Our two border terriers sit under the table when we are eating. They don’t beg, but they happily hoover up whatever accidentally falls on the floor. The crumbs under the table are rich pickings for a dog.
So with that in mind, let’s turn to Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Just before this, he had been arguing with the Pharisees. Their complicated food laws were a vital part of their Jewish self-identity – keeping themselves pure and holy in order to be able to meet the perfectly pure and holy God
Jesus redefined purity as a state of being, not a set of dietary rules. ‘It’s not what goes in the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out.’
This is radical stuff, but at first glance it seems as though Jesus doesn’t follow through with his own argument. A Gentile woman pushes her way through to Jesus, hoping he might heal her daughter. ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
Does Jesus rush to her house to make her daughter well? No, he doesn’t. And in fact he does quite the opposite. His reply to her is quite shocking. The woman and her daughter are not his concern. They’re not the sheep of his pasture. They’re nothing but a pack of dogs.
This is quite difficult for us to hear, because it’s not what we expect to hear Jesus saying. And many people have tried to explain what was going on. One idea you’ll often hear is that Jesus was just a product of his own time and place – that Jesus was perhaps even a bit of a racist – and that he was himself taught a lesson by that Canaanite woman.
Well I’m not convinced. After all, Jesus is and continues to be the Son of God. In taking on our humanity, he did undoubtedly have to learn many things. But surely one thing that Jesus did not need to learn was the truth about right and wrong. Jesus is the Truth, and he continued at all times to hear his Father’s voice. So this was not a lesson Jesus needed to hear.
What, then, is going on in this encounter with the woman? Notice first of all that Jesus had a similar meeting previously, with a centurion seeking healing for his servant. A Gentile looking for help on behalf of someone else, initially given a cautious response but eventually commended enthusiastically for his faith.
Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels. Jesus says that he has come to the lost sheep of Israel. And yet throughout the gospel, non-Jews are grafted in. Gentiles are included in the opening genealogy. The magi visit Jesus at his birth. The start of his ministry is heralded as the dawning of light to Galilee of the Gentiles. His ministry continues in Syria and the Greek cities of the Decapolis.
‘Truly I tell you’, Jesus says to the centurion – but he could easily have said it to the Canaanite woman – ‘many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.’
Notice next that the woman is insistent. She doesn’t take no for an answer. She throws Jesus’ own words back at him. We may be dogs – but surely we can have the leftovers, the crumbs from the table?
That reminds me of the feeding of the five thousand in just the previous chapter. Even after the crowds had been fed, there were still enough crumbs left to fill twelve baskets.
In Isaiah, God says that ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrestles with how God continues to be faithful to Israel even while reaching out to embrace the rest of the world.
Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. But through him, God’s grace overflows to the Gentiles – from Jesus to Jerusalem and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
And notice, finally, that it is not Jesus who turns the Canaanite woman away, but his disciples. If anyone needs to learn a lesson about welcome and inclusion, it is not Jesus but his followers.
Talk of dogs and crumbs brings to mind the prayer – ‘We do not presume to come to this your table … We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs.’
If we do presume to come to Jesus, then he hears our prayers. We are not worthy, but fortunately we do not need to be worthy. It is God’s love that compels us to come in. God’s nature is always to have mercy – not just crumbs, but Jesus the Bread of Life.
- Does coming to church feel like getting crumbs from under the Master’s table, or like feasting on the Bread of Life?
- Who does your church inadvertently send away instead of welcoming them in to meet Jesus?