gentle Jesus’s heart melted by this desperate appeal? Not at all. He starts to insult her and tells her she’s less than human: It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs. Let’s get this straight. The bread he is talking about is the rough ends of the loaf, the apomagdaliai, on which diners wipe their hands and then throw to the household pets. This apomagdaliai has the same linguistic root as Magdala. Good heavens – the woman was a dog no better than Mary Magdalene!

Now to call a Middle Eastern person in any era a dog is the final insult. It doesn’t get any worse. But there goes our gentle Jesus again, laying on the scorn thick as a cloud of locusts. There she is standing in front of this man whose true identity she alone knows. His ignorant disciples tell her to shove off. Whereas she who knows him to be the Son of David is rewarded for her faith by being insulted, a dog – by the same Son of David. Surely now she will slink away home, where she might find her little girl dead as a result of demonic seizures?

But no. Perhaps she has learnt her bad manners from Jesus? She is what our mass media calls feisty. She is going to give him a piece of her mind – whether he’s the Messiah or not: Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table! This visionary woman, who recognises the Messiah when his disciples do not, is content to be called a dog for her daughter’s sake. For she knows that Jesus can make the daughter well again. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. Can you picture the scene? Jesus and the heartbroken, angry, disappointed heathen woman. How did their eyes meet then? And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. Jesus doesn’t even go round to the house to say Hello to the girl before casting out the demon. She’s well again. All over and done with.

What do we learn from this strange story? First that it is true. The disciples were the original tellers of this story, and it is a story against themselves. They are presented as thick and obdurate so many times in the gospels – and in today’s gospel even as cruel. People don’t like stories against themselves, so that is evidence for the truth of this one. Astonishingly, this is also a story against Jesus, with his bad manners. And, even if the disciples would tell a story against themselves, they would hardly tell one which appears to be against the One they are trying to promote as Son of God – unless the story were true.

But how did the alien woman know that Jesus could heal her daughter? Jesus himself tells us: O woman, great is thy faith. It was her faith. Now here’s a thing: faith is not some certain knowledge, as some who call themselves Christians would have it. You cannot have God in your pocket. Faith is precisely what you don’t know. It is venturing into the darkness, into uncertainty in a spirit that looks like insane trust. 

Then when, broken like that woman, we stretch out our hands in desperation, we find we have put them into the hands of Jesus Christ.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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