Grace to you!
Idiomatic expressions or proverbs are one of the Achilles heels of learning new languages and a nightmare for translators. Only one who understands the cultural “inside scoop” (an American slang) of a people can understand the logic of their idioms. By the way, many idioms have no standard logic. They do not follow usual lexical or grammatical rules. They are simply what they are, and you have to be familiar with the language to understand them.
As an African, many of my daily blogs are garnished with African metaphors, idioms and proverbs. You may have noticed. A few times, I do so intentionally, many times reflexively.
Just like Asian and Middle Eastern ancient cultures, many of African proverbs play with nature images—animals, trees, weather, etc. A lack of knowledge of this “inside scoop” would definitely lead to misunderstandings and sometimes, misjudgment.
Take for instance the following Igbo proverb: “[Let] kite perch, [let] eagle perch also.” The English equivalent meaning of the proverb is; “Live and let live.” Neither the kite nor the eagle is human, yet this Igbo African proverb uses animals to represent humans.
Why this primer on language use of idioms? It’s because this reflection will focus on one of the most misunderstood aspects of the entire teaching of Jesus, the popular story of “the Canaanite Woman.”
Her daughter was sick and dying and she pleads with Jesus to heal her. First, Jesus seems to ignore her, the disciples of Jesus don’t want anything to do with her either. Worse, it seems, Jesus used an idiom which appears to compare her with dogs. Read the full story in Matthew 15:21-28.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter. This Canaanite woman cried unto Jesus to heal her daughter who was severely sick. She called Jesus, “Son of David” acknowledging him as the Messiah – a rare profession of faith.
The English translation of Jesus’ response is shocking at face value: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.” The woman’s reply overshadows the seemingly shocking statement, proving it wasn’t as it reads in English: “Yes, Lord, for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:26-27).
Many feminists freak out at Jesus’ response. Many others, including some theologians, accuse Jesus of being a bigot, a misogynist or simply a hater.
For me, they miss the point. Not only are such reactions rash and misleading, they also miss the whole point of the use of idioms and metaphors in language.
Checking some biblical Greek lexicons, I observed that the word used by Jesus was a common noun for little dogs or pets—κυνάρια(kunaria) as distinguished from κύνες (Kunes) as usually used for dogs or street dogs.
Similarly, it was an idiom and wasn’t used in a derogatory way. The woman coming from a similar cultural milieu understood the meaning and hence responded in kind. Biblical language should be understood/interpreted in its own right.
Of more interest to me today is the persistence, humility, and perseverance, as well as unequaled faith of this woman. Not even in Israel, Jesus said, could it be found. Certainly, many believers today do not have the level of faith of the Canaanite woman. For those who have it and want it, it is an incredible asset.
The Canaanite woman’s faith matured in perseverance. Faith thrives when we know God’s inside scoop—the story of Revelation. It grows when we pay attention to God’s signals whispered to us as in idioms, parables, metaphors and unfamiliar events, which only those familiar with God’s ways and inside scoop, can understand.
Observe the Church’s liturgy, for instance, and see how the mysteries of faith unveil before your very eyes. Powerful. Gripping. It is an excellent example of the inside scoop of heavenly language, nurturing the uncommon faith.
The Canaanite woman is, for us, a true heroine of undaunted faith. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to pray for such faith—the faith that connects with God’s logic; the faith that knows the story behind the story. I wish you that faith. Amen
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Wednesday, Week 18 Ordinary Time: Jeremiah 31:1-7; Matthew 15:21-28]
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on the bible readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.