“Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
Before we go into much detail about this passage, I want to give an overview of its context, which will help us understand the meaning Matthew is emphasizing. Matthew is using a series of vignettes that unfold the meaning of Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew 14, Jesus feeds the 5,000, then walks on the water and saves Peter as he sinks. Jesus continues to exhibit his authority with multiple healings and his teaching against the Pharisees. The immediate context of this narrative is Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees. He has just declared that it is the heart that makes a man clean. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness blasphemies” (15:19). The disciples let Jesus know that Pharisees are scandalized, which Jesus accepts and goes farther: he warns them to leave those blind guides. Though leaders, they are blind to God’s call of reforming the heart: their actions prove the wicked state of their hearts. Immediately Matthew records Jesus going to Tyre and Sidon, an area outside of Israel. A Canaanite women notices him and we get a vision of what a heart devoted to God really looks like, albeit from a woman. A Canaanite woman at that. Remember that the Canaanites were Israel’s bitter enemies since the time of Joshua. Jesus heals her daughter after she displays great faith and humility, providing a contrast to Peter’s lack of faith while walking on water. As a result, Jesus gives her the crumbs from the master’s table. Notice the imagery of food and feeding. Matthew echoes this in the next story: the feeding of the four thousand at the end of 15. This meal unfolds in part what Jesus meant about feeding his children and forms a nice chiastic structure with the beginning of 14. All of these stories are woven together to confirm and reinforce the authority of Jesus. But the authority to do what? The Gospel message from this morning will help us understand. . .
Where are we? Tyre and Sidon are far from the normal action in Matthew, and an area not under Jewish influence. Here a Canaanite woman approaches him, begging him to help her. Her initial requests are met with silence from Jesus. It is his disciples who feel additional pity on her and demand that Jesus does something. I am of the opinion that their insistence to send her away is a plea for Jesus to do what she asks so that she will be quiet. Responding to them he says, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel”(Mt 15:24). The response is not meant to be harsh–Jesus knows his ministry and to whom he is sent: the lost sheep of Israel, a significant word choice. This passage echoes Ezekiel 34, a passage highlighting the promise of a messiah, a savior for Israel:
And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them.(Ez 34:22-24)
Jesus is the new David, the Good Shepherd whose mission on earth is to bring salvation to the people of Israel. This should be not surprising–God has chosen to work through particular people in particular times in particular places to bring redemption to the whole world. [What some refer to as the scandal of particularity] Jesus’ silence towards the woman and his declaration of his mission is as scandalous as God declaring that Israel was his special children in the OT.
But the woman is not deterred, and we get to witness an extraordinary act of God. She comes back, this time making right to the feet of Jesus. She is quite persistent and yet humble. We know from the disciples that she was loud and insistent. Even in the ancient world, this type of behavior was shameful, and it is odd that she and not her husband is making this plea. The story of the centurion who pleads for his daughter’s life as the pater familias, or even in the case of Jairus, provide striking contrasts. Her admission that her daughter had an evil spirit might provide some reason for her presence. We can remember from other NT passages the assumptions surrounding evil spirits: family sin, insanity, personal fault, social shame, etc. This woman’s openness concerning her family inevitably brought shame and humiliation upon herself and also shame upon her family. I say this to show her apparent desperation–her sole purpose is to find healing for her daughter, social pressures are forgotten. In this we see the power of her humility.
And yet, Jesus is more surprised by her actual request than her humility. Why is her request so odd? Remember that we are in an area not dominated by Jews, it is incredible that she not only recognizes Jesus, but names him as the Son of David. Within the context of Ezekiel 34, which Jesus had just referenced Matthew is indicating, by having the women say Son of David that she is acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah, and yet the Messiah for Israel. Therefore, Jesus’ reply, ” It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs” is not ridicule. Jesus’ use of the word dog is not pointed at her directly, but was a common term Jews used for Gentiles. This might surprise us that Jesus is using a racial slur, but in the least it should remind us just how Jewish Jesus was. He is surprise that this Gentile knows his role for Israel. One commentator paraphrases Jesus’ comment: “If, as you say, I am the Son of David, the shepherd who was King of Israel, I was sent to find my lost sheep and am not sent to you. So I am surprised that you recognize me.”
The Canaanite woman is not deterred and proves her humility and faith. She knows that she does not deserve the miraculous healing of the Jewish messiah and accepts her position as a Gentile, separated from the Jews. In her humble reply (Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.), she is the one grabbing the crumbs under the table. Notice how she has now put herself in the role of the dog, not begrudgingly either. Jesus refers to the Jewish people as children (It is not meet to take the children’s bread), but she refers to them as her masters ( yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table). She has accepted that position, her own being, does not merit healing. It is as if she says, “Yes, Lord, I am considered a dog. I know I am not your child. I do not merit your full blessing as your children do, but what I ask is small.”
The Canaanite woman accepted her state of being as an outsider, a Gentile, and she begged for a miracle. This is not just a cry for mercy but the ultimate cry for hope, the anticipation and looking forward to God’s finality not only for ourselves but for all of creation — it is the lenten cry. This cry of hope looks for the healing of her daughter, the restoration of sickness and power over the devil. But it also is a hope in God’s love for all people, including the Gentiles. It is a hope that her prayers will be heard and that she will changed ontologically from a dog to a child. It is hope that part of God’s plan includes an ontological change for all people.
Because of this, the Canaanite woman is often seen as a type/symbol of the Church and her daughter is a symbol of the Gentiles. She brings Jesus to heal her daughter just as the Church woks to bring Jesus to the Gentiles. The woman goes to Jesus because he has authority, just as the Church submits to Jesus’ authority: the authority to change a man’s own being, to change us from dogs to God’s own children. This was the Cannaanite woman’s expectation, her hope! Out of his love, Jesus wants to make men new creations, through baptism, and thereby dwell within them. This is the hope of the Church: the anticipation that God’s will, His finality will be done for us and all creation. It is not a wishful hope (Oh, I hope UVa will win this year…) but a grounded assurance, an anchor for our faith. This is the hope we foster during Lent. We repent knowing that God seeks to forgive. We fast knowing that we are freed from our lusts. We abstain knowing that Jesus provides for us. We pray knowing that we are heard. We hope knowing that Jesus has the authority to change us from dogs to become children of God, heirs of his kingdom.
The Canaanite woman is a great example for our Lenten approach. We must begin with seeking out Jesus, getting to know him as she did. Do we know him as the Son of David? Do we know him as Healer? or Messiah? Being fed at the Eucharist, eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood is key. Reading the scriptures daily will help us get to know Jesus. She also provides us with perhaps the greatest Lenten challenge of all. In Lent it is easy to focus on our sins and shame (which are undeniable). It is easy to think of ourselves as dogs, trash, useless. But if we learn anything from the Canaanite woman, let us learn our position as men and women loved by God, an object of his devotion. During this Lent we are given time once again to fall down at Jesus’ feet in humility so that He might say to us: