Going to the Dogs
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.—Matthew 15:21-28
This woman was desperate! She may have already taken her daughter to the Canaanite priests and exorcists—our passage doesn’t tell us. But we do know that this woman apparently had nowhere else to turn, because this was an extreme act on her part. She, as a woman, was so frantic to secure help for her daughter that she dared to speak to a man in public. More than that, as a Canaanite, this woman was a member of an ethnic group who were the despised, mortal enemies of the Jews. But in spite of the fact that Jesus and his disciples were Jews, she audaciously and brazenly spoke to a man she didn’t know, in public.
Now we know the end of this story, don’t we? We know that God promises, throughout the Bible, that he loves us and that he will take care of us. Jesus himself, a few chapters earlier in this very same book of Matthew rhetorically asks us that if we, as parents, know how to give good gifts to our children, don’t we realize that our heavenly Father will give us, his children, good gifts? (Matthew 7:11). He explained that if we ask God for bread he won’t give us something inedible and impossible to eat—like a stone (Matthew 7:9). God is not playing some cruel game with us, he won’t give us a snake when we ask for a fish (Matthew 7:10).
So with the benefit we have of hindsight, based on all that God has revealed to us of himself in the Gospels, and the entire Bible for that matter, we can be certain that Jesus, God in the flesh, loved this Canaanite woman. But when he first started talking to her it sure didn’t seem like he liked her!
This woman approached Jesus and cried: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (verse 22). The Canaanite woman wasn’t a Jew, but she apparently knew enough about Jesus to know that he was a healer, and she was desperate —she was willing to try anything. She was a woman and a Canaanite, so she had to feel extremely awkward in a group with a bunch of male Jews. She was definitely a minority, and definitely defying social conventions. Her request was for mercy. Mercy!
In this corrupt and sad old world, misery is the bad news, the predicament in which we find ourselves—and God’s mercy is the answer. God’s mercy is the solution for our misery. That’s what the woman asked for—God’s mercy. But Jesus didn’t even answer her. The response of God in the flesh was silence.
Have you ever frantically cried out to God, but all it seemed you could hear was silence? You didn’t hear, perceive or see an answer. Just silence. Sometimes we pray and pray and pray to God—but we don’t get the answer we’re looking for. We pray and pray and pray and we don’t receive the answer, at least the only answer we can imagine, to solve our misery.
When this woman cried out: “Lord, Son of God, have mercy on me!” (verse 22) …”Jesus did not answer a word” (verse 23).
Isn’t this the loving, kind, compassionate Jesus, who touched the untouchable, healed the lepers, the crippled and the blind, and ministered to the least, the lost and the last? Why didn’t he at least acknowledge her? What’s going on here? God sometimes moves, at least it seems to us, in mysterious ways. God doesn’t march according to the songs we write or act according to the lines we have given him in the grand story of our life. In many cases, God doesn’t react in the way we think he should.
We can often feel that God should be somewhat like a heavenly vending machine that only waits for us to insert the right amount of good deeds and then he will spring into action, dispensing the item we have paid for. That’s not God —that’s a machine. The fact that Jesus didn’t answer this woman doesn’t mean that he didn’t love her. We can read that into the story, but the account simply says he didn’t respond. Following Jesus’ silence, his disciples came to him and asked him to send her away. They complained that she was bothering them!
Here was an unnamed woman (Matthew didn’t supply her with an identity other than her gender and her race), a Canaanite woman who was beside herself, who had already crossed social boundaries, and the disciples wanted her to be sent away?
When Jesus answered he reminded the disciples that his primary mission was to the lost (spiritually speaking) sheep of Israel. On this particular trip Jesus and his disciples had traveled outside of the borders of Israel—they were in a foreign, alien place, and were not, by Jesus’ definition of his mission, within their area of service. The first verse of our passage (Matthew 15:21) tells us that Jesus had withdrawn. He and the disciples were getting a little rest and relaxation—a little r-and-r. They weren’t working—they weren’t on the job. Their job was in another geographical, racial and religious place.
But the Canaanite woman didn’t give up—she knelt before Jesus, and called him Lord. “Lord, help me” she said (verse 25). Then Jesus, at least it seems to our 21st century politically correct, tolerant ears, got downright rude. He replied to her: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (verse 26).
Jesus was calling this woman a dog! Even though it was common practice for Jews of that day to call non-Jews (Gentiles) dogs, this term grates on our ears. At the very least, it certainly doesn’t seem to be a term of endearment. Again, where was the loving, kind and compassionate Jesus? What’s up with Jesus’ comment? Is Jesus being rude—beyond that, is he being a racial bigot? When Jesus called her a dog and said that it wasn’t right to give the children’s bread to the dogs she replied: “Yes it is, Lord…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (verse 27).
At this point in the story, from our 21st century perspective, the Canaanite woman has to be seen as the loving, compassionate, humble person—and Jesus seems more like a stern, distanced, non-involved, perhaps even bigoted person. But wait! Here’s the key to this conversation—and beyond that the loving relationship Jesus offered to this woman. The Canaanite woman knew that the Jews thought of the afterlife as a feast with the Messiah. They called it “the Messianic banquet.”
The Jews of that day thought this future banquet would be a feast primarily for their own people, but they knew that non-Jews (Gentiles) would be included as well. Many places throughout the Old Testament reminded them that, as Isaiah said in Isaiah 56:7: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The Jews knew that the central, defining moment in their history was the Exodus, when God took them out of the slavery of Egypt. They knew it was primarily the Hebrews who God rescued from Egypt, but they also knew that people of other nations who wanted to leave were also granted the same deliverance.
This Canaanite woman knew that the Jews believed she could be at the heavenly banquet. And she also knew, from the language Jesus used, that he wasn’t calling her a worthless dog. The Greek term that is translated “dog” when Jesus referred to her describes a puppy, a little household pet dog. There was another term for what we call a wild, undomesticated dog. We don’t see wild, stray dogs in our Western world, but in those days—and for that matter, today, around the world, the vast majority of dogs are wild—they are on their own.
But a wild, stray dog was not the kind of dog Jesus had in mind when he used that word in relation to her. He was talking about domestic pets, dogs that lived with their masters—that actually did eat of the leftovers from the master’s table. They ate the same thing that the master and his family ate—AFTER they ate.
The gospel, as the New Testament makes clear in so many passages, was first preached to the Jews—who at large rejected it—and then to the Gentiles. Knowing “her place” this Canaanite woman was requesting to receive the gospel. Jesus then commends her faith—her trust in him—her persistence in waiting for an answer—and heals her daughter.
“Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted!’ And her daughter was healed at that moment” (verse 28).
You know, there is much we can learn from dogs. Dogs that are household pets, the kind of dogs about whom Jesus spoke, are often more loyal, faithful, dependable, consistent and patient than many humans. There are many humans who behave worse than such dogs—we often speak of such individuals as “behaving like an animal.” Perhaps we should qualify that statement and say that such individuals are behaving worse than an animal!
No matter how badly a dog is treated or ignored or neglected, even if their masters forget to water or feed them, they still gaze at their masters and owners adoringly. Pet dogs protect and defend the human family who takes care of them against those they perceive to be intruders and strangers. A dog forgives and forgives and forgives. Dogs are not into religious dogma. Think about that—dogs don’t like dogma. That truth makes me want to start howling at the moon, for I can’t stand dogma either!
Dogs don’t hold grudges—they don’t harbor resentment. The bond dogs have with their masters demonstrates one of the central teachings of the gospel. God offers us, his children, an intimate, eternal relationship. Our Master wants to bond with us for all eternity!
And, we should also realize that we too, as Jesus did, use the term “dog” in generous and positive ways:
• We speak of those who are dog-tired.
• We speak of those who are able to rest and take it easy as living a dog’s life.
• We speak of a person, like the Canaanite woman, who won’t give up—a person who is persistent, as being a bulldog.
• We talk about someone who has puppy-dog eyes.
None of these terms are derogatory, insulting or hateful —and neither was the term or manner in which Jesus responded to the woman he praised as having great faith.
The Canaanite woman frantically looked for an answer for her daughter and she didn’t give up. She stepped out in faith, in unconventional ways—ways that were not acceptable by the religious status quo of her day.
It doesn’t matter, even if we have gone to the dogs, even if we are in one of the lowest places a person can be—even if we are someone who might not feel comfortable in the presence of Jesus—it doesn’t matter.
We might be a minority—we might feel uncomfortable being around God. It doesn’t matter. God will never turn us away. The lesson in Matthew 15:21-28 is not that our requests will always be granted when and how we want them to be if we are persistent. That’s the wrong lesson. The lesson is that God will never turn away from us. He might be silent initially, but he will never turn away. Our race, our gender, our status in life have no bearing on the relationship he offers us. He will never leave us—he will always respond and serve us.