I love art. I have to confess that I really know very little about it. That is, I only know what I have learned from my mother who took me to the art museum every Sunday when I was little, and from my various readings and interest. So I guess I know a little bit about art and art history, but not a lot. But, as the cliché goes, I know what I like.
When I was first separated from my first wife, I used to like to go to an art gallery in a shopping mall near the bank where I worked. I liked to just walk through the gallery and look at the paintings for sale. They had paintings by Chagall and by Picasso, among others. I eventually purchased a small, very small, Picasso Lithograph because you could buy paintings there on time. So for about thirty-five bucks a month for a year, I could have a real Picasso. Who wouldn’t jump at that? So today, I have a real Picasso hanging on my wall. I wonder what it is worth today.
Anyway, there were other works there that I really loved. I discovered the etchings of one artist to especially touch me, one Avi Thaw. They were invariably scenes of various places in Europe. I loved his use of colors and the way he blended them. But I was already paying for the Picasso, and couldn’t afford to buy anything else. Still, I would go to the gallery after work before heading off to my classes at the university and enjoy looking at them hanging there on the walls, knowing they would never be mine.
Then one day, several years later, I was walking through a local craft fair here in Hermosa Beach, when I came across a booth of Mr. Thaw’s work. The etchings were just like the ones hanging in the gallery, the same vibrant colors, the same magical use of light. The paintings were all priced far above what I could afford to pay. The truth is, I couldn’t afford to pay much of anything. I was still a broke bank teller/university student. So I heaved a sigh and went on to walk around the fair, but I kept coming back to his booth and looking at his etchings.
Finally, just before the fair was to shut down, I approached Avi Thaw, mostly just to tell him how much I loved his work. I told him I had seen his paintings at the gallery in the shopping mall and named several titles to him that I particularly liked. He thanked me for my interest. And then, for reasons I confess I do not know, I pointed at one of his etchings and said, “You know, I love your work. I really do. And I would really love to have this one right here, but I only have forty dollars in my pocket. That’s all I have until payday. And while I know that this is worth far more than forty dollars, it’s all I have, so I’m offering it to you for this etching.”
He looked a little shocked at what I had said. “The frame is worth more than that,” he declared.
“I know,” I replied. “And you have every reason to say ‘no’, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did. But I really love that etching and forty dollars is all I have and…well, I couldn’t leave without at least asking.”
So he sold me the etching. For forty dollars. And it hangs on my wall in the guest bathroom today, and I still love it. It is of a bridge in Amersterdam. I’ve never been to Amsterdam, but I’m sure I would recognize that bridge (even though I’m sure I’d be high as a kite on legal hash because who would turn down legal hash?). You never know what can happen unless you try, right? That’s what one woman found out when she went off to find Jesus, according to the evangelist that wrote Matthew.
“Then Jesus withdrew from that place [near Lake Tiberius, where Peter tried to walk on the water] into the region of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman came to him and said, ‘Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.’
Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. His students came to him and said, ‘Send her away, for she keeps calling after us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’
But the woman fell to her knees crying, ‘Lord help me!’
Jesus replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the little dogs.’
She said, ‘Please, Lord. For even the little dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.’
Then Jesus said to her, ‘Oh woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish!’ And her daughter was healed from that hour.” (Matthew, Chapter 15, 21-28, Big Daddy translation)
Now this is a troubling gospel reading. Most people don’t like it and wish it weren’t there. This is not the Jesus we all know and love. This is doesn’t appear to be the Jesus who is loving and all-inclusive. But I’ve never been one to run away from anything, and I’m not running away from this reading either. In fact, this reading has several important things to say and teach.
First, to understand this reading, you have to know a little about first century Palestine. When Jesus left the area around Lake Tiberius and went off to the regions of Tyre and Sidon, he had left the Jewish territory and was making his way through an area inhabited by gentiles. So this woman was not Jewish. She would know nothing of the laws of Moses or the prophets. In fact, the Canaanites were hated by the Jews. Note this from the writings of Moses:
“Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.
Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem
and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.”
The Canaanites were the people that, according to the Old Testament, were the ones that Joshua and the Hebrews escaping from Egypt were supposed to kill, every man, woman, and child, even the cattle. But of course, they didn’t. They were supposed to kill them, but they didn’t. And because they didn’t, these people lived alongside the Hebrews and caused them no end of trouble. The Canaanites were the ones who kept luring the Jews to worship pagan gods, pissing Yahweh off immeasurably. So the Jews and the Canaanites were always at each other.
Yet this woman, who no doubt had heard about the healing powers of Jesus, decided that her daughter was worth more to her than her hatred, and went off in search of him. And when she found him, she had the nerve to ask him for his help. And she was annoying, too. The Greek word used to describe her cry means to screech, the kind of crying that really gets on your last nerve. That’s why the disciples wanted Jesus to make her leave. But she won’t leave, not even after Jesus tells her that he was not sent to help her kind. She stills pleads for help.
Then Jesus calls her a dog. That’s what the Jews used to call the gentiles, all the gentiles, dogs. That pretty much summed up the attitude of the Jewish people for all the non-Jewish people at that time. So Jesus responds to her in pretty much the way he was raised to respond to someone like her. He calls her a dog. Now to be fair, he calls her a “little dog”, meaning a puppy, a pet dog, which isn’t quite like being called a wild scavenger sort of dog. But still, who wouldn’t be offended by that?
Whether she was offended or not, she accepted the rebuke and turned it back on Jesus saying that even the puppies get the scraps from the table. And Jesus was so impressed by her faith, that he healed her daughter. Jesus tells her that she has great faith. Compare that to what he said to Peter when he fell in the water. He called Peter a “little faith man”. Peter, the Jew, is a “little faith man”, and this woman, the gentile, the Canaanite, has great faith. It is the only time Jesus ever uses that adjective to describe anybody’s faith. It is not by accident that this story so closely follows the story about Peter and Jesus walking on the water.
The disciples, the ones who had been spending their time with Jesus, the ones who thought they understood him, wanted to keep her away. They wanted to exclude her. And so did Jesus. But her persistence paid off. She refused to be diverted from what she wanted. She did not know anything about the “promises of God” or the teachings of the Jewish faith. All she knew was that her daughter was sick and that this man could help. Believing this, she went off in search of the only thing that could save her daughter. And she did this knowing that this man was a sworn enemy of her people. And seeing her faith, Jesus helped her.
This leads to one of the more important revelations of this gospel. Jesus changes his mind. Therefore, Jesus is not perfect, and recognizes his own imperfection. Those who want Jesus to be all-knowing and perfect will claim that he was just testing her faith, to see if she would give up and go home, but that is clearly bullshit. She came to Jesus and Jesus wanted to turn her away. She argued with Jesus and she won and Jesus lost. He didn’t want to help her, but then he heard her argument, saw her faith was greater than that of the people he believed he was sent to save, so he changed his mind. Jesus was human, and being human, was subject to the same prejudices as anybody else raised in that place and time. By healing that woman’s daughter, Jesus makes it clear that his message of love and forgiveness is for everybody, not just the House of Israel.
Now this story may have happened, or it might just be fiction. It is mentioned in the Gospel According to Mark and alluded to in the Gospel According to John. So it may have some basis in fact. Still, consider the purpose of Matthew’s gospel and the people for whom it was written, the Hellenistic Jewish community. This gospel would have been read to people in ancient Syria, first generation Christians, Jewish converts, worshipping alongside gentiles. Much of that ancient hatred would still exist. This particular reading would have made it clear to them that those gentile Christians had just as much a right to teachings as they did. So it is quite possible that the early church fathers put this story in the gospel in order to bridge the gap between the gentiles and the Jews. But the lesson still stands for us today.
The disciples of Christ tried to keep this woman away from Jesus. The church today often does the same thing. Some churches do their best to keep away our own Canaanites, the homosexuals, the Muslims, the Jews, the Hindus, the Buddhists. This reading makes it pretty clear that the only thing God cares about is faith. You will notice that Jesus didn’t make her go through any changes before he would help her. He just helped her.
The gospel also makes it pretty clear that we should let nothing stand in our way in our quest for God. The disciples tried to keep her away. She didn’t care. That woman seems to be saying that even though she may not be the kind of person God wants, she still has a right to God’s love and care. How many of us, hearing what the disciples were saying, hearing what Jesus himself said, would have just said, “Yeah, well fuck you too,” and walked off? How many people today look at the actions of organized religion and let that keep them from turning to a loving God?
The truth is, we all have faith. You couldn’t get out of bed without faith. We just place our faith in different things. People have faith in the government, the economy, their families, their friends, in money, in things, in real estate; you name it. The trouble is that all those things are fallible. We see that today. People are starting to lose faith in the government. People have lost faith in the economy. When we were children, we had faith in our parents. And then we found out they make mistakes, just like everybody else. And for a time, when we are young adults, we seem to feel like everything our parents do is wrong. So we have faith in our own ideas, until we screw up badly. Then we discover that our parents weren’t as dumb as we thought they were.
Zen and Christ both teach (along with Hinduism and Taoism) to have faith in your own divinity, your own God-spirit. And having faith in that means simply accepting it. Believing you are divine means not having to say it. Once you say it, you are reassuring yourself that it is so, and thus showing that you do not, in fact, have faith in your own divinity. Faith means being sure. You don’t have to say you have faith that you can see in order to see, you just simply see. You take it for granted. Faith in God means simply knowing that God is there and no organized faith or religion can change that or even claim to have any understanding of what God is. That Canaanite woman certainly didn’t come from any faith tradition that we would recognize as truth. She came from people who sacrificed their children to the god Baal.
And when you come to understand that you are a part of God and God is a part of you, that you are more powerful than you can possible imagine, that you are as eternal as the universe, you’re happy; you want to celebrate. So when the faithful go to church, it is not out of duty, or with the intent to somehow please the godhead with our songs of praise, or even to ask for shit. We go to celebrate the joy of being a part of the love of God and a part of God’s creation, our own creation, for we are a part of God.
So, for a portion of the gospel that most Christians would just as soon avoid, it has a lot to teach us, whether it really happened or not. If nothing else, it shows us that, as I learned with the artist, Avi Thaw, persistence pays off. Ask, and it shall be given. And I like that.