“Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Black lives matter, a cry we are hearing across the world. Many reply yes, but don’t all lives matter. That is true and yet this looses what is at the heart of that cry. As a child the harsh reality of racial hatred hit our family. Cousin David was stabbed and died while helping a young black man during a fight outside a dance hall in London.
During our teenage years Malcolm and I were involved with training youth leaders. Our tutor was the Social Scientist Richard Hausner; it was from him we learnt about discrimination in its many forms. We all know what outright racism and hatred of the other looks like, I did as a child, including the notice in the window of the boarding house next door, no Irish and no Blacks it was clear, but there are many shapes that lie beneath the surface of society now and how we interact with each other. I wonder if you have ever noticed it in our Bible, yes all of life lives in its pages.
Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is unsettling.
Jesus was less than eager to help this woman, explaining that his mission was first to the house of Israel. However, it was Jesus who had left Jewish territory and invaded this woman’s world. Furthermore, this Canaanite woman considered an unclean outsider, demonstrated that she had a better grasp of Jesus’ identity than the handpicked disciples had at this point. Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman unsettled boundaries and called into question definitions of clean and unclean.
Jesus had entered into Tyre and Sidon where the Canaanite woman instantly greeted him. It is remarkable that Jesus’ reputation had spread to this region and that she would somehow know who Jesus was. Matthew does not tell us that Jesus performed any signs in Tyre and Sidon before meeting her, yet she somehow recognised him, not just as a roaming healer, but also as a king.
The woman greeted Jesus as the “Son of David.” Her recognition was all the more remarkable because the disciples had been slow in fully recognising Jesus. Yet, this woman hailed him as the Son of David, begged for his mercy, and entreated him to use his power over a demon that possessed her daughter. How is it possible that this woman had more insight into Jesus’ identity than his disciples? She was, after all, an unclean outsider, part of a people who are remembered as an old and despised enemy of Israel.
Jesus’ response was, perhaps, the most perplexing piece of this narrative. At first, he didn’t say a word to her, but he refused to send her away. Only after her persistence did he talk with her. Twice, he explained to her that his mission was first to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Indeed, the narrative emphasised that the “house of Israel” had provided Jesus with more work than one labourer could feasibly handle. The need in Israel was indeed great.
The disciples, too, seemed to think that Jesus should stay focused on the needs of Israel. They were clearly acting in a racist and xenophobic way and they seemed to believe that they had superiority as Jews over other people and they didn’t want to engage on any level with this outsider in their midst. They kept telling him to send her away because they were tired of hearing her cries for help. Just like the police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, they didn’t listen.
Perhaps, Jesus’ refusal to listen to the disciples gave the woman hope that her request would be heard. She then did something that was significant she knelt before him. The magi, who were also Gentiles, were the first to offer worship to Jesus in this way. This woman knelt before the one whom she recognised as having authority not only to sit on the throne of David but also to wield power over evil.
Jesus’ response to her second cry for help included a repetition of his mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He even likened her status as a Gentile to the status of the pet dogs who long to be fed from the table. In first century Israel Canaanite people were readily referred to as dogs. The woman, however, was not deterred. She claimed a place in the household, but it was a not a position of privilege or even the position of an insider. She accepted the status of a family’s dog by claiming that even the dogs enjoyed crumbs from the table.
Her statement is striking. She placed hope in what others had discarded. This Son of David had so much power that there was enough power for the house of Israel and more than enough left over for her. She was not trying to thwart his mission. She just wanted a crumb, recognizing that even a crumb was powerful enough to defeat the demon that possessed her daughter.
Jesus praised her faith. This woman seemed to understand what the members of the household of Israel had yet to grasp. Jesus was not only hope for Israel, but also hope for the world.
In the passage immediately before this story, Jesus responded to challenges from the scribes and Pharisees by resetting the boundaries of clean and unclean. Jesus declared that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and what comes out of the heart determines what makes one clean. What came out of the Canaanite woman’s heart was faith, certainty that Jesus had power enough for Israel and power enough to save her non-Israelite daughter.
Her words demonstrate that the boundary separating her from the house of Israel must be reconsidered. With a faith so pure, how could she be deemed unclean? The disciples don’t just tolerate the difference - they actively engage with it, they are prepared to be challenged by it and to allow themselves to grow through this cross-cultural interaction. The encounter with the Canaanite woman prepares us all for Jesus’ great commission to go and to make disciples of all the nations.
This encounter is regularly remembered in our Eucharistic liturgy, we stand with her as we say together “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy…” Reading about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman reminds the church that God is constantly entering new territory and setting new boundaries. This God is in the unsettling business of meeting outsiders and granting them not just a crumb, but also a place at the table. What life lesson did I learn from Richard Hausner, well to take people as you find them, share a meal and to be colour blind.
The Rev'd Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 16/08/2020