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Today’s reading does not portray Jesus as the one we have come to know – treating this woman in this way, comparing her to a dog begging for scraps. When I was researching this passage I was amazed at what I found – so many different angles, and theologians trying to explain away this passage, trying to find an explanation that fits with the Jesus we know. Be clear just how severe these words from Jesus’ mouth are. Perhaps that’s why the lectionary compilers suggest it be used as part of a longer passage, it doesn’t seem quite so hard then. The hurt is in the word “dog.”
We live in a society that holds dogs in high esteem. We refer to them as like our children, or as “best friend” … they come to church with us – our dogs are beloved. We sentimentalize and 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’s in the book of Tobit—not a very well known scripture! Every other reference portrays them as scavenging annoyances.
In the land where Jesus lived, dogs had a very low social standing. We can imagine in that time and place there would be dogs, running loose. Almost all of them scrawny and roaming about sifting and sniffing through rubbish, and on the lookout for food to steal.
These dogs walk among the children playing in the street, it is clear that they are not anyone’s beloved pets – They are just kind of there … and for the most part they are barely tolerated and or ignored. Mothers who have little enough to feed their children don’t give food to the stray dogs.
That’s the kind of worldview from which Jesus makes his comment to the Gentile woman in our Gospel this morning. She asks for him to bring healing to her daughter and he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel… It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
A prophet ministering outside the boundaries of Israel is like a mother who would deny food to her children and feed it to stray dogs instead. There’s no way you can make that a comfortable remark. I know lots of people have tried—they’ve said he was testing her faith; that he was stretching her courage in way that was good for her. But I think not. Why not hear it simply as it is?
Jesus is less than eager to help this woman, explaining that his mission is first to the house of Israel. However, Jesus is the one who has left Jewish territory and invaded this woman’s world. Furthermore, this Canaanite woman — an unclean, outsider — demonstrates that she has a better grasp of Jesus’ identity than the hand-selected disciples do at this point in the narrative. Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman unsettles boundaries and calls into question definitions of clean and unclean. Certainly such harsh words aren’t what we expect from Jesus. The analogy he uses doesn’t reflect the inclusiveness that we believe is part and parcel of his understanding of God and the world.
This Jesus who, most of the time, we find welcoming sinners and tax collectors, touching lepers, and associating with people other people wouldn’t even give the time of day—here says something that is harsh, discriminatory and insulting. Yes, Jesus was a person of his time—a first-century Jew born into a world of boundaries, discrimination and exclusion. It’s so easy to idealize him in a completely unrealistic way. He was a person of his time. That’s what being a person is—it goes with the territory of incarnation.
But maybe the point of this story in Matthew is for us to see that Jesus is human. This is a Jesus who learns and develops—like any of us. This is a Jesus who has to respond to what goes on around him—like any of us. This is a Jesus who doesn’t know everything—like any of us. This is a Jesus who is genuinely human.
But look at the nature of his humanity. He’s like us – many of us, no matter how hard we try, let our personal prejudices, our personal likes and dislikes, rule our responses. It’s hard to step aside from those things and see some new possibility outside our own frames of reference. We have to be cajoled and persuaded into the effort. The truth of that is easily seen in the disciples’ reaction. To them the woman is clearly beyond the bounds; a nuisance they want to be rid of.
Jesus does the other thing. He actually lets the nuisance engage him. The brave woman, however, comes back at him powerfully. She is not deterred. She claims a place in the household, but it is a not a position of privilege or even the position of an insider. She accepts the status of a family’s dog by claiming that even the dog enjoys crumbs from the table.
Her statement is striking. She places hope in what others have discarded. She seems to know that this Son of David has so much power that there is enough power for the house of Israel and more than enough left over for her. She is not trying to thwart his mission.
She just wants a crumb, recognizing that even a crumb is powerful enough to defeat the demon that has possessed her daughter.
Jesus praises her faith. This woman seems to understand what the members of the household of Israel have yet to grasp. Jesus is not just hope for Israel, but hope for the world.
And in the encounter Jesus changes—that’s what humans are really good at when they are brave enough to chance it.
The woman teaches Jesus something new about the Kingdom—she widens its inclusion to be genuinely inclusive. And Jesus realizes the truth of it: ‘Woman, great is your faith!’
Somebody said, the day you can no longer change is the day you stop being a human being. Well, Jesus is a human being, and this day he changes. His outlook, his worldview we might call it now, is lifted to something new. Let Jesus be our example: we must dare to let our outlooks be changed too. We must dare to truly engage with the world and let life’s encounters work with what we know of God and so shape our living and understanding. According to Matthew the gospel writer in this difficult story, that is a Jesus thing to do.
In the passage that immediately precedes this story, Jesus responds to challenges from the scribes and Pharisees by reframing the boundaries of clean and unclean. In 15:18, Jesus declares that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and what comes out of the heart determines what makes one clean. What comes out of the Canaanite woman’s heart is faith — certainty that Jesus has power enough for Israel and power enough to save her non-Israelite daughter.
Her words demonstrate that the boundary separating her from the house of Israel must be reconsidered. With a faith so pure, how can she be deemed unclean? The encounter with the Canaanite woman prepares the reader for Jesus’ great commission to go and to make disciples of all the nations.
This brave and faithful woman challenges Jesus, and he discovers, and we discover too, that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Canaanite from Tyre or Sidon or anywhere else. All those boundaries and barriers we make so much of: ethnicity, class, nationality, sexuality, financial status, upbringing—so many barriers, so many divisions—none of them matter to God. What matters is the person before God—every single person. Reading Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman reminds the church that God is constantly entering new territory and breaking boundaries.
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. This God is in the unsettling business of meeting outsiders and granting them not just a crumb, but a place at the table.