Matthew 15:21-28 (20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A)
“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
I know what you’re thinking ... did Jesus just call that poor woman a dog?! Yes, I’m afraid He did. In fact, Jesus’ actions throughout the Gospel seem strange and out of character. Here we meet a woman who approaches Jesus, asking Him to heal her daughter who is being tormented by a demon. For the people at Jesus’ time, being tormented by a demon could mean many things, including suffering from some physical, psychological or physical ailment. Regardless, this woman’s daughter was suffering and she is desperate for help. At first, Jesus ignores the woman. When she continues to beg His help, Jesus replies that He was sent to help only the lost sheep of the house of Israel, of which this Canaanite woman is not a member. Finally, after she continues to beseech Him, Jesus replies with a phrase which has the impact of a sucker-punch to the nose: “It is not right to take the food of the children and feed it to the dogs”. Ouch! Why is Jesus acting like this? What is going on here?
First, lets be clear about what is not going on in this Gospel:
1. A prejudiced Jesus learns a lesson about cultural acceptance
Some Jews at Jesus’ time viewed other nations and cultures harshly. They, the people of Israel, were God’s children. They would refer to non-Jews, or Gentiles, as dogs. Some suggest that as a 1st century Jew, Jesus shared this racial prejudice. They argue that His encounter with the Canaanite woman helped Him drop this view and become more accepting. Jesus does use a racially charged expression, but He gives no indication He agrees with it. His actions show the opposite. Jesus freely chooses to visit a gentile land, something He would hardly have done had He not liked the people there. He went there to reach out to the people in this land. As we will see, Jesus has a very good reason for playing on the underlying racial tensions of the encounter.
2. Jesus learns the full nature of His mission from the Canaanite woman
Others argue that Jesus initially thought He was only the Savior of the people of Israel. His encounter with the Canaanite woman supposedly led Jesus to realize that His mission was to be the Saviour of all. Again, this view is countered by what we find in the Gospels. We need to remember that Jesus was a Jew through and through. Sometimes our art, in which Jesus is depicted as a pale-skinned, blond haired Californian surfer, can make us forget this. Jesus knew that His mission was to be the Savior of all. At the same time, He knew that His mission was first to the people of Israel. Jesus comes as the King of the Jews to start a kingdom that will eventually cover the world. Israel was the chosen vehicle through which God planned to save the world.
So what is happening here in this Gospel??
In His interaction with the Canaanite woman, Jesus is intentionally putting barriers in her way so that in stepping over them, she will come to a deeper faith. One of the most popular movies around when I was growing up was The Karate Kid (the original, better one, not the new one with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan...). This movie tells the story of Daniel, who has just entered Senior High in a new city. He soon gets bullied and beaten up and wants to learn Karate as a way to defend himself. Upon learning that his maintenance man in his apartment, Mr. Miyagi, has a background in Karate, Daniel begs him to teach him. Mr. Miyagi responds by putting many obstacles in Daniel’s way. When he arrives for lessons, Mr. Miyagi ignores him and gives him menial tasks to do: painting, sanding the deck and waxing cars. Though angry at first, Daniel perseveres and eventually finds that what he saw as roadblocks were actually part of his training. More than teaching him basic physical skills, in persevering against these challenges, Daniel developed as a person. He grew in his desire to learn, in courage and in self-confidence. The barriers put up by Mr. Miyagi drew these qualities out of Daniel. Jesus does the same thing with the Canaanite women. When she first comes to Jesus, she did have faith in Him. But how deep was her faith in Christ? Did she see Him simple as just another miracle worker? Jesus ignores her, and puts her off with some charged comments to test the depth of her faith. In the end, the strategy works. She replies with with a charming statement expressing her belief that although Jesus is the Savior of the Jews, she want Him to be her Savior as well: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus praises this great faith she has discovered within herself.
In order to help us grow, Jesus often puts roadblock in our way. Lets look at three examples.
- Roadblocks in life. Sometimes when we are living our life in a way that leads us away from God, He puts barriers in our way. Things such as difficulties at work and personal suffering often serve to make us remember how much we need God in our lives and turn back to Him.
- Obstacles in prayer. Often we don’t get what we ask for in prayer or else prayer can feel dry and lifeless. We can be tempted to give up. If we persevere against these obstacles and keep praying, we can grow spiritually. We can learn to love God for being God rather than the good feelings we get from Him. Also, some of the things we ask for in prayer aren't really what is best for us. In this case, God doesn't give us what we ask for in prayer because He is helping to expand our heart, making it capable of receiving an even greater gift.
- Challenges in relationships. Whether it is in our family, work or school, we all have to deal with “difficult people”. They can test our patience and lead us to become frustrated. Learning to relate to such people, however, is a great opportunity to grow in the virtues of patience and understanding.
At times we all feel like the Canaanite woman. We can become confused and frustrated when Jesus does not remove certain roadblocks in our life. Today, identify one such barrier in your life. Perhaps it is a struggle in prayer, at work or in a relationship. Take a moment to ask God for the grace to persevere like the Canaanite woman, trusting that Jesus will use this obstacle as a means to strengthen and deepen your faith.