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.
Jesus appears very xenophobic and uncharacteristically harsh in his attitude towards the Canaanite woman who went to him seeking deliverance for her daughter. How does one explain this? Let us take this passage step by step, because everything that happens in this story is of importance, and it will help us to gain a proper understanding of Jesus’ words.
Just before this event takes place, Jesus has blasted the Pharisees — yet again — about how their focus was more on external practices rather than the internal state of the heart. Then he goes to Tyre and Sidon, which were Gentile cities; that is cities that were not Jewish. However, they had a significant Jewish population and Jesus enters a house that belongs to one of them. This is important. His apostles, who were also Jews, are present with him.
Jesus doesn’t want anyone to know he is there, so he tells his Jewish hosts to keep his visit quiet. However, people — Gentile people — notice and seek him out. This is also important. One of these Gentiles is a woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit. She comes and kneels before Jesus, thus acknowledging who he is. She then begs him to help her. Jesus tells her that the blessings she seeks—he uses the metaphor “bread” in Mark’s gospel—are for the children.
Who are the “children” that Jesus was talking about? The Jews thought of themselves as the chosen people of God, so this was undoubtedly a reference to them. Jesus then says that it wasn’t fair to take their food and throw it to the dogs. Why dogs? Because, the JEWS referred to the Gentiles as dogs. The woman, amazingly taking no offense and showing remarkable presence of mind, says that even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.
And now one can imagine Jesus smiling, pleased at her response, then looking pointedly at the Jews and raising an eyebrow: “Did you guys understand any of this? This woman is part of a race that you call “dogs”. Yet, despite not being among the “chosen people” like you, she still recognized me for who I am, while you, who should know better, don’t. She sought my blessings, knowing that a crumb from the table of heaven was enough for her needs. Yet, you, reject everything that is laid out on the table for you.”
Now, that was all about the Jews. How about us? Do we recognize the blessings that are ours to have, or is it going to take an unbeliever to point out what we have? Something to think about today.
May the Spirit be with you.