Jesus came in order to bring the good news of the Kingdom of God to the Jews; that much is true. But, let us also remember that God promised to bring the whole world to Himself through the Son; Jesus has many encounters with Gentiles throughout his ministry that are positive, where he praises their faith. We also know from the Book of Acts that the disciples, especially Paul, are called to bring the gospel to gentiles in all kinds of places. If we look at the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, we also see that there are non-Jewish women in his lineage. So, why this exchange between Jesus and the woman?
Well, let’s remember, that the fact that he is even addressing her at all is kind of a big deal. Women weren’t supposed to address men, especially important men directly. They were often considered to be less than some men’s property. This woman doesn’t let that deter her from doing the best that she can for her daughter. She recognizes Jesus, and uses titles for him that people of faith use, calling him Lord and Son of David. She knows Jesus has the power to save her daughter. At first, it seems as though Jesus is ignoring her, and the disciples are getting impatient and want him to deal with her… but remember last week’s story about Jesus commanding the disciples to get in the boat? Somehow I have a feeling that like then, he was setting them and the woman up for a sign of his power… So he answers her that he was sent to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Fair enough. She persists in her request, kneeling before him, letting him know that she is desperate. Then comes the difficult part; he tells her that it’s not fair to take the children’s food and through it to the dogs. As I did some reading about this, I learned that the word Jesus uses here is more in line with a pet, or a puppy, not a stray street dog; the woman’s culture would have recognized it as a much softer use of the word dog, since dogs were accepted more as pets in much of the Greek, Roman and gentile world. So, my sense of this part of the passage, is that he is testing her commitment to the gospel; much as he commanded Peter to come to him on the water, he is, in a way, allowing the wordplay in their conversation to see what she will do with it. She persists; she accepts his characterization of her place and the place of the gentiles in the scheme of salvation, and says that even the dogs, beloved pets in her culture, are fed from the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Let’s think about that for just a minute. I don’t tend to let my dog around the dinner table because she wants bites of what we are eating… our cats are usually close by because they have learned that Danny drops stuff all the time… and so our cats and sometimes the dog get all kinds of leftovers that have been dropped. This scene that the Canaanite woman paints about the dogs, the puppies, the pets, that are under the table, shows the abundance of God’s love and grace; even the crumbs are enough for the dogs and there are plenty of them to go around. Everyone gets fed… even the dogs… because God’s love and mercy overflow so that everyone gets reached.
When she says this to Jesus, he tells her “Great is your faith!” Remember Peter, when he started to drown? He doubted… and he was told that he had little faith… and yet, this woman, who was not part of the inner circle, not even one of God’s chosen Israelites, showed her faith to be great by believing God had enough to give even to her.
Now, I will admit, that I don’t really like to think about God testing our faith; but when there are stories such as this one, I have to give that another thought. Living life as a disciple of Jesus isn’t an easy prospect; there are things that are expected of us… not because we owe God anything, we could never repay God what God has done for us; but things are expected of us because it’s the only response that we could possible make to the God of love… Does God test our commitment? Our faith? I have to admit, I don’t know. Maybe we aren’t supposed to know. Maybe, we are just supposed to act as if there is enough love and mercy to go around so that when life gets out of control, our faith can comfort us and help us to the other side.