Jesus Said… What?

“He replied, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” — Matthew 15:26, CEB

You know, this is probably the closest to sinning I see from Jesus.. We know Jesus to have been without sin from the Scriptures, but surely talking to someone like this counts as some kind of problem, right? Then again, are we sure that Jesus is the main feature of this text? Could Matthew’s (and Christ’s) intent be that we look somewhere surprising for inspiration? Let’s take a look!

The passage is Matthew 15:21-28, but the story is also found in Mark. The reason it is absent in Luke and John could be attributed to the fact that these are later-written Gospels, composed at a time when the Jewish/Christian divide was growing due to the influx of Gentiles joining the Christian movement. As such, the Gospel writers probably took exception to Jesus taking such a strong stance on being “sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Luke strongly emphasizes inclusion of those who are cast aside, so this story wouldn’t make sense to tell. Going even further, John’s Gospel is told in a way that clearly shows the growing gap between what was traditional Judaism and the Christian sect that would soon grow into its own separate body of faith. Remember, the different Gospels emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ ministry and reflect the experience of the church at the times they were written. 

With that in mind, we can look at the text from Matthew 15. First of all, we see that Matthew describes the woman as a Canaanite (verse 22). Interestingly, enough, those people were not around anymore. Between conquest and the passage of many, many years, no one that fit the description of Canaanite (an umbrella term) was just meandering around the area. This word choice, then, is intentional and geared toward making a point. What point? Perhaps we will find out.

She calls out to Jesus twice. Once, she is ignored (verse 23). The second time, Jesus reiterates his mission as being first and foremost to Israel (verse 24). The third time she calls out, Jesus issues the wildly insulting response we saw at the start of the post, implying that she is a dog. Now let’s talk about modern sensibilities.

Yes, this is insulting. To us, it’s unbelievably rude and makes no sense for the Jesus we were all taught to know and love (a big reason why this text is avoided by preachers). The truth is, even back then in the 1st Century, this was not a kind thing to say. Jesus exemplifies the standard Jewish attitude that Gentiles (non-Jews) are a secondary people in God’s eyes, and says that using what would be standard terminology. Remember, Jesus is a human in a particular time and place, ministering to a particular people. The notion of the Messiah is, after all, a Jewish concept. That said, he is also God Incarnate, and we would like to expect more.

My question, though, is whether or not Jesus is the one we are supposed to be looking at and emulating in this passage, and my answer would be no. You see, Matthew has a habit of revealing the least expected as the most faithful, while the children of the promise (Israel) turn out to be rather faithless when it come to the Christ walking around healing and teaching people about God’s kingdom. Examples include:

  1. Matthew 3:5-9, where right off the bat, John hints that being a child of Abraham isn’t just about your genetics (*hint*)
  2. Matthew 8:5-13 and the healing of the Centurion’s servant
  3. Matthew 11:20-24, as Jesus remarks that Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom will be better off than predominantly Jewish areas on the judgment day due to their willingness to repent

Truly, at the end of this seemingly disheartening passage, Jesus heals the woman’s daughter, praising her faith (verse 28). What faith? That would be the kind of faith that would move a woman to ignore the sting of prejudice in order to pursue the gifts of healing that the kingdom of God has to offer. After Jesus responds with the dog comment, we see that her answer is not to stomp off angrily or curse him as you and I probably would. Instead, she responds in a witty way, saying, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table” (verse 27).

BOOM. She takes his metaphor and expands on it, resulting in a spectacular show of persistence. After being ignored on the first try, dismissed on the second, and insulted on the third, this very strong mother, who is supposed to be of no account, shows greater faith and devotion than even the disciples end up having, and she actually shows this by besting Jesus in a battle of metaphors. 

First of all, what an awesome passage. It’s wildly uncomfortable, but full of so much meaning and intrigue. Secondly, though, we need to address how this fits into our perspective of Jesus. Everything written in every Gospel is designed to make a point, and often this is done by making us look at Jesus as the exemplar of the perfect unity of God and humanity. However, there are also passages that emphasize the faithfully persistent actions of others that we are intended to emulate. 

To me, this is one of those passages. Now, this doesn’t mean I am advocating that women be walked all over for the sake of the kingdom. Women have paid a steep price for such interpretations throughout the history of the church, and many still do today. What I am advocating is that we emulate her faithful persistence.

When we seek Christ, and when we seek the blessings of the kingdom of God for ourselves and for others, we will meet resistance. It will seem like God isn’t answering, has better things to do, or doesn’t believe us to be worthy of the effort. More often than not, we impose all of that on ourselves when we don’t see what we would like to see. However, like the Canaanite woman, perhaps we are being given an occasion to be persistent and to prove what is really important to us.

Would you stop seeking healing for your child or loved ones after being turned away by one doctor? Would you stop seeking fair compensation for employment after a difficult talk with your boss? Would you end a marriage because things got hard with the person you love with all your heart? I would hope not. So why do we give up and abandon faith when we meet resistance, knowing that we will absolutely face adversity when attempting to be faithful to God? When we are met with uncertainty, unkindness, loss, or despair, we often abandon faith, not by becoming atheists (though it can happen), but by reverting to our old, sinful habits and turning inward to a selfish worldview that denies God and others. We are unkind in response to unkindness, selfish in response to selfishness, and disparaging in response to despair and difference.

But what if we look to this Canaanite woman, the centurion, and, yes, to Christ, seeking to imitate their example as people who remain faithful in the face of rejection, uncertainty, and even the cross? Maybe then we would remember that the kingdom of God has come to us in Christ, and that whatever resistance we meet does not have the power to take the Spirit of God within us away. Maybe then we would be empowered to live life in light of faith and hope, rather than selfishness and despair.

It is my opinion that Matthew uses this story not to emphasize the humanity of Christ, but the faith of the Canaanite woman. No, the situation is not flattering and should not be imitated by God’s people (or anyone for that matter). However, the powerful faith and persistence of this remarkable woman are something that we can all learn from and be inspired by. As you go into the rest of your day, remember this woman. Remember her faith, and remember that if we are that faithful and persistent, we will experience the awareness that God is present in our lives, and, even better, we will be able to share that love and presence with a world that desperately needs it.

Peace be with you!

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