Commentary on Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus is seen on one of his few visits outside Jewish territory. The cities of Tyre and Sidon are on the Mediterranean coast in what is today Lebanon.
While he is there he is approached by a Canaanite (that is, a non-Jewish) woman whose child is “troubled by a demon”. Whether it was an actual possession or some natural physical or mental ailment does not really matter. Already the woman’s faith and trust in Jesus is indicated by the way she addresses him, “Lord, Son of David!” coupled with her plea for his compassion.
At first, Jesus ignores her completely. The disciples intervene and ask Jesus to give her what she wants because she is making such a nuisance of herself. Jesus replies that his mission is only to the “house of Israel”, to which this woman clearly does not belong.
In the meantime the woman continues her pleading, “Help me, Lord!” She is following, in fact, advice that the Gospel gives – keep on asking. Jesus replies in words that sound very harsh, if not racist: “It is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”
‘Dogs’, together with ‘swine’, was a common colloquial expression among Jews for Gentiles (cf. Matt 7:6: “Do not give what is holy to dogs or cast your pearls before swine.”) The dog was regarded as an unclean and promiscuous animal. Because it was such a common expression, it is probably not as harsh as it sounds to us and, if spoken with a measure of humour (implied by Jesus’ use of the diminutive, ‘doggies’), would not have given offence at all. As they say, everything is in the tone of voice. (Not unlike when my Chinese friends call me a gwai-lo [‘devil fellow'] – a common term for non-Chinese.) Jesus was not a racist; that is clear from other situations where he dealt with non-Jews and with other commonly despised groups.
For her part, the woman certainly is not in the least fazed. She comes right back: “Even the dogs eat the leavings that fall from their masters’ tables.” That was enough for Jesus. She had proved her genuineness. “Woman, you have great faith. Your wish will come to pass.” Her daughter was cured on the spot.
It is a hint of what is to come. Membership of God’s people will be measured not by birth or circumcision but by a living faith in Jesus as Lord.
A story like this is an occasion for us to look at our own attitudes to people of other races, ethnic groups and nationalities not to mention the socially disadvantaged or physically or mentally disabled – in other words, any people who are ‘different’. How inclusive are we in word and action? And does our parish community go out of its way to provide a welcome for the ‘outsider’? These are very real questions in societies which are becoming more and more inter-cultural.