The Life of Christ

Mgr. E Le Camus




FLEEING then from the hatred of His adversaries, Jesus went off toward the northwest. He followed the road of Safet, left Giscala on the right, and, crossing the broken hills of upper Galilee, He came to the confines of Tyre and Sidon.1 In this country, which is wholly outside of Palestine, though only two days' journey from the lake, He would escape the provocation of His enemies and the importunities of the multitude. His object was to have them forget Him for a time. This is why St. Mark observes that, on entering the houses of His entertainers, He at once told them that He wished to live there unknown.

His wish was not respected. Whether already betrayed by the Apostles' enthusiasm, or preceded by the fame of His works, it was not long before it became known that He was in the country. A woman of SyroPhoenician origin2 whose daughter was tormented by a demon, seems to have been particularly well informed as to who Jesus was and of what He could do. Great grief almost always renders a woman unreserved, even with those whom she does not know. It may be that the Canaanite woman's story of her trials as a mother determined the Apostles or, better still, the devoted benefactresses of the Apostolic group, to perform an act of charitable indiscretion. It is certain, at any rate, according to the Gospel narrative, that this woman had of Jesus an idea as exact as it was complete. Though an idolatress, she hailed in Him, not only the Thaumaturgus Who expelled evil spirits, but the divine Envoy in Whom were realised the Messianic hopes of Israel.

Approaching the house where Jesus had received hospitality, she cried to Him: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David! my daughter is grievously troubled by a devil!" This heartrending appeal of the mother, who seemed herself to feel the pains of the daughter, appeared, however, to produce no effect on Jesus. He replied not a word, and, as she continued her supplications, the Apostles, moved by them, made themselves her advocates, and, asking Him to grant her prayer, they said: "Send her away for she crieth after us." Indeed, the motive which they put forth to sustain their request, and which might be expressed as follows: "Deliver us from her importunities," only half conceals beneath apparent indifference the strong desire they had of seeing the mother's prayer granted.

Such a sentiment among the disciples in favour of a pagan woman must be signalised as a great step beyond their ancient prejudices. The horizon was therefore broadening out for these peasants of Galilee, and Jesus was made happy by that fact.

Still, the better to try them, He merely replied, somewhat unfeelingly: "I was not sent, but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." This was a repetition, as if expressing His own thought, of an observation which the Apostles must have frequently made themselves. Thus ironically He made Himself the echo of their narrow ideas in order to reject their request. They suspected that this sternness would not last, and that the Master would in the end be moved to tenderness. A true man will not resist a woman's tears when she speaks in the name of her motherhood. They, therefore, permitted the Canaanite to enter the house. There she fell at the feet of Him Whose favour she wished to gain, and adored Him, saying: "Lord, help me!" But Jesus still withheld, as if He really shared the principles of Jewish exclusiveness which He had but just condemned. "Suffer first the children to be filled," He said to her, "for it is not good to take the bread of the children and cast it to the dogs." His words were a true expression of the national prejudice; for they reproduced in the very terms it affected: "The Israelites are the sons of God, the Gentiles are dogs."3

Nothing could be better calculated to discourage an ordinary soul than this harsh response; but the Canaanite had a mother's heart, a proselyte's faith, and an ingenuity of mind that never miscarries. She at once takes up the painful picture the Master had employed, and, with as much delicacy as humility, she gives it an affectionate and somewhat gracious turn. In all the places where it had been, the genius of Greece had left traces of its brilliant versatility.

"Yea, Lord," said the Phoenician, "for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters." She accepts the humble part left to her, and, explaining the little that she desires, she has not a doubt she will obtain it. She aspires not to the loaf itself; the small crumbs will satisfy her; she does not pretend to seat herself among the guests; let her only pass around beneath the table and gather up what is dropped. Her response shone with faith, simplicity, and appropriateness, and she draws from us the same cry of admiration that came from the mouth of the Son of God: "O woman! great is thy faith; be it done to thee as thou wilt; go thy way, the devil is gone out of thy daughter." It was true.

The faith of this woman of Canaan, like a will of supreme power, had just done violence to the Saviour. In fact, Jesus, amid all the events of the struggle He seemed to be undergoing, had willed that the Apostles should behold the thrilling surprises that the Gentiles held in store for them. Blossoms like these, springing suddenly beneath their feet, were a promise of a wonderful harvest in that time when the Lord's workers should turn to the cultivation of this rude but singularly fertile soil. This cure showed once again Jesus' power in accomplishing at a distance the most astonishing miracles. It had been observed that the two prodigies of this class, reported in the Gospel, are accorded to two believers from among the pagans, the centurion and the woman of Canaan, as if the Master had wished to show that thus the Gentiles would be efficaciously succoured and saved, without being honoured like the Jews with His visible and personal presence.

We have no further details concerning Our Lord's stay in these countries. And yet how interesting it would be for us to know the Saviour's thoughts of the pagan civilisation of which Tyre and Sidon were, two illustrious daughters. What were the Master's words when from the heights of the mountain range of Lebanon, if not from a nearer point, He saw the walls of these two cities, even yet so wealthy and proud after their awful catastrophes, their palaces of white marble outlined against the blue sea, and the temples to which Baal and Astarte had always drawn their adorers? What did He think of those workshops, rudimentary no doubt, but prodigious for the times, in which they fashioned glass, or manufactured the purple dye, and from which the smoke rose up to an azure sky; of those numberless ships which, like a great swarm, came and went unceasingly, bearing to their metropolises the treasures of the entire world? All this was visible from the heights of Galilee. Before long among their rich cargoes would come, poor and unknown, like worthless merchandise, these disciples of the Nazarene who today in amazement contemplated this strange spectacle. Over these same waves of the Mediterranean, they would soon be seen themselves bearing away to every inhabited land something more precious than silk and pearls and purple: the great light of the Gospel and the sublime secret of the world's redemption.

According to a singular tradition of the Greek Church, Jesus then embarked at Tyre or at Sidon, and went to Cyprus or even as far as Mount Athos. The Evangelists' silence as to such a voyage would be surprising, and no serious attention can be given to so ill founded a claim.4 Less improbable perhaps is the supposition that in order to reach the Decapolis, the Saviour followed the searoute by Ptolemais as far as Carmel. From there, proceeding along the southern border of Galilee, He would have come, through a country where Pharisees were rarely to be found, to Scythopolis, the only city of the Decapolis west of the Jordan. Then, passing through Pella, Gadara, and Hippos, He would have reached, according to the expression of the Evangelist,5 the very heart of the confederation. If we reject this hypothesis, we must admit that Jesus preferred the mountainbordered valleys of Lebanon and of AntiLebanon, in order to reach, through Damascus or CaesareaPhilippi, the confines of the Decapolis. But we must not conceal, in this latter itinerary, either the difficulties of the route or the necessity of seeking for the Decapolis, properly so called, in a direction where it did not lie, nor, in fine, must we ignore the illogical manner of having the Saviour pass by Caesarea without stopping there, when we know that He betook Himself to that place a few days later to explore its neighbourhood.

The cities comprised in the Decapolis — originally ten, as the name indicates, and later seventeen6 — had established a kind of league against the depredations of the Bedouins. Each of these cities preserved its own separate municipal existence, and, from the time of the conquest of Syria by the Romans, lived under the immediate authority of Rome. The great majority of their inhabitants were pagans. It is not unlikely that Jesus spent some time among them, far removed from Herod's domination and from the influence of the Pharisees, in order to accustom His disciples to contact with paganism and to excite in their hearts the desire of advancing, later on, into the midst of the Gentiles who were to be their conquest. Some, however, have thought that He meant to evangelise only the lost sheep of Israel among the pagans; for they attributed to this same intention the journey He had made to the frontiers of Tyre, where stood the ancient cities ceded to Hiram by King Solomon.

However that may be, Jesus performed miracles there. St. Mark tells of only one; but St. Matthew gives a full and glorious summary of them all.

The first sick man for whom they sought a cure was a deafmute.7 Evidently Jesus' reputation as a thaumaturgus had already spread in this country. The demoniac of Gadara might have established it, and, besides, the disciples did their duty as Apostles in relating to all who the Master was and what He could accomplish. It was thought that He gave health to the sick by a simple touch. This was true; but since His miracles were intended to engender or to strengthen faith in souls, He usually sought to arouse religious sentiments in the sick man before He effected a cure. In this instance, the deafmute could not hear His words, and so Jesus had recourse to exterior signs in order to impress him. When He had separated him from the crowd He took him aside, put His fingers into his ears, and touched his tongue with His spittle. Then, looking up to Heaven that he might know that the miracle was coming from God, He heaved a deep sigh, and cried out: "Ephpheta!"8 that is to say: "Be thou opened!" Like all things else, unable to resist the Master's bidding, the ears of the deaf man were opened, the bonds that held his tongue were burst, and, instead of putting forth inarticulate sounds, he began to speak like other men. The admiration of the spectators and the joy of the man who was cured were great. In vain Jesus recommended silence, that He might avoid the crowding of the multitudes bringing their sick. The more He bade them be silent, the more they proclaimed His omnipotence. So that in a short time the eastern shore of the lake presented the same spectacle of enthusiasm, of popular excitement, of miracles, as the neighbourhood of Capharnaum. In vain did He retire to more mountainous and more desertlike localities; they hastened to rejoin Him. There He gave speech to the dumb, power of motion to paralytics, and sight to the blind. He cured the maimed.9 In a word, He healed all the sick that were brought to His feet. The multitudes gave loud utterance to their admiration. The real Jews were proud that a prophet of their religion should be seen accomplishing such great miracles. The pagans surrendered to this evidence, and glorified the God of Israel.

Among these miracles occurred that one by which Jesus repeated the multiplication of the loaves.10 Here again He had pity on the multitudes who had followed Him and had eaten nothing for three days. This solicitude on the Saviour's part with regard to the material needs of the people after He had given them spiritual food, has in it something deeply moving and paternal. "If I shall send them away fasting to their homes," said Jesus, "they will faint in the way, for some of them have come from afar off." It was not possible for Him to dismiss them in such circumstances. Thus every day Divine Goodness reasons in behalf of mankind. It is because a Providence watches over them that God's servants may lay aside all anxiety for the morrow.

The Apostles had not forgotten the first miraculous repast. They at once suspected that Jesus wished to repeat that favour. "Whence then," said they to the Master, "should we have so many loaves in the desert as to fill so great a multitude?" By a similar remark they had once before moved Him to manifest His power, and therefore they intentionally repeat it. The remembrance of a past still recent, thus called forth, is a discreet request to the Master to exercise His mercy once again. There is a striking analogy between this question of the Apostles and the modest invitation Mary had addressed to her Son when the wine failed at the wedding in Cana. The disciples were evidently advancing in their knowledge of the Master. Like Mary, they were sure of His power, and with a confidence like hers they appealed to His kindness of heart.

This time they found seven loaves, instead of five, among the people, and a few small fishes. On the other hand, the number of mouths to be fed was considerable. They counted about four thousand men. When all were seated, Jesus as before blessed the scanty food that lay before Him. Every one ate what he needed to satisfy his hunger, and there were still left seven full baskets.11

Leaving the crowd no time to express its great admiration, the Master went into a boat and passed over to the other shore of the lake.


1 We made this journey ourselves in 1899, on our third trip to Palestine. This is perhaps the most picturesque portion of the Holy Land.

2 St. Matthew, following the Bible, says that she was of Canaan. As a matter of fact the Canaanites, driven out of Palestine by the Hebrews, had, in great numbers, taken refuge on the coast of the Mediterranean. The Sidonians are more particularly called Canaanites in the Sacred Books. (Gen. x, 15; Judges i, 31.) But while St. Matthew therefore preserves this name here, St. Mark, writing for the Romans, says that the woman was of SyroPhoenician (åurofoinikissa) origin, and Greek (`Ellhnis) or pagan in religion. Greek was synonymous with Gentile or pagan. (II Mace. xi, 2, etc.) St. Matt. xv, 22, indicates that she came from some village of Tyre bordering on Galilee. According to the Homil. Clem., ii, 19; iii, 73; iv, 1, this woman was called Justa and her daughter Bernice.

3 Josephus, Antiq., vi, 9, 4. See Lightfoot and Wetstein on this passage of St. Matt. xv, 26, and Eisenmenger, Judenth., i, 713. In Midr. Till., fol. 6, 3, we read: "Nationes mundi assimilantur canibus"; and in Pirke Eliezer, c. 29: "Qui comedit cum idololatra, similis est comedenti cum cane; uterque incircumcisus est."

4 It is evident from St. Matt. xv, 21, 22, that Jesus did not even go into the land of Tyre and Sidon, but only on the coasts or frontiers (eis ta merh), and that the woman of Canaan came from these lands to find Him (apo twn oriwn exelqousa).

5 St. Mark vii, 31, "through the midst."

6 Pliny (Hist. Nat., v, 17), gives ten: Damascus, Philadelphia, Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara. on the Hieromax, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Gerasa, Canatha. Ptolemy repeats nearly all these names and also seven others. (Tab. iv, Asiae. Josephus (Autobiog., 65, 74) says that this confederation was governed by a kind of council composed of the leading citizens of each city, which, subject to the Roman Proconsul, administered the affairs of the province of Syria. (Cf. Strabo, xvi, 2.)

7 It is true, the term used by St. Mark, mogilalos, signifies more especially one who stammers, or who speaks only with difficulty. But as the crowd soon afterward glorifies Jesus because He makes the dumb to speak (alalous), and as deafness and dumbness usually accompany each other, it seems natural to call this invalid a deafmute. He is qualified as kwfon mogilalon. He was deaf and spoke with difficulty and very poorly.

8 This is a Syriac word, like so many others quoted by the Evangelists, especially by Syriac word, is the imperative form; ethpael, from phatha, and means "be opened."

9 Kullous, St. Matt. xv, 30.

10 If St. Matthew and St. Mark had not already narrated the first multiplication there is no doubt that the critics would have endeavoured to combine the two miracles as one on account of their similarity to each other, and perhaps even to deny them because of their divergencies. This fact, therefore, ought to make exegetes very circumspect, where there is a question of uniting in one event narratives which differences of detail have caused to be separated, or of calling in doubt the accuracy of the Evangelists because in incidents almost analogous they sometimes seem to contradict each other. It may sometimes be that there are two events where we seek only one, and therefore, as in the present case, all contradictions vanish. This second multiplication seems to have taken place to the east of the lake. The current tradition, not very ancient, places it, on the contrary, to the west of Tiberias, after having located the other to the south of Julias. This twofold assertion deserves no serious attention.

11 It is quite plain that St. Matthew and St. Mark have preserved this story the second multiplication of loaves with no intention of overshadowing the prodigy of the first. In fact, everything in the second is relatively on a smaller scale. It is a desire faithfully to consign what they know to writing, and not the idea of increasing the Master's glory by freely accepting a flattering legend, that guided their pen. Blind enthusiasm would have endeavoured to eclipse the former miracle. Scrupulous accuracy has reproduced the second as a simple diminutive of the first.

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