Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Challenge

He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Matthew 15:24)

I've just been listening to Dorothy Sayers brilliant dramatisation on Radio 4 More recently - "The Man Born to Be King", and it is fascinating to see how she weaves together the stories. The story of the woman who is first turned down, then asks for the "crumbs from the table" always strikes me as taking what appear to be some very strong words of Jesus - his mission is purely to the Jews, and presenting a story in which that mission can be expanded; in other words, a story told later in the Christian community to counter sayings that suggested a narrow mission.

That doesn't mean the story is made up, but it could suggest that there were some problems over sayings of Jesus that seemed to suggest a purely Jewish and less universal mission, which must have been circulating at the time. Sayers, on the other hand, suggests an alternative viewpoint - she sees Jesus as not simply handing out cures, but engaging with people so that they have to respond to him first.

In Sayer's dramatisation, she makes the narrative a recounting of the original incident, rather than dramatising it directly, which allows her to get inside the feelings and thoughts of the Syro-Phoenician Woman, and thus get her reaction. This is very clever, and it enables her to present it Jesus words not as deliberately stating an exclusive mission so much as issuing a challenge to her - "His voice wasn't cruel. He looked at me with a sort of challenge." which changes the understanding of the narrative and Jesus motivations very cleverly. He knows she can respond to him, and he wants her to do this before he heals her child. I'd never seen the narrative that way; but I certainly like that presentation, which gives an extra dimension to the story, and to the characterisation of Jesus.


THE EVANGELIST: Now at this time, Pontius Pilate was Governor of Judaea...

ATTENDANT: Was the bath to your ladyship's liking?
CLAUDIA : Yes, thank you.
ATTENDANT: You are not too hot?
CLAUDIA : Not at all.
ATTENDANT: Will you have your massage now?
CLAUDIA : Yes, please.
ATTENDANT: Your ladyship's usual attendant is ill, I am sorry to say. But we have a new woman-a Syro-Phoenician-who is very good. All the ladies like her.
CLAUDIA: That will do quite well. As long as she has good hands.
ATTENDANT : I am sure you will be pleased with her, madam... Eunice ! ... Come here, girl, and do your very best. It is the Governor's wife, the Lady Claudia Procula.
EUNICE : I will try to satisfy your ladyship.
CLAUDIA : I'm not hard to please. You have a nice cheerful face; I like. that. There's a little pain here in my shoulder. See if your fingers can charm it away.
EUNICE : Yes, madam.
CLAUDIA : Where do you come from?
EUNICE: I live near Sidon, madam. My husband was a bath-attendant there. But he died a year ago. So I came to Jerusalem, thinking to get a little more money, as I have a small daughter to keep.
CLAUDIA: You are young to have lost your husband. Your little girl must be a great comfort to you.
EUNICE : She is now, madam. But she used to be my greatest grief. She never was quite normal, and had fits, poor little soul. People said she was possessed. But last spring she was healed by a most wonderful miracle.
CLAUDIA : Indeed ! To what god or goddess did you pray?-
EUNICE : To all of them, madam. I had prayed many years in vain.
CLAUDIA : Who wrought the miracle, then?
EUNICE: Madam, a Jewish prophet.
CLAUDIA : A Jewish prophet ! And you a Greek ! I thought the Jews would have nothing to do with the Greeks.
EUNICE : I thought so too. But this man had a great reputation, and I was determined to try, if ever I got the chance. So one day - but I am wearying your ladyship.
CLAUDIA : No, no-go on.
EUNICE: One day he passed through our town, and I ran after him, calling for help. His disciples tried to drive me away. But I was desperate, and pushed my way through to him, crying "Sir, sir, have pity on me !" They said, "Send her away, Master - she keeps on pestering us". And he looked at me and never said a word. So I fell at his feet and implored him to heal my child. Then he spoke, rather sternly : "I am not sent to you, but only to the sons of Israel". "Oh, sir," I said, "do please help me". But he answered, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs".
CLAUDIA : Oh, cruel !
EUNICE: That's what the Jews call us-heathen dogs. But his voice wasn't cruel. He looked at me with a sort of challenge. I thought "I must say the right thing quick !" So I said, "That's true, sir. But the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children's table." Oh, madam ! You should have seen now his face lit up! "Well done !" he said, "your faith and your wit have saved your daughter. Go home now-she is healed." So I ran to the house, and there she was-as fit and bonny as a child could be.
CLAUDIA : How wonderful !-I should like to see this prophet.
EUNICE: Madam, the Jews' Feast of Tabernacles begins tomorrow. They say he's expected. It lasts eight days, and on one of them he's pretty sure to be preaching in the Temple.
CLAUDIA : I will make enquiries. What is the prophet's name?
EUNICE: They call him Jesus of Nazareth.

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