by John Meoska, OSB
We just heard Jesus utter two of the most puzzling statements in all of Scripture: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and ”It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
Why did Jesus say this? Was he merely testing the depth of the woman’s faith? Or, was Jesus’s sense of ministry evolving at this particular moment? Is the evolution here that Jesus suddenly realizes he needs to seek out the lost sheep of Israel and of the Gentiles?
Or, is Jesus tweaking the noses of the disciples who just want this annoying woman to be sent away?!
Perhaps. But that still leaves the us to grapple with Jesus’ discomforting reference to the Gentiles as ‘the dogs’ who don’t deserve the food of the children of Israel. I’ll come back to that, later!
Besides these ambiguous statements of Jesus, there are other important details hidden in this story.
For instance, Mathew says Jesus deliberately ‘crossed over’ into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. ‘Crossing over’ is a code word. It signals that something is about to happen, something demanding a change in our ways of thinking and acting. We need to be ready!
It is also significant how the woman addresses Jesus: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” A Son of David is a shepherd – specifically, a shepherd of the Israelites. His task: keep the sheep safe; attend to his flock. But Canaanites are enemies of Israelites; and they worship Baal, a pagan god. In a subtle way, the woman acknowledges she has no claim on Jesus. But, the woman wisely addresses Jesus as Lord, also – here and twice later.
The title Lord denotes a much broader embrace. A Lord is responsible for a larger group of people. It just might include me, thinks the Canaanite woman! And, by relating to Jesus as Lord, the Canaanite woman assumes permission to drop a cultural taboo against speaking to Jews and to men.
Many boundaries have been crossed!
The disciples, on the other hand, serve as sort of foil in this whole scenario. “Send her away,” they say, “she is bothering us.” She is upsetting the status quo. She makes us uncomfortable. She is forcing us to see reality in a new way: forcing us to see the invisible people in our world; forcing us to hear the people to whom we have grown deaf.
She is forcing us to dissolve our arbitrary boundaries defining who is in and who is out; who deserves our help and respect, and who does not. She is forcing us to enlarge the tent.
And so the Canaanite woman, and all person with needs who are crying out, are prophetic voices. They cry out to Jesus, and to us – to us as individuals, as church, as a nation.
Their cry? Have pity on me! Have pity on my children possessed of the evil spirits of homelessness and exile, addiction and unemployment, domestic and sexual abuse, war and serial violence. Send them away, Lord, for they keep calling out after us!
Their cry? Have pity on me! – share with me the scraps that fall from your table: the food you waste every day. Share with me the clean water you enjoy. Share with me the resources of the earth that you hoard and plunder to my detriment. Send them away Lord for they keep calling out after us!
Their cry? Have pity on me! Recognize the dignity of my humanity: the dignity of my gender and of my sexuality. Recognize my dignity as a person of color; as a Muslim, Jew, a Mexican or Somali. Send them away Lord, for they keep calling out after us!
Their cry? Have pity on me! Share with me the money you spend building bigger mansions for your smaller families; the money you spend building weapons of war…so that I can build a simple house, buy food and medicine, and educate my children.
Each time the Canaanite woman pleads with Jesus, her plea is: Lord, have pity on me! She sounds self-seeking, but is not. She is a conduit of God’s grace and healing for her daughter.
We also must be conduits.
The gifts of God are given to us in order to move through us. What Scripture says of the gift of faith is true here, too: The gift you have received give as a gift.
There is also a profound solidarity and inseparability between the woman and her child. The two are one flesh.
We Christians understand this because we the honor the reality of the Mystical Body of Christ.
But we also understand that Pauline notion that, when one suffers all suffer; and when one is exalted all are exalted.
But the notion extends far beyond the boundaries of baptism and creed. It includes our shared humanity.
As human beings, there can be no separateness. When Jesus crossed into the region of Tyre and Sidon, he figuratively crossed and erased all boundaries. As we sang, In Christ, there is no East or West, North or South…
When Jesus offered the Canaanite woman aid and comfort, he was giving us an example: Go and do likewise.
Finally, let me address Jesus’ imagery of ‘the dogs’ to describe the Gentiles. To us, it sounds like cultural insensitivity, something to which we are very sensitive right now in this country. But, I wonder if, perhaps, Jesus was playing with some cultural differences to make his point (and tweak the disciples noses!).
In the Jewish tradition dogs were banned from coming into the house. His disciples could relate. He has their attention!
But! He knew that the Canaanite woman had a different experience: Gentiles allowed dogs into their houses. I think Jesus set her up to help him make his point: the Gentiles aren’t outside! They’re inside!
They have a claim on God’s grace, a place in God’s house, a place at the table, every bit as much as the Jews!
And so the question comes back to us: Who have we labeled undeserving? Who is not welcome at the table? Who have we stopped at the border, or sent back across it? Who have we deemed is not worthy – of God’s gifts? Of our help? Of a share in our blessings?
Lord, have pity on me.
Have pity on us.
Fr. John Meoska OSB as a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, where he serves as Formation Director. He has also worked in Abbey Wordworking .
I also see a parallel between this healing story and those of Elijah and Elisha. Well, a near-parallel, since Jesus healed a daughter.
“Blessed are the ones who take no offense in me.” Beyond the context of mutual cultural offense already mentioned, Jesus seems to provoke the woman. (Although I picture Jesus saying these words with a little smile—‘you know that we Jews refer to your people as dogs…and you’re a woman! how dare you…smile”.) And then the woman responds with utmost humility and no trace of anger. She lays aside all offense. And so Jesus recognizes her prayer and answers it. It’s as if Christ is pointing at the woman and looking at His disciples and saying, ‘see, this is what I’m looking for. Learn from her’.
To me this passage makes more sense when connected to the previous one which our lectionary skips. In Mt 15:1-20 Jesus is critical of his own people and their excessive rules; so this next passage about the lost sheep of the house of Israel and the rule about not feeding table food to dogs has more context as does the woman’s response that plays with those laws.
It is unfortunate that our lectionary skipped this key earlier passage. With the placement of the two multiplication of loaves narratives, before and after these passages, the whole section is meant to be one piece.
The passage for this week is also about church rules and how they are seen more clearly by outsiders especially when they have a hurting child and long for an express path to the grace of God they find in the church. What bends my mind is the interplay of excessive church rules and poor treatment of foreigners.
Thank you – suggest that he could have also inserted a link to the current Confederacy statue debate and arbitrary boundaries that make us feel comfortable.