Healing from Feelings of Unworthiness
". . . even the dogs eat the crumbs . . ."
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."
But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."
He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
"Throw it to the dogs"—I have always found these words, and this whole story, difficult to digest. Why did Jesus call this woman a dog? This doesn't sound like a message from the Lord of Love. Facing this and other such challenging passages can send us spiraling into a whirlpool of doubts. Arriving at the conclusion that the allloving God couldn't possibly utter such words, we may feel forced to believe either that Jesus didn't actually say these words or that Jesus isn't actually God. In either case, our faith is compromised. We might get so upset at Jesus's words that we overlook the fact that he healed the woman's daughter according to her fervent request.
It is important that we come to understand why Jesus spoke as he did. When we face a difficult story like this, it is an opportunity to increase our conscious contact with God. If left unresolved, doubts in our Lord or his Word will likely dilute our faith. But if we come to see the love and healing within these words, we have grown deeper in trust and understanding of the Lord of Love. This is vital to our spiritual development, and it is also necessary in making our faith living and dynamic. So, why, indeed, did Jesus address this poor woman in such an apparently derogatory manner?
I have found a very useful tool in coming to understand difficult passages in the Word of God, namely to assume a message of love exists in all of scripture and search for that message. We can base our examination of this story on a faith that Jesus is the all-loving God whose essential message is, as he himself states, "Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:12-13).
Despite his initial words in this account, Jesus's actions make it obvious that he did indeed love this woman and her daughter. He wanted healing for them. And knowing Jesus to be infinitely more loving and wise than any mere human, we can rest confident that he behaved and spoke in exactly the way that was needed for this healing to take place.
Time and again I have discovered that using a meditative imagination to empathize with the characters of the Bible is a powerful key to unlocking God's messages hidden within. The meaning of this story unveiled itself to me while I was meditating on it. After arriving at a meditative state of mind, I began imagining myself in the place of the Canaanite woman. God desires that we develop empathy, so it is little wonder that searching God's Word with the lens of empathy will yield much fruit. Let's imagine the situation of this poor mother.
Start with the fact that she is a woman—a woman in a culture completely dominated by men. In that culture, women were considered little more than property, servants for men. The primary purpose of marriage was not companionship, but to produce children. The second most important reason for marriage was to increase family wealth and status. A woman was not viewed so much as a human being in her own right, but as a tool for achieving these ends.
It was perfectly acceptable for a displeased husband to divorce his wife (Matt. 19:7-9). There was no concept of commitment on the part of a husband. The fact that a man could for any reason divorce his wife with nothing more than a signature illuminates the negative cultural attitude toward women. Again we see that a wife's value was measured by her capacity to please and serve her husband rather than by her inherent value as a daughter of God.
Further revealing the prevailing derogatory attitude held toward women in ancient Jewish society is the fact that scholars and teachers simply didn't interact with women in public. His disciples were shocked when they found Jesus engaged in conversation with the Samaritan woman by the well (John 4:27). Their upset was in part because she was a non-Jew and in part because she was a woman.