Even the dogs
Of all the events in Jesus’ ministry, it might be that this is the encounter that leaves us most confused.
He meets a gentile, a Canaanite woman, in desperate need of help for her afflicted daughter, and his response is first to ignore her – explicitly because of her race – and then, when she forces him to respond, he compares her with a dog.
I always used to take a rather guilty pleasure going to Church when I knew that this passage was the lectionary reading. Wondering just how the preacher is going to deal with one of the least attractive portrayals of Jesus that we have anywhere in the gospels.
I’ve heard preachers (when they didn’t take the easy option, and preach from the Old Testament reading) explain that Jesus was testing the woman, or using her to teach his disciples. I’ve heard it said that Jesus was making a joke when he referred to her as a dog. Anything to avoid the implication that Jesus was, in this moment, uncertain about what to do, and fell back on the prejudices of his people.
But I suspect that trying to make the story make sense like that is missing the point of what the author was trying to do. I suspect they told this story in this provocative, difficult way, for a reason.
In the first half of Matthew 15 we find Jesus coming into contention with the religious leaders of his day, criticising the Pharisees for their obsession with the details of the food laws and neglecting deeper matters of justice, misunderstanding what sin really looked like in God’s eyes.
There’s more than a hint here that Jesus is starting to be disillusioned with the understanding of God that the religious leaders of his people were offering.
So Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. But even there, Jesus could not escape notice. His reputation was bigger than that, and a gentile woman came to seek his help.
His first response – well, very unusually for Jesus, his first response seems uncertain. “He didn’t answer her at all”.
The disciples, on the other hand, knew exactly what he should do as a Jewish Rabbi, a follower of the law of Moses passionately committed to calling his people back to the worship of the one true God. They want Jesus to turn away this annoying foreigner, the woman who is not from the people of God, who just keeps shouting at them.
And it seems as if that sense of who he is as Messiah of the Jews wins out: he agrees with the disciples “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”, and responds to her with rejection: “It is not fair,” he says, “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But whether it was because of her sheer desperation, or some hint of doubt – or even invitation – in his words, as if he was almost willing her to convince him; whatever the reason, she persisted.
“OK. But don’t even the dogs get to eat?”
Until this moment this woman was an annoying distraction; a foreigner, not one of the people Jesus had been sent to call; an irritation, with her pestering shouts.
And then she changes. Like one of those optical illusions, where all you can see is a duck, until it’s obviously a rabbit.
Now, suddenly, she wasn’t “a Canaanite woman”; now she was “Woman” – now she was “woman of great faith”. Her nationality had ceased to matter.
Nationality had ceased to matter to Jesus.
So why would Matthew tell this story, this way?
We know that there were those in the early Church for whom Jesus’ status as the Jewish Messiah was the most important truth; and Matthew’s gospel is written for them – indeed, Matthew is one of them. This gospel tells of Jesus as the perfect Jew – he keeps the law, he doesn’t dine with gentiles, he doesn’t break the Sabbath. All the stories in which Jesus bends or breaks the law of Moses are found in the other gospels, not in Matthew. He condemns the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, but he also asserts that not the smallest part of the law will ever pass away.
For Matthew Jesus is all about Judaism as it was supposed to be.
And in this tradition, the sense that the Messiah was sent ‘only for the lost sheep of Israel’ was very strong. The Messiah was the restorer of Israel, not a universal saviour. The Messiah would return the people of Israel to what they were supposed to be. God’s people, chosen and called and set apart for God.
For those readers the first reaction to the Jewish Messiah confronted by a gentile would be the same as that of the disciples – ‘send her away’.
And yet the Jewish tradition contained not just the tradition of the law, but also the tradition of the prophets. And so we heard from Isaiah today:
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…
…their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the revelation of God in the scriptures isn’t a single straight line, a set of propositions.
The revelation of God in the scriptures is an argument. It’s “it is written… and it is also written…”. It’s different perspectives, different insights, different images, each contributing to this great debate in which we learn about God, not in the side that wins, but in the struggle to understand.
So I suspect that Matthew, telling the story as he does, is showing Jesus as entering that struggle, and by doing so encouraging his readers to move towards the same conclusions as he did. To take a step out of their focus on being God’s holy people.
Or not so much out of their focus as to enlarge their focus; to include in it this other aspect of their calling, to remember that being God’s holy people was meant to be for something. That they weren’t called to be God’s people as an end, but a means to the end – making God known to the world, bringing God’s blessing to the world.
That they were blessed to be a blessing.
That they were God’s people so that others might know and experience the love of God as well.
And that, I think, is the place where this step that Jesus took should resonate with us.
We find Jesus struggling with the idea that the gospel is not just for the Jews, but for the world, hard to make sense of, because we just take that truth for granted. We grew up assuming it, knowing it. That’s not a sticking point for us.
But I wonder if we’ve also grown up with another image of what it means to be God’s people, to be the Church, which just divides the world into us and them along a different axis.
It seems to me that we, in the parts of the Church which don’t strongly identify as ‘evangelical’ have, consciously or not, adopted an understanding of faith in which it is for us, for those who identify with Christianity, with the Church, with the story of Jesus.
An understanding in which we are called to share the blessings of God with those outside our doors, in loving service, in works of justice, in acts of generosity.
An understanding in which the Christian story, the Jesus story, is a story that empowers us in these acts of service: but is a story for us as individuals, and as a community; the story itself seems not to be of relevance or interest to those outside, those we serve.
In which we forget that the great commission wasn’t “go and serve all nations”, but “go and make disciples of all nations”.
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs,” the Canaanite woman challenged Jesus. If we have tasted the gospel and seen that it is good, if we value the story of Jesus and what it means in our lives, if we eat and drink at the table of good news, don’t those not at the table at least deserve an invitation to share the feast?
Jesus, as Matthew relates today’s gospel, was challenged to see the gentile woman as worthy of being included in the blessings of Jesus.
We know everyone is. But maybe our challenge is whether we see everyone as worthy of being included in the story of Jesus.