The rhetorical skills of a Gentile woman illuminate an aspect of salvation history Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
It is instructive to observe the reactions of those to whom Jesus spoke in the gospel stories. Sometimes, of course, they marvelled. ‘The people were astonished at his teaching,’ we are told, ‘for he taught them as one having authority.’ They said of him, ‘No man ever spoke like this man!’ I can think of one instance when someone effectively offered an alternative to something Jesus had proposed. When he was approached by the centurion, who sought healing for his servant, our Lord suggested, T will come and heal him.’ However, when the centurion counter-proposed, ‘speak only a word, and my servant will be healed,’ Jesus praised the man’s faith.
A direct contradiction
I can think of only one instance when someone directly contradicted Jesus, and not only got away with it, but even received praise for the effort. This story deserves a closer look. It tells of a woman described by Mark as ‘a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth’. She was, in short, a Gentile. Jesus, we recall, at first declined to help this woman, who had come to him seeking assistance for a troubled daughter. Indeed, our Lord even insulted her with the comment, ‘it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the puppies.’ This harsh comment would neither have shocked nor surprised the Jews who first heard and recorded it. As Gentiles joined the Christian Church, however, the insult in that comment became troublesome. Indeed, there was a true irony in the thing, inasmuch as this story, which directly answered the question about the admission of Gentiles to the Church, was necessarily offensive to Gentiles! It is not surprising, then, that Luke, writing chiefly for Gentiles, omitted the account completely. Its inclusion in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew is explained by the woman’s response: ‘True, Lord, but even the puppies under the table eat from the children’s crumbs’ Jesus remarked on that answer – and certainly it was remarkable – commenting (in Matthew) on the woman’s invincible faith.
Winning the argument
What must be further noted, I believe, is that the woman herself prevailed in this encounter with Jesus, offering her compelling argument that the messianic grace of Israel should become available to the Gentiles. Her place in the history of salvation was assured by the truly clever way she gave that history a new direction. What this woman did, in fact, was win her argument with Jesus about Jews and Gentiles. She did it with grace, humility and faith, obviously, but she also did it with rhetoric. The lady proposed a solution to the historical (and rhetorical) impasse contained in Jesus’ comment about children and dogs. That is to say, her wit and skill found a way to overcome what classical rhetoric and logic called an aporia, an ‘obstacle’ or ‘barrier’ in an argument. To my mind, the woman’s answer to our Lord borders on breath-taking, and, as far as I can tell, it is quite without parallel in Holy Scripture. By means of her rhetorical skill, she bested him in an argument about the scope of the messianic blessings! In fact, in Mark’s version of the story, the Saviour explicitly indicates this: ‘Because of this word, go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.’ If I dared to paraphrase this admission of Jesus, it would go something like this: ‘Ma’am, you have quite a way with words. You have me on that one. The demon is gone from your daughter.’