The Canine Canaanite

The Canine Canaanite – August 20th, 2017

Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.


We begin with a look at the characters in our story.

Jesus has stepped over a boundary, out of Israel and into modern day Lebanon, Our impression is that he is getting away from the crowds that have worn him out with their demands.  He seems to be on vacation.  It’s rest and recreation.

The disciples have travelled with him.  They know the stress he’s been under.  They want to protect him from intrusion.  They just want something to happen so this woman will go away.

The woman is a Canaanite.  She is of the conquered people cast out of Israel.  She is, of course, a woman, having little status in that society.  For her to approach a man for a favor is forbidden.  But she is a mother.  Like mothers generally, she loves her daughter and will go to extremes to arrange for the child’s healing.  We imagine she has been everywhere in search of help.  Now Jesus is her last hope.

She dares to approach Jesus.  She comes respectfully, acknowledges him as a Jew, a son of David, and begs his mercy upon her ailing daughter.  She is met with silence.

Some have interpreted this silence and Jesus later comments as a desire to do nothing for her.  After all, she is not of his people.  Indeed he effectively calls her a dog.

Yes, a dog!  This has bothered me for decades.  It seems entirely out of character for Jesus to do this.  He had his issues with the Pharisees when they lacked compassion.  With common citizens Jesus was a model of compassion.  Furthermore, in the eighth chapter of Matthew we read how Jesus healed the servant of a Roman Centurion saying, “I have not found such faith in all Israel.”  If Jesus was so eager to accommodate the Centurion, why is he reluctant to heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter?

Well, I think I have figured this out.  The Greek word used for dog refers not just to any dog.  It does not refer to the dogs lose in the street raiding the garbage cans.  We should translate this word, “doggie.”  It refers to the pet dog whose presence is treasured, the dog who is fed, not with garbage, but table scraps.  As compared with dog, there is a certain fondness implied when we say doggies.

So I imagine Jesus with glint in his eye, saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the doggies.”   He is inviting the woman to make precisely the response she makes.  “Even the doggies get the scraps.”

Given that understanding, I want to comment on three things and offer three words.  Boundaries.  Persistence.  Friendship.

Jesus crossed boundaries.  He went past Israel into the region of Tyre and Sidon.  He crossed a boundary when he spoke with a woman of Canaan, a hated and disgraced people.  He crossed a boundary when he healed the woman’s daughter.  Jesus was one for tearing down the walls that divide people.

Having said that, you and I must also recognize some boundaries must be maintained.  I am told that setting appropriate boundaries helps keep really good people from doing incredibly stupid things.  So, for example, we have rules about how male pastors will relate to women in the church.  We do all we can to avoid having pastors handle the church’s money.  Not because pastors can’t be trusted, but so the church may be preserved from even the whisper of impropriety.

What I’ve said about pastors should bring to mind the ways in which for all of us there are boundaries that help us maintain healthy relationships between men and women, between bosses and employees.  Maintaining proper boundaries is a sign of respect.

Setting boundaries that deprive others because of their sex, their race or their religion—those are the kind of walls Jesus would tear down.  For those cases you and I are apprentices at pulling down the walls that divide, the walls give no one respect.

Our task is to see that all persons have access to God’s love and grace.  See that all people have access to the necessities of life.  Welcome all persons into our fellowship of faith.  Jesus tore down walls.

This woman was persistent.  She was polite, but persistent.  She was persistent in her prayer.  A number of stories in the New Testament encourage you and me to be persistent in our prayers.

I’m not convinced that this woman’s prayer changed the mind of Jesus.  I think he was delighted by her willingness to spar with him.  He was delighted by her commitment to the task of making this prayer.

I believe God also delights in us when we persist in prayer.  God wants our prayers.

I believe that the best hope we have for the future of the church is in spiritual formation.  It is in the development of each individual’s spiritual life and it is in the faithful practice of prayer and discernment in the corporate life of the church.  To become persistent in prayer means also becoming persistent in seeking to know God’s desire for our life together.

It is through our persistent prayers and our spiritual practice that you and I become friends of God.  Moses is remembered for standing before God and insisting God not abandon his feckless people.  I’m amused to find, in the Gospel that presents Jesus as the new Moses to find this Canaanite woman playing the role of Moses as she pleads for her daughter.

I think the day my son and I became friends was the day he was able to argue with me man to man.  We became friends.  I was still the father who reluctantly allowed his checkbook to be raided when the need was there.  He was still the son.  And within that framework, we were friends.

I am reminded of God’s words to Ezekiel, “Stand up.  Stand up on your own two feet and I will speak to you.”  When Ezekiel was confronted by the presence of God he “fell on his face.”  Well, that is Bible-speak for kneeling and putting the nose to the floor.  And God said, “Stand up!”

God wants you and me to stand up.  Stand up and speak what is on our minds.  Stand up and argue for what is right.  Stand up and take our place as God’s beloved.

Our argument with God may seem to change nothing, but I assure you something will change.

I think it is when we are able to be fully honest with God that we become friends of God and an important step is to be persistent in prayer.

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