The Gospel reading this past Sunday told the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman from St. Matthew’s Gospel (in St. Mark’s telling of the encounter the woman is said to be a Greek, and specifically a Syro-phoenician.) One of the things which some find a bit disturbing about this particular story is the perception that Jesus is insulting the woman, by seemingly calling her a dog. However, I actually find this to be a very funny moment, one of several where one could point to Christ exhibiting something of a sense of humour.
The Canaanite woman is very persistent, and we can imagine that she must have seemed to the disciples like a rather aggressive panhandler that one might come across in the city. They are annoyed and on edge because of her, and just want Jesus to send her away. At first He simply ignores her, as a good Jew of His day would do – perhaps as a test, as some have said, but also because, as God, He knows her heart and her determination. He knows that she is helping Him to set up a very important lesson for these closed-minded Jewish disciples about to embark upon a course of radical change in their lives, to do things they cannot yet imagine that they, as first-century Jews, would ever do.
When He does speak to the woman, certainly Jesus could be read as being snobbish and off-putting. However St. Matthew does not give us any words of description of how this exchange takes place. He does not tell us that Jesus speaks to her angrily, or that Jesus dismissed her, or the like.
Is Jesus haughty toward this woman, given what we know about Him? I have always thought it more likely that He is being wry with her. In a film, you could almost see Jesus saying to her, in a slightly conspiratorial tone, “Now you know that technically, under the rules, I’m not supposed to be doing this…” with a wink. The Canaanite woman then sees where He is heading with this. I almost think that, in a sense, Jesus is the straight man setting up the joke, and she gives the punch line.
Certainly for the Jewish listeners around Jesus at this moment, let alone the Jewish audience hearing this account later from St. Matthew, this would have been something of a punch in the gut. How could this expression of faith be made by a woman who came from a people that were considered among the scum of the earth, by the Jews of that day. We can imagine a similar reaction to the encounter of Christ with the Roman Centurion in the same Gospel. In this case however, the tone, at least as I read it, is a bit different, a bit more ironic and funny. Jesus and the woman have something of a joke at the expense of the disciples’ prejudices.
This of course is not the only instance in the Gospels where one could see Christ having a sense of humour. One of my favourite examples of this is in St. John’s Gospel, in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The seemingly accusatory passage:
You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. (St. John, 4:17-18)
could be read in a very ironic, almost New York-Jewish humour sort of way. Imagine someone like Mel Brooks (or perhaps less jarringly, Father Benedict Groeschel) telling this story to see what I mean. This time, in contrast to the Canaanite woman, it is the Samaritan woman who is the comedic straight man, unwittingly set up by Jesus, and He gives the punch line.
Perhaps the lesson to take from all of this, is that those things which cause us to blind ourselves, whether to the humanity of others or to our own failings, are something that God finds rather pathetic, and occasionally a source of humour. We take ourselves so seriously in our self-righteousness, in our justifications for why we behave badly toward ourselves and others, that sometime we need to be knocked down a peg or two. And to be perfectly honest, I am very glad (and rather relieved) that God has a sense of humour.