Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Let’s just think for a moment that how harsh these words from Jesus’ mouth are. Especially the hurt is in the word “dog.” Dogs are known as man’s best friend. We have a sentimental view of them. We befriend dogs in ways that are peculiarly modern and western. I think you will only find dogs referred to positively in one place in scripture and that is in the book of Tobit (the book of Tobit is part of the Catholic and Orthodox biblical canons). Every other mention portrays them as scavenging creatures.
One can witness this point today in any African and Asian country. There is no shortage of dogs running loose on streets. Almost all of them skinny and roaming about sifting and sniffing through rubbish, and on the lookout for food. These dogs walk among the children playing in the street. They are not the personal possession of any of them. They are just kind of there roaming around, and for the most part they are barely tolerated and mostly ignored. Mothers who have little enough to feed their children do not toss bread and crusts to feed them.
Things were not too dissimilar in the first century world. For example, D. Winton Thomas published an influential article entitled, ‘Kelebh “Dog”: Its Origin and Some Uses of It in the Old Testament.’ In the article, Thomas argued that the Israelites held a negative attitude toward dogs. They viewed the dog as ‘a vile and contemptible animal’, ‘the most ignoble and contemptible of animals’, ‘that lowly animal… despised and generally wretched’. John McKenzie voices the same sentiment: “Most dogs have no owners and are nuisances and scavengers which run about the streets.”
It is clear that in the land where Jesus lived, dogs carried about the same social standing as many of their counterparts anywhere in Africa and India today. Recall when Jesus tells the parable of "The Rich Man and Lazarus," Lazarus lays helpless at the gate, and Jesus gave us that gruesome little detail about the dogs that would come and lick his sores. That is kind of paint the picture for us in terms of the way dogs were regarded. And it was this kind of worldview from which Jesus makes his comment to the Gentile woman in our Gospel reading. All she did was to ask for him to bring healing to her daughter. To which he replies, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel... It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Indeed, a prophet ministering outside the boundaries of Israel is like a mother on the streets of Delhi who would deny food to her children and feed it to stray dogs instead. More I think about it more I realise that there is no way you can justify that remark.
I am aware lots of people have tried—perhaps he was testing her faith; perhaps he was expanding her courage in way that was good for her. But I think not. None of this is satisfactory. Why not wrestle with it? Why not hear it simply as it is? No doubt, such harsh words aren’t what we expect from Jesus. The Jesus we know is meek and mild, kind and compassionate, loving and inclusive. Yet, the analogy he uses does not reflect the inclusiveness that we believe is part and parcel of his understanding of God and the world. This Jesus who is mostly welcoming sinners and tax collectors, touching lepers, and associating with people of all kind suddenly says something that is harsh, discriminatory and insulting.
We forget that Jesus was a person of his time—a first-century Jew born into a world of boundaries, discrimination and exclusion. It is so easy to idealise him beyond measures, forgetting that he was a person of his time. Isn’t that is what being a person is? It goes with the territory of incarnation.
Matthew, though, gives us a peek into Jesus’ fragile humanity, who learns and develops—like any of us. This is a Jesus who must respond to what goes on around him—like any of us. This is a Jesus who does not know everything—like any of us. This is a Jesus who is genuinely human. And the nature of his humanity is not terribly dissimilar to us. Most of us, (although unconsciously) a lot of time of the time, let our personal prejudices, our personal likes and dislikes, govern our retorts and rejoinders. It’s challenging to step aside from what is engrained in us and see some new possibility outside our own frames of reference.
Often, we must be persuaded into seeing something beyond our preferences. The truth of that is at display in the disciples’ reaction. To them the woman is clearly a nuisance they want to be rid of. She is like the insistent beggar from the streets of India who tries and tries to stop you walking on—what a nuisance.
Jesus does the other thing. To everyone surprise he actually lets the nuisance engage him. This Canaanite woman comes back at him powerfully. Even her analogy is better than his: “She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Her whole faith is summarized in her response to Jesus’ dismissal, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." In that once sentence, she embodies the kind Christianity we need to practice today.
Somewhere along the line, the Christian church, wanting to smooth out its rough edges, devolved into assimilation and co-optation rather than clinging to its roots as a voice from the margins. A voice that unapologetically condemns violence, hatred, idolatry, and bigotry. A voice that denounces discrimination and marginalization. A voice born out of the fundamental rejection of supremacy and power used against the oppressed.
As a result of woman’s reply something incredibly interesting happens. To our surprise Jesus changes. The woman teaches Jesus something new about the Kingdom—she extends its boundaries to be genuinely inclusive. And Jesus realises the truth of it: ‘Woman, great is your faith!’
Perhaps the real miracle of this story is the lesson Jesus learns from the woman about the Kingdom of God. It changed Jesus. We know the old proverb, “the day you can no longer change is the day you stop being a human being.” We know for sure that this day Jesus’ outlook is lifted to something new. The boundaries of Kingdom of God are extended to include the outsiders.
And so, can Jesus be our example?
Shall we dare to let our outlooks be changed too. Embodying the love of God, we are to truly engage with the world around us and let our encounters with the world shape and reshape our understanding of the Sacred.
According to Matthew that is a Jesus thing to do. A brave and faithful woman challenges Jesus, and he discovers, and we discover too, that it does not matter whether we are a Canaanite, from Tyre or Sidon or anywhere else. All those boundaries and barriers we make so much of ethnicity, class, nationality, upbringing—so many barriers, so many divisions—none of them matter. What matters is the person before God—every single person.
As St Paul puts it, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male, or female. The dividing wall of hostility is broken down in Christ. It’s hard to think of God’s grace as leftovers, but isn’t that what this story says? There are enough leftovers for ALL.