Year A. Matt 15: (10-20); 21-28 8/20/23 “Crumbs, Dogs and God’s Mercy”
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week we encountered the story of Jesus walking on water and Peter trying to do the same. Jesus’ divinity was on full display that day. He was in charge, gliding effortlessly across the waves, saving Peter from the watery deep.
We see a very different picture of Jesus today–one that can cause us to pause, to question, to wrestle and at most, can make us sick to our stomachs. Instead of the Jesus we saw a couple weeks ago at the feeding of the 5,000–the man with compassion flowing for thousands of people–we see a hurried and discriminating person. The part of Jesus that is fully human shows through in some very distinctly human ways.
When Jesus and his disciples arrive after their windswept time on the sea of Galilee; they come to the other side, the land of Gennesaret. Word spreads quickly and the people there recognize Jesus. They bring their sick to him and beg to be made well by merely touching his cloak. Jesus allows this passive pastoral care, and keeps moving.
Why is Jesus sprinting through the throngs of people this time? Why isn’t he taking time with them?
Maybe he’s in a rush to put some distance between himself and the Pharisees and scribes. Turns out, the religious elite traveled from Jerusalem a good 50 miles, to confront Jesus and ask him a question: why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat? Why do they dishonor the tradition of the elders? Really, they came all that way to ask Jesus about handwashing? But for them, this oversight represents Jesus’ departure from practicing the things that make someone Jewish. Jesus counters by asking them: why do you put your tradition and practices above God’s will? He calls them hypocrites and then abruptly invites the surrounding crowd to hear a parable which clearly shames the Pharisees and scribes.
This is where we come in today. He says: what goes into the mouth, is not what defiles. It’s what comes out of the mouth–what we say, our intentions, and what we do that makes us unclean. He’s basically saying it doesn’t matter who you are, what your background is, or anything else about you–it’s what you say and do that matters.
Jesus means business. He’s not interested in playing games. He doesn’t bow to pressure or abide by their accusations. He turns their argument on its head and walks away.
I picture the disciples running after him aghast at his bold rebuff of such powerful people, and maybe a little jazzed at witnessing their teacher’s quick wit on display. And Jesus just walks on towards the region of Tyre and Sidon. He doesn’t want to be deterred by the naysayers or waylaid by a sea of Gentile people. At the center of Jesus’ mission, at this point, is still the Jewish people.
At the edge of the region, he’s met by an unlikely one woman welcoming committee.1 A Canaanite woman shouts at him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Notice this woman doesn’t tug on the hem of Jesus’ cloak like the others; she doesn’t approach quietly and demurely. She wails, she shouts at him. She is desperate for his healing attention.
Phrase from Mitzi Smith article found here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-20/commentary-on- matthew-1510-20-21-28-4.
In this gospel, she is characterized as a ‘Canaanite woman.’ It’s worth noting, the Canaanites were ancient enemies of Israel. They were the indigenous people already inhabiting the land of Canaan, the land of milk, and honey, the promised land that God gave the Israelites; The land they took by conquest from the Canaanites. Canaanites worshiped different gods, they had different customs, to the Israelites they’re considered foreigners. There’s a really interesting exchange between this Canaanite woman who calls Jesus, “Lord, Son of David.” She acknowledges his ancestry, knowing he’s a Jewish man, knowing she’s crossing all kinds of boundaries shouting at him, demanding that he heal her daughter. After he doesn’t answer her at all, simply gives her the silent treatment, the disciples get annoyed. They say ‘send her away, she keeps shouting after us.’ Jesus responds to them, within earshot of the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In response to this, without missing a beat, she kneels at his feet saying, “Lord help me.” This should jog our memories from last week–when Peter was sinking beneath the waves, he cried out, ‘Lord save me!’–she says, ‘Lord, help me!’ Two children of God in need of dire assistance. We all think this is where Jesus’ heart will reach out towards the woman; A mom who is scared for her child and clamoring for compassion. But this is where it stings the most: Jesus says to this woman’s face, ‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ Instead of showering her with grace and mercy, he calls her a dog.
There’s all kinds of people who try to say this is a diminutive term like puppy, or that it could have been a normalized way of talking to someone; no. Whether he called her a female dog or a little female dog–it doesn’t make it much better either way. What does Jesus’ statement even mean? It helps to know a little about how dogs were viewed in ancient Israel/Palestine. In Jewish households, dogs were not allowed inside the house. In order to feed the dogs–who were never really pets but rather scavengers–someone would have to get up from their dinner table, carry the bread, open the door and throw the bread outside. In most gentile households, dogs were common and lived indoors as pets more often; therefore scraps could be given to the dogs under the table. Does this harsh statement directed at her deter her? No. Does she walk away disgusted? No. Does she hang her head and cry? No. I picture her standing straight up, looking him in the eye, and saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table.” In her persistence and determination, she schools him. She also embodies what it looks like to turn the other cheek. She accepts his truth, that the Israelite people are the chosen ones, where salvation will come from. And yet, just as the children in gentile households can be fed at the same time as the dogs–so too can non-Jewish people dine at the table and be fed at the same time as the Jewish people. She demonstrates to Jesus, there is far more abundance than he is even seeing; that God‘s mercy is more expansive and more inclusive than his vision and mission at the moment. She shows Jesus, there is plenty of God’s mercy to go around.
Let’s talk about crumbs for a minute. Last time we focused on bread, Jesus fed 5,000 people, plus women and children, with next to nothing, and there were 12 baskets of leftovers. This woman knows about the leftovers.
She’s aware that even the crumbs of mercy that fall from God's table can feed a nation. And, in fact, they will. God’s mission expands to the Gentiles shortly after this: Jesus feeds 4,000 people and it’s implied they are all Gentiles, and again, there are seven baskets of leftovers.
After the Canaanite woman stands up, digs in and serves Jesus’ words back to him–in the same way Jesus did with the Pharisees and Scribes–Jesus replies to her, “woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the Bible says ‘her daughter was healed instantly.’
I can’t help but compare this resilient, tenacious mother of a hurting child to the growing but not quite there faith of Peter as he tried to walk on water. When Peter was hauled back into the boat, Jesus said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Here, Jesus calls this outsider, this stranger, this unrelenting enemy of Israel–one of great faith. That’s not something that happens often in Matthew–especially when the disciples–Jesus’ closest followers are constantly said to have little faith.
So how do we understand the image of our savior in this story as one who falters and fails horribly?
How do we reconcile Jesus missing the mark to the point of offering a hurtful slur rather than the grace a mother craves as she watches her child suffer?
We’re taught that Jesus was the blameless lamb, without sin. And yet we see him lose his temper, narrow his vision and mission and talk down to a child of God. Some have a very hard time with this passage and instead interpret Jesus’ actions as a test of faith; a teaching for both the disciples and the Canaanite woman. A part of me wishes this interpretation would suffice.
But if Jesus is teaching something in this instance, someone inevitably becomes the object lesson.
A lot of how we understand this story depends on the limitations we place on Jesus, the Messiah.
Can our Lord learn and grow as we do?
If Jesus messes up occasionally but owns it and ultimately, changes his mind...can that be a word of comfort to us humans?
If Jesus realizes he is being an obstacle to the mercy of God, can his change of heart be a balm for us when we fail?
By doing as Jesus does and listening to the needs of others, are we opening our eyes to have our theology and our lives transformed by the most unlikely of people?
By the end of Matthew’s gospel, we see the effects this Canaanite woman had on Jesus and his mission. Matthew's gospel expands, wider and wider culminating with the great commission. In the end, the resurrected Jesus tells the disciples to go and baptize all nations.
The Canaanite woman invited Jesus to practice what he preaches and place God’s will before tradition.
In turn, our calling is to continually expand and crack open our boxes that we put God in.
This Canaanite woman broke the levee so Jesus, and all of us, will see– God will always make room at the table for all people, and so can we.