Throwing the Children’s Bread to the Dogs
And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word…
As disturbing as this scene is, it gets worse before it gets better. “He answered her not a word?” Imagine that: Jesus “answered her not a word.” And when it became clear to everyone that she was not about to go away the King of Love spoke:
“It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and throw it to dogs.”
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs…”
Sometime back I told you that one of my chief aims as your priest is to encourage, to help advance your personal belief and confidence in the Catholic Faith, and that means to deepen your trust in the Bible. I want you to discover the wholeness, the connectedness, as well as the sometimes embarrassing and strange nature of the New Testament narratives. I said then that I want us to get over the picture of Jesus as the tamed teacher of wisdom living one day at a time cheerfully accepting everyone just as they are and bringing the best out of one and all. If there is any passage that reveals that romantic picture of Jesus to not square with historical reality – this is the one. And for that I am grateful.
To understand what is going on here and to find some application to our common life, if any exist, we need to attend to the context. Set and setting, text in context, is always the place to start. Chapter 15 of Matthew begins with an argument between Jesus and a delegation from Jerusalem over what had become a major irritant for the Pharisees. The delegation stated their complaint:
“Why do your disciples transgress the traditions of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”
This was not a disagreement over etiquette; it had to do with the worship of God. Every meal is a meal of thanksgiving, an act of worship, from the point-of-view of the Pharisees. They wanted to bring Temple holiness into the streets. To forsake ritual purification was tantamount to disrespecting God. But Jesus challenged the ritual purification pushed by the Pharisees on two grounds: First this ritual is not a requirement of Moses’ Law, and secondly these Pharisees have loopholes to avoid the Laws they don’t like. “Furthermore,” Jesus spoke directly to the delegation, “you all are hypocrites.” The word he used was first applied to actors who performed behind masks. In other words, he accused them of practicing the art of appearing to be what they were not. Jesus disciples were concerned that he had publically shamed these important and influential men from Jerusalem.
This account is found in Mark Chapter 7 as well. Mark’s account is older. And tradition has it that Mark’s Gospel is Peter’s Gospel. Irenaeus wrote that after Peter’s death, one of his disciples, named Mark, “did also hand down to us, in writing, what had been preached by Peter.”
Notice this is all about food. In the argument with the Pharisees, once Jesus dismisses them – to their face – as hypocrites he unloads this bombshell:
“Not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth defiles a man.”
Why is that a bombshell? Sounds rather ambiguous doesn’t it? Not really. Mark interprets this saying of Jesus for us:
“There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him…”
Then comes the meaning in verse 19, the bombshell:
“Thus he declared all foods clean!”
Let’s stop here for a moment. Please see the unity, the agreement – this canonical bond of harmony – that is part of the New Testament. There has been way too much made of the conflicts between Peter and James and Paul – some going so far as to assert they represent two diametrically opposed versions of Christianity. Not true! Right here Peter has drawn the radical conclusion that Jesus has done away with the Law in Leviticus 11-15 regarding unclean foods. Peter, like Paul, understood that, from now on, no food is unclean. Yes, it took decades for the Church to understand this; yes it took decades to work it out practically – but here it is, plain as day, in the first written Gospel. Paul learned this, not in some night vision, but just like Peter learned it – from the teachings of Jesus himself.
And now we are ready to move on from the discussion of purity to our Lord’s encounter with this Gentile woman. Having declared Leviticus 11-15 null and void, Jesus then traveled to Gentile territory for some rest and private teaching time with his chosen band.
Nothing I have said lessens the harshness of what Jesus said to the woman. She was a Gentile. “Heal my daughter, please!” she pleads. Jesus snubbed her. But she would not give up. She was desperate and she believed with all her heart that Jesus could and would heal her daughter – she would not take “no” for an answer.
Jesus’ disciples wanted him to heal her daughter in order to get rid of her. Jesus answers his disciples:
“I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The woman then fell on her knees and worshipped him:
“Lord, help me.”
Jesus addressed her for the first time:
“It is not right to take the children’s bread, and throw it to dogs.”
In the Mark’s account Jesus said:
“Let the children first be fed…”
Then the woman, on her knees, said:
“True, Lord. But even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus concludes the event by addressing the woman directly:
“O Woman! (The word he used to address his Mother! A title of respect.) O Woman! Great is your faith! Your daughter is made whole!”
I am absolutely convinced that this happened just the way it is described in Mark and Matthew. There are some who say that the story was made up by the early Church to justify the Gentile mission. If the Church were going to make up stories, she could have done a better job. For starters, remove that detail about Jesus calling a Gentile woman a dog. You don’t need a workshop on how to win friends and influence people to know that calling someone a dog is not going to win their hearts. No one made this up. We have entered into an authentic apostolic memory of life with Jesus – odd, weird, and disturbing as it is. This is the genuine article!
This still does not soften what Jesus said. Well meaning scholars have offered explanations for his use of the word “dog,” none of which really satisfy me. Here is what we know from the text: Jesus does not address the woman directly till the end. Earlier, he directly addressed the delegation from Jerusalem: “You are all hypocrites!” He did not address this woman in that manner. He did not say, “You are a dog.” He is certainly stating (to his disciples?) there are two categories: the children (Israel) and dogs (Gentiles). The statement to the Pharisees is unmistakably personalized. The statement to the woman is abstract, generalized. Why?
Jesus is in Gentile territory. Can you recall any occasion when a crowd of Gentiles came to Jesus seeking to worship him? No? There is one occasion in the New Testament. All the other crowds, in the wilderness, pouring out of the little villages of Galilee, filling the highway to Jerusalem – all those crowds are Jews. All but one at the very end. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, only hours before his arrest and passion St. John records this:
“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. They came to Philip: “Sir, we would to see Jesus.” Philip told Jesus. And Jesus answered, “Now the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified…”
He did not receive the Greeks. He was crucified instead. What is my point? Timing has a lot to do with this. Had Gentiles come to him earlier, in Gentile territory, like Tyre and had he received Gentiles as a group, his identity as Israel’s Messiah would be in doubt. His first duty was to keep God’s covenantal promise to the Israel. As St. Paul would write: “To the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Over and over again Jesus heals and blesses individual Gentiles who come to him, but he does not receive a group of Gentiles because his mission, at this time, is different:
“I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, said that when he was rejected by Israel and nailed to the cross, he would draw the whole world to himself. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the resurrected Lord of Life commissioned his Church to go into the whole world and make disciples. Gentiles like us became heirs to the Promises made to Abraham. But God has not made us his pets – his lap pups. We are transformed, not into the Children of Abraham, but the unthinkable has occurred – we are now the Children of God, the siblings of Jesus Christ our Savior.