Don't Mess With My Bible

I like to walk. I put on my headphones and go for about an hour a day because I can. I don’t usually listen to music or audio books. I listen to podcasts.

The other day I heard an interview with Sarah Ruden. Sarah is a philologist. Philology is more commonly defined as the study of literary texts as well as oral and written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning. (Wikipedia)

Sarah talked about a familiar story found in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. The story is about a woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. The text says, “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.” Jesus calls her a dog, but she persists and says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Now calling the woman a dog seems a bit rude but here’s the thing. Sarah Ruden says if you look at first century Greek the word used is not the mangey, scruffy mongrel that first comes to mind. She finds the same Greek word used in other ancient Greek texts like Aristophanes and Plato. The word refers to a cute little lapdog. She then goes on to describe the tone and the texture of the exchange in this context.

In early Greek and Roman culture cute little lapdogs are thought of as being fed scraps at a great joyous, rich, generous feast. Ruden says Jesus and the woman were talking theologically about the eschatological banquet. This is the great feasting in heaven at the end of time. There is so much food there that even the dogs under the table get stuffed. The dogs are just helpless and bloated they have eaten so much. That is the ultimate joy and abundance. When you think about the general poverty that prevailed in the ancient world, a normal person maybe feasts and has meat once or twice a year but is normally walking around hungry.

Now these Gospels were being read but not just by the early Jewish Christians. They were being read all over the Roman Empire by a multi-ethnic audience of people with pagan backgrounds as the Christian Religion spread. This is them. They are included as heirs to the kingdom also. Everybody. The ordinary people. And the banquet never stops. And no one is lowly enough to be excluded.

There are many other interpretations of these passages by learned theologians, but I really like this one. It is more tender and hopeful than many I have read. I don’t know that one interpretation is more correct than another. It is by looking at these stories from different angles that we begin to see the face of God. It is like holding a diamond up to the light and turning it to see how it refracts the light. Judaic authorities call this practice midrash.

It is said Saint Francis would pray all night saying “Lord, who am I? Lord, who are you?” Lord, who am I? Lord, who are you?

Mark Autterson

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