In the story of Jesus’ borderlands meeting with the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel (15:21-28) there seems to be a trade in insults with references being made to dogs. We have to accept that Christ is truly present in this text, apparently being very rude towards a Canaanite woman. How do we respond to his words?
When Jesus referred to dogs, the image in the minds of his disciples at least, would have been the dogs that licked the wounds of Lazarus, the semi-wild, stray dogs of Jewish culture. But he is rebuffed by the Canaanite woman who refers to the household dogs of the Gentiles, treated more like household pets; that would gobbled up any titbits falling from the master’s table; or would have been fed leftovers. Jesus is so challenged by her response that he promises that her daughter will be healed. For Matthew this is a story about faith and the power of faith to transcend those things that divide us. To belong to the people of God requires us to be a channel for God’s inclusive love. Are there any parts of our society, or kinds of people who we perceive are beyond the redemptive help of the Gospel of Christ? I thought of this when watching the TV reports of the recent violence in the centres of some of the major cities in England, and have reflected further on the many newspaper reports and commentaries.
The truth of today’s consumerist society, or at any rate a partial representation of it, is being played out here in these violent scenes. Of course we may react that the rioters are behaving like the feral, stray dogs in Jewish culture, engaged in an extreme form of mugging. Or does our compassion suggest that perhaps they are they are more like the Greek ‘puppy dogs’ who should be indulged with leftovers from the rich man’s table. Should we beat them with sticks and cleanse them from our streets with water cannon or should we give them a cuddle like a mischievous puppy dog, ‘hug a hoodie’ as the saying goes? Of course mob violence must always be condemned. But the people terrorising and trashing our major cities are also a symptom of a wider malaise. What kind of demonic has entered our society? There is a very complex narrative being played out here.
We may lay some of the blame at the door of inadequate parenting but blaming a lack of discipline conveniently ignores the causes of the breakdown in family relationships which are rooted in the realities of economic and social injustice. The gap between the richest and poorest has got gradually worse over the last forty years and Britain is now more unequal than almost any other western country. There seems to be a fundamental disconnect at the heart of what has become defined as our consumerist society, where a sense of social worth is measured in terms how successful we are in gathering possessions and personal status.
Our culture is changing rapidly in other ways too. Social media has been used to both fuel and condemn the riots. Rioters have posted messages bragging about their spoils and encouraged their online ‘friends’ to join in on the rampage. Interestingly, they have fearlessly gazed into the cameras recording their actions. Meanwhile others were ‘tweeting’ more positive ways about how to clear up the mess and restore some sort of order. There is a huge shift in society from ‘real world’ to ‘virtual world’ through the medium of social networks and people are utterly open about what they will document about themselves. We are seeing this self-publicity at home and we have witnessed a more noble version of this in the unrest in the countries of the Middle East.
So how should we respond? I suggest that this is not a time for moral outrage. Those who are guilty of riot and theft will receive the punishment due to them. Instead we need to reach out to those who choose to be disconnected or are prevented from behaving in a responsible way by ignorance, fear and poverty, because all these factors impede people’s ability to engage fully with civil society. The encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman was a pre-Easter story. We are a post-Easter people. Each of us has a role to play in exorcising these demons. Every time we reach out with understanding and compassion to our neighbour, however we define this term, we help to reverse the ways of the world and enable God to build the kingdom.