On Thursday, women took center stage in our readings mass, from the story of woman being created from the rib of man to the Syrophoenician woman convincing Jesus to heal her daughter. I’ve seen homilists go a number of directions with these readings: “God works through unexpected people” (a little condescending), “Jesus changed his mind,” (a little problematic), and “This is the way marriage should be, man and woman loving one another with man as the head” (very complicated). Having studied both readings in my scripture classes this year, I wanted to offer a slightly different perspective.
Let’s start with the often-misunderstood Genesis reading. Unlike the first creation story (Gn 1:1-2:3) in which “male and female he created them,” humanity is created in procession in the second creation story (Gn 2:4-25): God created man from the earth, and then from the man’s rib, he created woman. Many have interpreted this as a sign of subordination, including the Apostle Paul, arguing that woman came from man, not man from woman, so woman is subject to man (See 1 Cor 11:8; 1 Tim 2:13).
But is this really what the story is saying? In fact, quite the opposite: God has set up a radically egalitarian, perfect relationship between man and woman. In her very purpose for being created, woman was intended to be a “partner” of the man, a “helper” in the same way that God is Israel’s helper throughout the Old Testament (the Hebrew word is the same). Is God subordinate to Israel because he is its helper? Of course not! Look, then, at how the woman is made: man had nothing to do with it. He was asleep! (Typical…) Just as God created man, so God created woman. The man declares, “This one is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” In other words, they are the same, of one essence, perfectly equal in their intended creation. Because of this, man has no claim over the woman, and so unlike the animals (for which he gave names to signify his authority over them), he does not “name” woman as much as he describes their relationship to one another: “for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.” He understands who she is in light of him and who he is in light of her. (It is not until chapter 3, after they sin, that the man names her Eve, marking the distortion of their relationship.) The passage concludes that they live naked with one another with no shame, signifying their perfect respect for one another, having nothing to hide, no distortions, and no manipulations. This is what God created.
But this is not the world we live in, is it? We live in a world of human trafficking, pornography, and sexual exploitation. We live in a very “sexist” world in which women are harassed, paid less than men, and subordinated to second class. Just this week Sports Illustrated sent me their annual Swimsuit edition. Today, “50 Shades of Grey” hits theatres. How can we look at these things as say that we are respecting each other as equals? How would we feel if it was our mother, our best friend, our sister, in these situations? We would never treat our loved ones this way, but we subordinate others all of the time, intentionally or unintentionally. We live in a world of distorted relationships, a world that has lost sense of the “partnership” God created, the perfect relationship the he intended.
Now within this distorted world, we jump to the Gospel (Mk 7:24-30), and are confronted with an odd interaction between Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman. Falling to Jesus’ feet in worship for him to save her daughter, Jesus initially refuses to help her, and then worse yet, he calls her a dog! Not politically correct Jesus! He does end up curing the woman’s daughter because of her great faith, but the reader is left a little baffled. Was Jesus serious in calling her that? If so, does that mean that Jesus’ mind was changed?
My own reflection on the passage is that Jesus’ mind was not changed. Look at what precedes it: He has already cured non-Jews, he has cured and interacted with women, and in this case, specifically went out of his way to go to Gentile territory. From the start of his ministry, Jesus understood his mission. He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God to all people. In light of the first story, Jesus came to restore the relationship God had intended between all of humanity.
So why did he call her a dog then? Was he serious? This question is a bit more complicated, but certainly understandable in a human sense. While fully divine, Jesus was also fully human. He came into the world like us, was formed as a child by cultural structures, norms related to interaction with women, and a way of speaking. If Jesus truly took on our humanity, its foolish to think that he would not be unaffected by it, at least externally. What he said, although not what we would hope for, is indicative of the subordination of women in their culture (if not ours as well.) We live in a broken world, and Jesus became a part of that.
But he didn’t come to simply experience it, he came to transform it. He came to restore relationships. Like all of us, (and forgive me if this begins to project my own experience onto Jesus), it is entirely possible that Jesus knew exactly what he was to do, restore humanity to its intended perfect relationship, and simply got caught off guard, letting his human weakness revert to the way he had seen men treat woman his entire life. I have an example. This year, I’ve started going downtown DC in my habit looking for homeless people to talk to, to find out what they need, and to offer them little things like hand-warmers and protein bars. It is clear that I know my mission: I am here to serve and respect the poor and marginalized of society. Sometimes I do it well. And yet, a few weekends ago, I was downtown with some people going to a restaurant and a homeless man reached out a cup asking for help as we walked by. Did I treat him with respect as I know I am here to do? No. I walked by, ignored him, and hoped he wouldn’t notice me. In essence, I called him a dog. I realized that my “relationships” with the ones I served were nowhere close to the type of relationship God intended. I had subordinated him to a person in need of my help, and since I had nothing that day to offer (or was too disinterested to try), I did not interact with him. In my mind, it was a one-way relationship, one in which he could not offer me anything, and so I didn’t stop. I knew my mission, I knew who I was, and yet reverted to the way I had see others treat homeless people my entire life.
While women take center stage in Thursday’s readings, I think the focus is really on how we relate to all of humanity. Do we treat each other with respect or do we degrade? Do we lift each other up to see each others as equals or do we subordinate? Do we attempt to return to what God intended or do we further the distortion, manipulation, and condescension of this world? On this Valentine’s Day, on this day that the Lord has made, I think that our only answer is Jesus, the God who came down from heaven to be equal to us and to restore us to that perfect union we once knew. It is only in relationship to him, in becoming one flesh with the one who gave of himself, that we are able to enter into relationship with those around us in the way it was always intended.