Matthew 15: 21-28
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyreand Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,
“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
He said in reply,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply,
“It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
“O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
In today’s Gospel, we’re confronted with a Jesus who on first reading appears to be parochial, judgmental, exclusionary and rude. In response to the Canaanite woman’s impassioned plea, he at first ignores her. When his disciples importune him to send her away, Jesus seems to confirm a judgment that the woman is unworthy of his help or attention on account of her race. Jesus then insults the woman directly, calling her a “dog.” In Semitic culture, dogs are considered filthy creatures, objects of contempt, on par with pigs. Imagine someone saying to your wife or mother, “I don’t give good food to pigs like you!” Fighting words! What could possibly be going on here?
A clue can be found in the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel reading. At the beginning of Matthew 15, Pharisees approach Jesus and demand to know why some of his followers don’t wash their hands before meals, as prescribed in the Jewish ceremonial law. The Pharisees were a kind of Jewish Taliban who made it their business to keep tabs on everyone’s conformance to the ritual law. As usual, Jesus turns the tables on them, demonstrating that the Pharisees themselves routinely break the commandments of God in order to keep their man-made traditions. He then turns to the nearby crowd, and says, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth is what defiles them.” Jesus’ disciples don’t even hear him. They’re too busy worrying about what the important people think. They say, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended by what you said?” To which Jesus replies, “Let them alone; they are blind guides (of the blind). If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit.”
Okay, let’s return to today’s story: In response to the Canaanite woman’s fervent pleas, Jesus has said, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” The woman, undaunted and not offended in the least, replies, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” At this, Jesus relents and declares, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
In context, it’s clear that Jesus is not in fact being exclusionary or rude (although it might have seemed that way to a passing observer). Instead, he appears to be mocking the self-righteous words and attitudes of the Pharisees; and not just the Pharisees, but the disciples themselves, who are still in thrall to the same ossified tradition. The Canaanite woman is the first non-Jew Jesus has encountered in his public ministry. His followers expect him, the Son of David, to reject a Gentile. Instead, his words are a verbal deconstruction of the offense – the skandalon – that springs from religion based on entitlement, legalism and false righteousness. Writing about this episode in his book, “The Scandal of the Gospels,” David McCracken notes,
“The Pharisees are offended; the Canaanite woman is not offended. The stark contrast is revelatory, for the opposite of offense is faith, but the only way to faith is through the possibility of offense … The central issue is offense versus faith. And it is posed in a highly offensive way: pious and law-abiding Pharisees lack faith, and a Gentile dog has great faith. What Jesus said to John the Baptist’s disciples in Matthew 11:6 broods over this narrative as a kind of suspended challenge to the characters in the text and to readers of the text: ‘Blessed is anyone who takes no offense [skandalon] at me.’”
In the verses immediately following today’s reading. Jesus returns to the Sea of Galilee, where he climbs a hill and begins to teach. Soon, thousands of ordinary people come out to meet and hear him. They bring the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others; all the “unworthy” detritus of the human family. These are the ones of whom Jesus says time and again, “great is your faith.” They’re the ones with nothing left but that faith and no recourse but Christ. They aren’t offended when Jesus teaches with authority, when he heals, or later, when he feeds every last one of them with a few leftover fish and loaves of bread. May we always be found in their company, unoffended by God’s love, which is offered graciously to us and to the whole world.