This is a passage that can be very difficult to understand. It helps to look closely at some of the geographic details in the text and think about what they would mean to a Jewish person in the time of Christ.
First of all, let’s look at where Jesus and his disciples are located as the curtain goes up: they are “the district of Tyre and Sidon”. That’s Gentile territory: non-Jewish people, different language, different culture, different religion. They are outside their comfort zone, beyond the pale of ordinary experience, behind enemy lines in unfamiliar territory. If this were the Wizard of Oz, this would be the part where Dorothy says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
Let’s go a little deeper down the rabbit hole, shall we? While Jesus is in this unknown territory, he is approached by a woman with a problem. And this is not just any Gentile woman: Matthew tells us that she was a Canaanite.
This is an important detail because the Canaanites were the historic enemies of the people of Israel. In the OId Testament, when the Israelites took possession of the Promised Land, the Canaanites were their main competition. Moses very specifically commands the Israelites to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites and “show them no mercy.” And that’s exactly what they went on to do. The Old Testament book of Joshua tells the story of the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land and the slaughter of the Canaanites. That was how the people of Israel historically dealt with their enemies: kill, purge, and destroy.
If we read the history of just about any human culture, we’ll find the same kind of thing going on: the heretics and the heathen get burned at the stake while the chosen people emerge victorious from the struggle. People fear what they don’t understand and therefore try to get rid of it by any means necessary.
This story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is supposed to remind us of that ancient conflict. Just like the book of Joshua, a small band of Jewish people ventures into foreign territory and meets a Canaanite.
At first, the encounter goes pretty much like one would expect: the unknown outsider (i.e. the Canaanite woman) is ignored then insulted. Jesus at first seems to play right into the hands of his disciples’ racial prejudice: calling her a “dog” and proclaiming that only Jewish people can be the beneficiaries of his ministry.
The encounter itself is interesting. The Canaanite woman addresses Jesus three times and gets three responses. The first two responses go pretty much how one would expect, given the deep-seated animosity between Jews and Canaanites, but the third response is different.
First, she shouts rather obnoxiously, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” It’s interesting that she says, “Have mercy on me” given that Moses’ specific command to the Israelites when dealing with Canaanites is “show them no mercy.” She is asking Jesus for something that goes directly against his cultural and religious beliefs. By asking for mercy, she’s even going against what it says in the Bible (Deut. 7:2). Jesus responds politely but firmly, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The second time she addresses him, she really gets in the way, kneeling down and blocking his path, begging, “Lord, help me.” And Jesus is pretty much done with being polite at this point. He calls her a “dog” and says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This line from Jesus is part of what makes this passage so hard to read. We modern people like to think of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” who “loves the little children of the world,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. It seems like Jesus has simply internalized his own culture’s prejudice against Canaanites.
There are two ways that scholars have tried to deal with this problem:
One group says that Jesus was speaking sarcastically or ironically here (i.e. that he didn’t mean what he said). They say that Jesus was only imitating the cultural biases of his time in order to coax the woman out and demonstrate the greatness of her faith.
The other group sees this as a time when Jesus actually changes his mind and even grows in his understanding of his mission. Unfortunately, the text itself gives no indication as to which of these views is correct, so I leave it to you to decide which one makes more sense to you.
As far as the story itself is concerned, the core issue in Jesus’ comment about dogs is how it sets the Canaanite woman up for the third and final thing she says to Jesus. First she shouted, then she blocked his path, and finally she outright defies him, saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Personally, I like to imagine that Jesus busted out laughing at this point. Her statement is both witty and bold. And whether he saw it all along or was just realizing it for the first time, Jesus recognizes this boldness as pure faith.
This woman is desperate and will do anything to help her daughter. She may not be Jewish, she may not know much about this Messiah theology, she may not even have any legal right to talk to him, but the love she has for her suffering daughter leads her to color outside the lines, transgress cultural norms, forget her manners at the door, and put up with all kinds of offensive insults: all because she has this hunch that Jesus might be able to help.
I think Jesus was impressed. As they say: “three times the charm” and that was certainly the case for her. This conversation is the only time I know of in the entire Bible when someone else seems to win an argument against Jesus. After this third address, Jesus agrees to help her and a new age is born as a result.
As we’ve already noted, the normal human way of dealing with heretics and heathen is to burn them at the stake: show no mercy, purge their filth from the land, utterly destroy the enemy. This is the way of the world, is it not? I dare anyone to watch the nightly news and tell me differently.
But Jesus represents a different way. Just like Joshua in the Old Testament, Jesus will conquer the land of Canaan as well, but he will do it with healing instead of killing; giving life instead of taking life; mercy instead of wrath.
This is how Christ the King conquers the world: outsiders become insiders, sinners become saints, and enemies become friends. Victory for Jesus comes, not when the vile Canaanites are purged from the Promised Land, but when they are incorporated into the family of God’s chosen people.
And if this is how Christ the King conquers the world, then it should affect the way we, his followers, carry out his orders. For example: we know from the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel that Christ commands his Church to bring the Gospel to “the ends of the earth” and “make disciples of all nations.” If we were to follow this command using the tactics that the world uses, we would fight and argue with those who disagree with us; we would lobby for political power and use the state as a weapon to force our beliefs upon others; we would torture heretics and burn pagans at the stake.
If we’re honest, or if we simply read history books, we have to admit that Christians have done all of those things at one time or another in the name of Jesus. Some Christians are still doing it today. They think they are fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission by conquering in his name, but the truth is that such tactics can only win battles; they cannot win hearts.
If we are to be the Church of Christ and preach the Gospel of Christ, we must use the means Christ used. He led the way with love, he led the way with healing, he led the way by welcoming the outcast, forgiving the sinner, feeding the hungry, and bringing new life to the dead. As his Church, we are called to do the same without arguing or fighting, without lobbying for political power, without forcing our beliefs upon others, without crusades, inquisitions, and witch hunts. Those methods belong to the ways of the world, not the way of Christ.
We are called to win the hearts and souls of people through acts of mercy. We are called to demonstrate in our own lives that another world is possible: a world where entire kingdoms belong to the poor, where those who mourn are comforted, where the meek inherit the earth, where those who hunger for justice are hungry no more, where mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking are valued traits because these are traits of the children of God.
Brothers and sisters, we are already doing this. Here in this parish, we have discovered something that scientists cannot measure, engineers cannot plan, and advertisers cannot package and sell: We have discovered the healing power of loving in the name of Christ. We think too little of ourselves because it comes so naturally to us that we think it’s no big deal. For us, this is simply business-as-usual.
The world, for its part, ignores us because it can’t see the value in having lunch together, in going bowling with a group of mentally ill people, or in spending more time in the liturgy praying than preaching.
The world doesn’t get it. Those things make no sense to the world. The world only wants well-crafted plans and measurable results.
But Christ sees things differently: as it says in the Bible, “the Lord looks not on appearances, but on the heart.” Christ looks into the heart of North Church and the Togetherness Group and sees his own heart staring back. We are doing his work in his way.
We are being the Church, we are preaching the gospel, and (when absolutely necessary) we might even use words too.