On Being a Canaanite Dog
I was driving my car in the city where we lived in Croatia. I had some Croatian colleagues with me. We were approaching the center, traffic was heavy. The car in front of me was holding things up. His car had a Hungarian licensee plate. I said, “dumb foreigner”.
My passengers exploded with laughter: here was I, an American, calling a Hungarian in Croatia a foreigner!
I got that joke from Jesus. Today we watch him as he leaves Judea, crosses the border into Syria (modern Lebanon) – the region of Tyre and Sidon – and calls a local lady a dog!
This is an inside-out story. She wants healing for her daughter, but Jesus has left Israel to go to her land to tell her that he was sent only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Well then, what is he doing there?
The way Matthew tells this story, we see that she is not just literally beyond the border of God’s people, everything about this woman is wrong;
- she is a woman,
- she is a gentile, which means
- she doesn’t keep Sabbath
- she eats unclean food
- she of course never offers sacrifices,
- and she is in constant contact with evil powers
– her daughter is demon possessed.
What does God think about this kind of person? She should be in the bull’s eye of the judgment and wrath target.
But she needs help for her daughter – of a specific kind.
- The girl is not sick,
- She is not a leper,
- She is not lame or blind,
- She is not hungry,
Her problem is spiritual. She has a demon tormenting her.
Watch this story closely: we will see that this demon is quite familiar and is still alive and well, tormenting people today.
So the nameless mother cries out to Jesus for help.
Her words are carefully chosen and deeply ironic:
“Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David.”
It is hard to have a request with three components that is more Jewish than this!
The gentile woman asks for mercy, using the word in her language that translates the word that sums up God’s lovingkindness (chesed).
She calls Jesus Lord which is a theologically loaded word.
And to top it off, calls him “Son of David”
Matthew started his gospel with a genealogical review, precisely to prove that Jesus was the long awaited son of David.
The Scribes and the Pharisees who make such a point of being acceptable to God do not call Jesus, “son of David.” But this ultimate outsider does.
Next in the story, a bit of humor: the disciples tell Jesus to send her away. The disciples are the ones who are away from home. She is at home. How could Jesus send her away?
But anyway, he doesn’t try. He actually engages her in conversation – step one in showing a person dignity and respect.
He tells her he has been sent to lost sheep, but not to her kind of lost sheep. He has been sent, he tells her, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (then what is he doing there on her side of the boundary?).
But she keeps coming, and kneels humbly and reverently before him, shortening her request to “Lord, help me.”
What happens next sounds horrible. Jesus says,
“It is not fair to take the childrens’ food and throw it to the dogs.”
Well, if she is a dog, I am a dog, you are dogs, all of us are dogs. If being a Canaanite, a non-Jewish person, places her outside the boundary of God’s covenant with Abraham, then we are in as much trouble as she.
But what sound like insult is another twisting irony: if she were an irrelevant dog, he would have ignored her, not engaged her.
The fact that he offers this brief metaphor of a table with children eating around it and dogs beneath is offering her a challenge to respond to.
She does. She takes the image and runs with it. If I’m a dog, then give me what the dogs get; the crumbs. Let the kids get the meal – fair enough. All I need is a crumb of mercy falling from the master’s table.
Crumb – let’s see; I’m picturing something about the size of a mustard seed. What use is mercy the size of a mustard seed?
Question: Up to this point, what has this Sabbath breaking, pork eating, non-chosen-people, impure woman done? Asked where she can convert? Promise to turn a new leaf? Even memorize the 10 commandments?
Up to this point all she has done is ask for a crumb of
And with only that to go on, Jesus answers her with the opposite words he said to sinking Peter: “Great is your faith.”
Last week we made the declaration that we are people of weak faith, like Peter.
We are people who, like him, loose our focus, notice the storm, feel helpless and overwhelmed, and doubt God.
But we saw Jesus reaching down to save sinking Peter, as he does us, despite the weakness of our faith.
Now we see the measure of great faith: it is faith enough to ask for a crumb of mercy – to ask with head bowed and hands open, waiting for the crumb to land.
That’s it. And that is a revolution. God’s mercy is not contingent on anything but asking for it. (Calvin would say that having the desire to ask for it is itself a mercy).
But the point is worthiness.
Jesus said, “Let it be done for you as you wish.”
- Not because she was Jewish
- not because she kept the commandments
- not because she promised to improve,
Jesus considered her worthy of God’s mercy just because she asked for it.
She was, after all, not outside of the boundary of God’s grace.
There are two powerful lessons here and we need both of them.
The first is personal: we are never outside the boundaries of God’s mercy. God is not waiting for us to improve, not waiting for our promises to do better, not waiting for us to become giants of faith. God does not wait to be merciful.
The very notion that we could be excluded from God’s mercy is demonic – still.
Everybody has skeletons in the closet; things we wish we had not done or said or wished. We all have reasons to think that God is not exactly pleased with us.
But the message of this scripture is that it’s not about being worthy by any measure.
God gets to decide to be merciful and gracious to us and there is nothing we can do to stop him.
If we would just look around, everyday we would be overwhelmed with evidence that he is not waiting. Every day he gives us life it is his gift.
Every day that we can get up and get dressed is a mercy.
Every day that we can see the sky in motion is a mercy.
And every time we:
- swallow a pill,
- have a nurse take our temperature
- and speak with a real doctor,
– we are getting huge quantities of mercy that many people do not have.
God is in the mercy business, and he is a success at it.
Lesson number two is that we are not the only ones inside the circle of God’s mercy. In fact, there is no one who is outside of it.
The idea that any criteria could separate a person from God’s mercy is also demonic – still.
By the act of crossing that boundary into the region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus was demolishing artificial, human-created boundaries around “insiders” and “outsiders”.
We like to think that we are unlike the Scribes and Pharisees in their smug superiority to Canaanite women, but, honestly, we do it all the time.
We feel like we are God’s exceptions because:
- we are not illegal aliens
we are not Muslims
we are not criminals,
we don’t have HIV/AIDS
we aren’t on welfare and on drugs
we don’t drive ratty cars and wear scary clothes
But this text calls us to cross boundaries.
Jesus calls us:
- to engage excluded people in dialogue,
to bring dignity to people who have been shut out of the conversation,
to be on the side of people who do not have:
adequate health care
who are discriminated against because of their sexual identity
or medical condition
to bring God’s healing mercy to people who need it
Because they need it, not because they have earned it,
– just exactly the same reason we received it.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit