Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Jesus says: "Yeah? Well, Yo Mama is So..."

Today's Gospel reading happens to be one of my favorites: it's the story of Jesus' encounter with the woman from Tyre and Sidon. As a senior at Canisius College, I wrote my final paper on this very passage (well, Mark 7:24-31 // Matthew 15: 21-28). As a teacher, it's a great one to teach to sophomores because, in my humble estimation, it's the only time Jesus ever loses an argument in scripture. 

Let's go at this from an angle effective with sophomore boys. Have you ever seen a "Yo Mamma" fight? Take this as an example:
"Yo mama so ugly she looks like she fell off the ugly tree and hit ever branch on the way down."
"Yeah? Well, Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back."
"Oh Hell No! Yo mama so ugly when she joined an ugly contest, they said "Sorry, no professionals." 
 So, who wins this little battle of wits? Well, the person who can deploy the most devestating "Yo Mama" such as to render the opponent silent. When locked into the "Yo Mama" battle, contest escalates until one person outwits the other with a clever turn of phrase (often to the whistles an "Awwww's" of the gathered audience.

What has this to do with Sacred Scripture?

Go ahead and read the scripture passage for yourself. Look at how the dialogue between Jesus (a Jew) and the Woman (a non-Jewish woman who is begging on behalf of her daughter -- sociologically, for the Jews of Jesus' day, three strikes!).
(W) "Lord, Help me!"
(J) "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."
(W) "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."
(J) "O woman, great is your faith."
Very often, we read this as Jesus "testing" the woman's faith. I think this misses the bigger point: Jesus got locked into what is called in fancy language "Challenge-Riposte" or, as we might think of it, a form of the "Yo Mama" challenge. He threw out a clever zinger, a one-up on the woman, and she sent back an even more devastating volley.

If you read Mark 7:30, you'll see Jesus' slightly different response: "For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter." I would argue that Matthew softens Jesus' defeat in verbal battle, framing this as a "Test of Faith" rather than having to sort out the embarrassment of having been beaten by a non-Jewish woman.

Am I committing a heresy?

No, I don't think so. Sophomores quickly point out that Jesus comes off as a jerk in this passage, one who is cold and callous. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that Jesus was born into a certain historical period and was shaped and molded by the culture of his day. Jesus worldview was affected by his culture, its symbols, its history, its values. It's not surprising that a Jewish man of his day would have such a reaction.

None of us is exempt from the influence of history and culture. Each of us bears a history that has led us to pre-judge situations (we are, all of us, pre-judgers...we are all prejudiced). Yet, when our pre-judgements are challenged, can we modify our thoughts to reflect that challenge? When we are confronted with the truth - as Jesus was confronted with a Stranger who understood who he was - can we adapt? Can we allow a moment when our prejudices are called into question, a moment when a hole appears in our neat-and-tidy picture of the world, to be a moment of gracious expansion? Or do we retreat and retrench, so committed to our former worldview that we cannot allow it to grow?

Our access to the divinity of Christ comes through his humanity. As our model who draws ever closer to the Father, let us glimpse today in the Gospel an encounter where pre-conceptions are challenged and prejudice surrenders to truth. In this encounter, in a sense, I see a cultural prejudice against the Other being razed and, in its rubble, the realization that the Good News of the Gospel is for any who hunger for it. It's not a sin to be wrong, because it's not a sin to have been shaped by one's history. The sin is not accepting the truth when the truth is encountered.

Jesus, let us walk in your ways and let us know the Truth that you are. 
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