In Mark’s Gospel, we hear a story about Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman. It is easy to overlook a critical aspect of this story ~ the fact that Jesus chooses to travel to an area populated by Gentiles. There, he is confronted by a woman who for two reasons is ‘an outsider’: she is not an Israelite, and her daughter has a demon.
By overlooking Jesus’ choice, it then becomes easy to mishear a vital aspect of this Gospel reading. It’s Jesus’ willingness to be playful —even dangerously playful— as he enlarges our concept of God’s Kingdom. Some contemporary commentators don’t recognize this about Jesus’ journey into the region of Tyre. For they view it as a story about how a Gentile woman enlarges Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom. This follows from the way modern theologians stress the humanity of Jesus over his divinity. In other words, ‘how he was like us’ comes to overshadow ‘how he was different from us.’
This is especially true with our understanding of intellect. We associate ‘intelligence’ with skills like computing numbers and remembering information. Yet, the key to this Gospel story may lie in something different, in what is called “emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence is relational, and involves feelings, character and temperament. It depends on maturity, and relies on insight about what enhances or hinders well-functioning community. When we overlook these fuller dimensions of ourselves, we limit our concept of what it means to be human.
Think, for example, about humor. We assume humor depends on being witty, and making fun of people and situations. We forget that we also deal with serious things through humor. Humor approaches life indirectly, from the side, instead of straight-on. In medieval times, Christians actually debated whether Jesus ever laughed! We know he wept, but Scripture never records Jesus as laughing. Surely, we can see beyond this narrow assumption that Jesus never laughed or spoke with irony and humor.
Appreciating how Jesus uses playful humor helps us understand his interaction with the Canaanite woman, and how he is compassionate rather than rude in speaking with her. The story displays the beauty of his emotional intelligence instead of a limitation in his perception of his vocation.
This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 9, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The Egyptian Arabic manuscript illustration above is credited to Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rabib (1684).