“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I know that you are sitting there thinking to yourself “I could not have heard that right. There must be some mistake, some misprint. For Jesus would not, could not have said something so harsh, so callow, so cruel. Jesus was about love, and this is clearly not a loving comment.”
Well, as much as I hate to burst your bubble, there is no misprint. This is what Jesus said. It appears not only in Matthew’s gospel, but in Mark as well. And as much as it may offend our 21st century sensibilities, it was a turning point in his ministry. But before we explore that, we need a frame of reference.
There are two separate stories in this morning’s gospel, the encounter with the woman and the conversation with the disciples and the crowd about the Pharisees. For the past several weeks we have been exploring the gospel of Mathew as Jesus and the disciples travel from Jerusalem to Galilee. We have heard the familiar stories of the parable of the kingdom of heaven, the feeding of the 5,000, and Peter’s lack of faith as he tried to walk on the water. What we didn’t get in the lectionary was the story of the Pharisees following Jesus from Jerusalem to Galilee.
Matthew 15:1 tells us “Then the Pharisees and the scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” For Jews of that time, eating without washing meant that one was unclean. They had developed an elaborate process of ritually washing the hands in order to purify oneself. This was not due to any concerns for hygiene, but rather they believed that this was a way to please God. So they went to great lengths to avoid coming into contact with any unclean person or thing which would separate them from God. Even coming into contact with the dust kicked up by the feet of a gentile would make one unclean. They had taken the laws from the book of Leviticus and built on them, layer upon layer of new rituals and practices, in an elaborate effort to win favor from God. To the Pharisees, eating with unclean hands was no less a violation of the Law of Moses than adultery, false witness or even murder.
They had built for themselves a comfortable practice of piety, and what they believed to be a sure fire way to curry favor with God. All one had to do was scrupulously follow the practices laid down by the scribes and the elders and you would be assured of God’s favor. And then this itinerant carpenter from nowhere shows up and starts mouthing off to the people about the Kingdom of God. He tells people that the Pharisees are hypocrites and says that you can’t earn God’s favor, but it is a gift freely given to all. The nerve of this guy! So they follow Jesus all the way to Galilee to question him and, presumably, to shut him up. But it doesn’t go for them the way they had hoped. Rather than agree with them, Jesus tells the crowd “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
It may not seem like it, but this is actually the beginning of the end. For in this one sentence, Jesus has basically said that the book of Leviticus is no longer true. Jesus has, in effect, repealed the dietary laws written by Moses and substituted a new standard. A standard that says it is not what you eat, but what is in your heart that makes you good or profane. Remember the parable where Jesus tells the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee? The Pharisee prays loudly saying, “Lord I thank you that I am not like other men, like that tax collector! I pray three times a day and pay my tithe.’ The tax collector could not even look up and prayed simply and quietly, “Have mercy on me Lord for I am a sinner”. Jesus tells us that it was the tax collector and not the Pharisees who went away with their prayers answered. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us why that happened. For, while the Pharisee did the right things by praying and tithing, he didn’t do them for the right reasons. He did them in order to be seen doing them as a way of earning respect from people. But Jesus tells us that it is the intent and not the deed that counts. "Man," as Aquinas tells us, "sees the deed, but God sees the intention."
The Pharisees are horrified at this. By preaching that the laws set down in Leviticus are no longer true, Jesus has blasphemed and they can no longer look upon him as a kook or a quaint distraction. He has attacked a fundamental tenant of their faith and the rules of engagement are now set. If this were an old TV western, this would be the moment when the sheriff says to the bad guy, “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us”. From this point on, it would either be the Pharisees or Jesus.
But that still doesn’t explain about the woman so let’s return to that. After the confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus and the disciples travel to the district of Tyre and Sidon. They have been traveling for quite a while and everywhere they go Jesus is mobbed by the crowds. It must have been exhausting and so they try to get away from it all. Now you may think they were going to Club Med for a little R&R, but that was not the case. Tyre and Sidon are actually part of Phoenicia and are outside of Israel. Jesus has now traveled out of the holy land and into gentile territory for the first time. Jesus has left behind the safe and sacred land of Israel to travel to its gentile rival, right on the heels of telling the world that what goes into the body does not defile it. By walking in Tyre, he is setting a visible example of this as his feet are now touching unclean ground.
It is clear that Jesus and the disciples were exhausted from their travels and Jesus knew that the disciples needed to rest, and he needed to prepare them for the ordeal that was to come. For he knew that he would soon be arrested, but there was still much that the disciples needed to learn. So he wanted to take them away from the crowds, and what better way to do that than to go where no Jew would follow them? But it didn’t work out quite the way they hoped. For this woman began to pester them. This Canaanite woman, this gentile, this unclean Phoenician woman came out and started shouting at them. “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus did not answer her. But she would not be deterred. She was persistent, in a way that only a parent can be when they are fighting for their child. It seems to me that all other avenues had been exhausted for her and this woman knew that Jesus was her last hope for healing her child. And she was not going to go away.
The disciples tell him to send her away so she will stop annoying them. What they are really saying is, just heal the kid already so she will shut up! But Jesus answers them “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And she catches up to them, kneels at Jesus’ feet and begs, “Lord, help me”.
I have always found this to be the most plaintive of prayers. Who among us has not found them self, in the hour of their most desperate need, when you are cried out, when there are no more words, when you have no where left to turn, praying, “Lord, help me.” And Jesus, our fairest lord Jesus, lover of souls and King of all Kings says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
I don’t think he could have been more offensive if he tried. But that I think is the point. I think he WAS trying to be offensive. I think he spoke this way, not because he believed it, but to see how the woman and disciples would respond to it. Jesus needed to prepare the disciples for the trials that lay ahead of them, and often taught them by example. Sometimes a teacher will stake out a ridiculous premise to see if the student will refute it. He wanted them to see that, while he had been sent to recover the lost sheep of Israel, there were also many other sheep that needed saving.
And then something wonderful happens. Rather than be brushed aside by this expected response, the woman turns the tables on Jesus. She tells him “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” And Jesus smiles and says “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done as you wish” and the little girl is healed.
This is the first time that we see the faith extended beyond the Jews. This gentile woman, standing in the unclean land of Tyre, has demonstrated that the gift of God’s love, while it may have been first given to the Jews, is for non-Jews as well. Indeed, there is no limit on God’s love as it falls from the table in amounts enough for everyone. This is not unlike the scraps left over from the feeding of the 5,000 that filled 12 baskets, enough for everyone and then some.
We still use this woman’s example today in the Rite 1 prayer before we receive communion as we say “We do not presume to come to this thy table O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy, so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”
And Jesus knew it all along. He knew that this would happen, he knew that this woman would react the way she did, and he knew that the disciples needed to see this happen. Jesus would be leaving them soon and they would be tested in many ways. One of the major tests of the early church would be the issue of whether the word of God was only for the Jews or for the gentiles as well. When that test came, it is likely that Peter and the rest of the disciples remembered this incident with the woman and the lesson they learned from it. Even though he was no longer with them, Jesus was still teaching the disciples. For God’s love is truly big enough for all people. We are all children of God and while none of us are worthy of it, God’s love and grace are for all of us.