Jesus answered, It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Not too long ago a woman walked into a movie theater and sat behind an elderly man who was in the front row with his dog. The film was a romantic comedy. In the romantic moments the dog would cry his eyes out, and in the funny moments the dog would laugh its head off. This happened all the way through the film. After it had ended, the woman tapped the old man on the shoulder and said,
That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Your dog actually seemed to enjoy the film.
The old man then turned to the woman and said,
Yeah, it is amazing because he hated the book.
Now most of us wouldn’t take our dog to the movies, but it is a fact that we do live in a culture where dogs are not only befriended, but sometimes are also elevated to human status.
My wife, Kathy, and I have been on several house-building trips with our Youth Groups just south of the border, and I noticed that there are few dogs that are family pets in the area around Tijuana. Oh, you see a lot of dogs, but they are roaming the streets looking pretty scrawny while fending for themselves. Nobody was throwing them a piece of the family meat on the way home from the grocery store because that just wouldn’t be a very prudent or sensible thing to do.
In the land where Jesus lived, I think it is safe to say that dogs carried about the same social standing. Dogs were not, for the most part, household pets in First Century Israel. Their ritual purity was suspect, and they were roaming scavengers who were expected to find their own way. It is in this cultural and social situation that Jesus makes his comment to the Gentile woman in our Gospel this morning.
She asks for him to bring healing to her daughter and he says,
I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel… It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
What Jesus is doing here is drawing an analogy between a prophet of Israel ministering to those outside the boundaries of Israel, and a mother who would take food from her children’s table and feed it to the stray dogs that roam the streets. It just isn’t sensible or prudent.
Now let’s just get it out into the open. This analogy discriminates between those in the House of Israel and those who are not. Jesus makes, by definition, a discriminatory remark. I will not insult your intelligence by attempting to perform an exegetical rescue operation.
I do not believe it was Jesus’ intention to hurl insults at the Cannanite woman or to put her down. But then many discriminatory statements carry no such intention. We are used to Jesus blurring lines of distinction, and I have to confess to you, this Gospel comes around in the lectionary every three years, and it always surprises me.
I know we like to think Jesus was a rather hip, Post Modern man with a degree from U.C. Berkeley, but he was not! And if we can we can stop fussing about the lack of sensitivity shown in this Gospel story for just a moment, we might just catch a glimpse of something positively remarkable.
You see, one of the gifts that this Gospel gives us is a glimpse into the making of a Messiah; we get to freeze a few frames of the film of Jesus in the process of growing and expanding his philosophy of ministry according to the vision of the God of love!
Matthew is allowing Jesus to be very human. Something which the church needs to do more.
My parents, like many devout Roman Catholics of their day, always had an Infant of Prague statue magnetized to the metal dashboard of the car. The Infant of Prague is a depiction of Jesus as a toddler who stands tall, all dressed in the robes of royalty, complete with a crown on his head, a staff in his right hand while holding the entire world in his left.
I never liked that statue very much as a child, and I never quite knew why until much later.
I don’t think I really wanted Jesus to be an all-knowing, little boy who had all the power of God infused into his blood stream from birth. I didn’t want a Jesus who didn’t really have to grow up and endure all that growing up entails. I didn’t want a Jesus who could never change his mind or turn around and head in a different direction.
I didn’t want Jesus the supreme being; I wanted a Jesus who was supremely human! As it turns out, I want my God to be the same way, and I see that God is that way because I see the humaneness of Jesus!
What draws me to Jesus is not that his thunderbolts are bigger than any on Mt. Olympus, but that this God-filled person could be convinced by an assertive, intelligent and articulate woman, completely outside of the confines of his social and cultural mindset, that he ought to re-consider and expand the focus of his ministry.
In our Gospel, I find Jesus to be where I so often am… where all of us find ourselves from time to time… namely on the brink of a decision. Where… most of the time, I would let my personal preferences, prejudices and petty jealousies shut down my ability to listen, Jesus takes the time to listen to the other possibilities. He doesn’t just tolerate the other point of view, he sticks around and allows this woman to engage him.
We may not like Jesus’ analogy in the Gospel today, but we have to admire the fact that he stayed, and listened and changed his mind about an important theological issue with global implications.
Jesus had suffered some setbacks among the scribes and the pharisees, and he was tired and emotionally on edge, but he listened to this strong and brave woman who just kept coming back in his face with impeccable logic and, might I add, a much better analogy:
Even the dogs, she said, eat the crumbs that fall from the table.
Even the dogs that roam the streets can find something discarded, something to keep themselves alive.
This Gospel story shows that, at a particular moment in human history, Jesus came to realize that God’s vision for the kingdom was even bigger than he had previously thought. At some point, Jesus began to realize that inclusion into the kingdom meant full inclusion, and that inclusion of some but not others was a contradiction, not only of terms, but of God’s will as well.
This woman’s only intention was to find healing and wholeness for her daughter, but she ended up showing Jesus and showing us a greater horizon.
Next time you think the person who isn’t dressed quite right, or doesn’t smell quite right, or doesn’t speak English quite right, or doesn’t share our definition of marriage, or can’t prove his citizenship, or is just plain from the wrong side of the tracks, can’t teach you something about being human, THINK AGAIN!
In this Gospel, Jesus was the healer, but the Cannanite woman was the teacher.
I’m willing a guess that there are probably few of my readers who aren’t gentile. If you could go back in time and approach Jesus with your need, it would be YOU the disciples would be trying to send away.
We don’t have an Infant of Prague for a Savior; we have the dynamic Christ of a dynamic God. I submit to you that if Jesus were completely changeless from birth, and if God is a completely static supreme being, then that means we are mere images in a cosmic video tape.
But we know that isn’t true!
Because St. Matthew dared to include this difficult story into his Gospel, we know that we can come to Christ and to God as this woman did, with our hands open and with a prayer of hope on our lips.
The faith of a gentile woman did not move a mountain into the sea, but it did move the Christ of God.
Because this woman pushed her way past the disciples, and because she dared to stare down Jesus, he discovered, and therefore we discover, that it doesn’t matter if you are from Tyre or Sidon, Toronto or Sacramento. The only obstacles on the path to God are the ones WE put in place, and one of the biggest barriers we erect is our own inability to believe that we are worthy of God’s love.