Thursday, March 05, 2009

On Humorless Hermeneutics

I'm generally a fan of Miguel De La Torre, but his recent essay asking "Was Jesus a Racist?" appears to me to be an example of a hermeneutic that lacks imagination and a sense of humor.

Miguel's interpretation of Jesus' conversation with a Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter in Matthew 15:21-28 assumes that Jesus was gravely serious when talking to her. Jesus said "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is not good to take the bread of the children and throw it to the dogs." Miguel views Jesus as both condoning and reflecting a Jewish prejudice that equated Canaanites with dogs.

Elton Trueblood in his book The Humor of Christ offers a significantly different interpretation of this encounter. Trueblood notes that humor rarely translates well cross-culturally and that the biblical writers fail to make note of vocal tone and facial expressions when recording conversations. That means that words that may well have been spoken with a smile on the face and a wink in the eye will appear harsh and cruel when written down. By its nature, the language of humor is ironic and not meant to be taken literally.

Trueblood makes much of the way the Canaanite woman reacted to Jesus. She did not take offense at what he said. Instead, her witty response, "Even the dogs feed on the crumbs from the Master's table" demonstrated both an ability to transcend racial stereotypes and a sense of humor. That Jesus was clearly delighted with her retort reveals that he also transcended racial stereotypes and had a sense of humor.

1 comment:

Bill Jones said...

Bruce,
I loved this post. I bought that book years ago and recently took it down off the bookshelves to re-read it. It helps us to see Christ as more fully human - more than the one-dimensional figure we often make Him out to be.
Dr. Trueblood spoke in Chapel the first week of my freshman year at Oklahoma Baptist University - in the fall of 1969. Afterwards, Helen Raley - the widow of the OBU president for whom the chapel is named - held a reception for Dr. Trueblood. At the reception, I asked him to sign the flyleaf of the Bible that my parents had given me the previous Christmas. His signature said it all - "Faithfully, Elton Trueblood."
Thanks, Bruce, for bringing some attention to this faithful servant, Elton Trueblood, and his unique book.