Good morning. When I was a kid, I remember listening to stories
about my great grandma Nanaw, whom I never met. Nanaw was my mother’s paternal
grandmother, and I never heard a nice story about her. In fact, this past week,
I contacted a family member about Nanaw. And this person, who shall remain
anonymous, wrote in an email:
“It’s not nice to speak of the dead in a negative
way, but Nanaw was one mean old woman. Straight as a stick in her corset
and blue hair, she drove like she was the only person on the road.”
By the way, did I mention she was from Texas. I’m not sure
that has any bearing on the story, but I just thought I would throw that out
Anyway, this past week, as I was reflecting on today’s
gospel story, I was reminded of a story about Nanaw, which concerns my mother’s
brother, Uncle Ted, and his wife, Aunt Jeannie. It was the 1950s. And in order
to save up money to buy a house, Uncle Ted and Aunt Jeannie were living in a very
small cabin at a tourist court. They lived there with their two little boys,
Mike and Blaire, who were both under three years of age. The cabin had two
rooms, which were about the size of a walk-in closet, and they used to bathe
the kids in the sink.
One day, Nanaw came for a visit. Upon arrival, she
accidently ran over Mike’s tricycle, which she denied. She then came into the
house with her little dog Sniffles, who proceeded to pee on the floor. Nanaw
was also carrying a package, which she placed in the refrigerator. Uncle Ted
and Aunt Jeannie were sure that it was a roast, and they were excited about the
prospects of eating meat. They all visited for a while, and then Nanaw asked
them to turn on the oven. “Turn on the oven,” she said, “because Sniffles is
hungry, and I need to cook his dinner.” Shock! Disbelief! As it turned out, they
had guessed correctly. It was a roast, and Nanaw fed the entire roast to
Sniffles. Nanaw was, indeed, one mean old woman, taking the grandchildren’s
food and feeding it to a little dog.
It’s Not Fair
to Take the Children’s Food and throw it to the dogs
What’s Up with Jesus?
I begin with this shocking story about a mean old woman
because, in today’s gospel, Jesus says and does some shocking things, which could
be construed as mean, or at the very least, rude.
Our gospel opens with Jesus and his disciples out on
the road. They have left behind their familiar Jewish homeland of Galilee, and
they are traveling through foreign lands, Gentile lands.
While there, they come in contact with Gentiles, which is not particularly
surprising. What is surprising is how Jesus responds to a Gentile woman, who is
distraught over the condition of her demon-possessed daughter. This desperate,
grieving mother—follows Jesus shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” (15:22b).
And what does Jesus do? He ignores her.
He doesn’t say a word. He simply goes on about his business. Then, when his
disciples—who are themselves motivated by annoyance rather than
compassion—approach Jesus about the situation, he responds, “I was sent only to
the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Upon hearing this, the woman falls down at
his feet and begs him, “Lord, help me.”
And what does Jesus say? He says, “It is not fair
to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:24). Wow! Did Jesus just call this woman’s
daughter a dog? That doesn’t sound like Jesus.
None of this sounds like Jesus. Jesus doesn’t refuse requests for healing. And
the only people he ever insults are the scribes and Pharisees.
So what’s going on here?
Let me begin by saying that the very fact that Jesus seems
so out of character is our first clue that more is going on here than meets the
eye. To better understand what’s going on with Jesus, we need a bit of
First of all, we need to remember that Jesus is a
Jew, an Israelite, a member of the chosen people of God. Secondly, we need to
remember that Israel was chosen by God, not for privilege but for service. For
example, when the Lord first
called Abraham and Sarah, he told them,
I will make of you a
great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will
be a blessing…. [I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Gen 12:2,
Then, following the Exodus from Egypt, the Lord made a covenant with Israel. “I
will be your God; and you will be my people.” “[Y]ou shall be my treasured
possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you
shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exod 19:5b–6a). This
as Israel lived in covenant
relationship with God, Israel would begin to acquire and embody the very
character of God…. This would enable God’s chosen people to serve as God’s
priests to the world, as those who would mediate the presence, knowledge, and
forgiveness of God to all peoples everywhere. Thus, being God’s treasured
people did not so much characterize Israel’s status as it defined Israel’s vocation;
being the chosen people of God signified obligation not privilege.
But Israel struggled to live out its vocation, and
Israel’s history is characterized by a failure to keep the covenant. So
persistent were Israel’s failures that God eventually sent them into exile
among the nations. And yet, despite this, God never ultimately abandoned his
people. God remained faithful, even when Israel did not. And so, through the
prophets, like Jeremiah and Isaiah, God begins to rekindle hope. “One day,” the
Lord says, “I will send my
servant, anointed with my Spirit, to restore the fortunes of my people.” And
when that happens, when Israel is restored, then all the nations of the world
will experience the blessings and salvation of Israel’s God.
So, when Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost
sheep of the house of Israel,” he is not rejecting Gentiles. He is simply
clarifying the nature and scope of his earthly ministry. Jesus is Israel’s
Messiah. It is his task to seek out and gather together God’s wayward,
scattered people. In this respect, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s faithfulness.
Israel, like sheep, has gone astray; Jesus has come to shepherd them home.
There will be a Gentile mission; but won’t be
carried by the Messiah. Instead, it will be conducted by the followers of the
Messiah. We see this at the end of Matthew. In the final scene of the gospel,
the resurrected Jesus instructs his followers to go into the world and make
disciples of all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike.
But in today’s reading, we are not to that point.
Jesus’ mission is to the Jews. He has come to bless the children of God so that
they, in turn, might be a blessing to the Gentiles. And how has Jesus blessed
Israel? Through his teaching, his healings, his exorcisms, his pronouncements
of forgiveness, his table-fellowship with tax-collectors and sinners. All of
these a part of God’s blessings for Israel, and it is from within this context
that Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s
food and throw it to the dogs” (Matt 15:26). It is not right to
Yes, Lord. Yet
even the dogs eat the
crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.
The woman takes no offense. Quite the contrary, she
concedes the rightness of Jesus statement. “Yes, Lord,” she says. And with
great humility, this Gentile accepts the privileged position that the Jews
occupy in the economy of salvation. They are the children; they are the masters
of the table.
But she is not asking for their bread, only the
crumbs. She does not wish to take their blessings. Instead, she only wishes to
partake of the bits of leftover blessings that have fallen from the masters’
table. What humility! What faith! And Jesus recognizes it: “Woman, great is
your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matt 15:28). And her daughter
was healed instantly.
To believe that mere crumbs were sufficient to
heal her daughter is remarkable. And, oh how there has been an abundance of
crumbs falling from the Lord’s table. Just two weeks ago, Jesus fed a crowd of
five thousand with just a few loaves and fish. And afterwards, the disciples
gathered up twelve baskets full of leftover crumbs. Twelve basketfuls! That’s
more leftovers than what they started with. And the Gentiles want those crumbs.
And so, they push forward, looking for the crumbs of blessing. In Matthew’s
gospel, Jesus does not go to Gentiles, but they make their way to him. God’s
blessings are in such abundant supply that even Jesus cannot contain them. As
he says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has
suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Oh, to be possessed by
such a faith. The faith that seeks the crumbs of blessing that fall from the
Lord’s table; the faith which knows that a small bit of bread and a taste of
wine are an entire banquet, more than enough to satisfy our souls.
Boldness and Humility
Israel was chosen to be blessed first that they might go
forth and bless all nations, for God’s desire is and has always been to bless all
peoples everywhere. The Canaanite woman approached Jesus with all boldness and
humility. She knew his ministry was to the Jews . . . yet, she asked for a
blessing anyway… and she was blessed.
At times, we all feel as if we are the
marginalized, those at the sidelines, those who are “not” chosen. So, on what basis
do we go to God? The Canaanite woman does not approach Jesus on her own merit,
she approaches Jesus on his merit. Likewise, we approach God on God’s merit,
not on our own. As I have said before, it is not about who we are, it is about
who God is. The Canaanite woman recognized who Jesus was, and she knew that
even his crumbs were enough to heal her daughter.
So let us boldly approach God, not based on who we
are, but on who God has shown himself to be. Let us approach God in the spirit
of the Prayer of Humble access:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O
merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great
mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.
But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 This is strange because earlier in
Matthew, when Jesus sends the Twelve out on their first apostolic mission, he
explicitly instructs them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of
the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”
 Which must have taken a concerted
effort on the part of Jesus. After all, think of the pictures we have seen on
the news of middle-eastern women wailing for their children who have been cut
down by the violence, crying out for justice. I imagine that is the sort of
situation that is being portrayed here.
 Not only does this account about Jesus
differ from the stereotypical portrait of Jesus that we are used to in our
society; it differs from the portrait that Matthew has been constructing
throughout his gospel.
 … when they are being narrow-minded and
when they are straining out gnats and swallowing camels
 Lots of explanations have been offered
to explain what’s going on with Jesus. For example, in recent years, it has
been suggested that this story—recounted both here in Matthew and also in
Mark—offers a glimpse of Jesus’ humanity. The argument goes, that Jesus, being
a first-century Jew, would have shared his Jewish contemporaries’ disdain for
Gentiles. In refusing to heal this Gentile woman’s daughter, Jesus appeals to
the privileged position of the Jews as the chosen people of God. Yet, this
woman’s persistence and witty rejoinder challenges Jesus’ prejudice and
parochialism. Jesus has a change of heart with regard to Gentiles, and after
this point in the narrative, opens his ministry to Gentiles as well. Often this
interpretation is used to elevate the status of women; after all, this Gentile
woman teaches Jesus something. Now, while I am all for elevating women and
girls in a society that has tended to devalue them, and while there are other
things that I find attractive, the evidence simply does not support it. For
while Jesus does not engage in a mission to Gentiles in the gospel of Matthew,
he does not refuse Gentiles when they seek him out, as was the case with the
 When faced with troubling texts like
this one, as a preacher, I am often tempted to defend Jesus. I am tempted to
dismiss or explain away all of the supposed difficulties, in order to “rescue”
Jesus, as it were. I don’t think I am alone in this. But, I am also aware of
the fact that so many of my efforts to “save” Jesus, in the end, are actually
designed to make Jesus appear more relevant and appealing to a twenty-first
century audience, by showing how Jesus actually reflects and embodies our
enlightened twenty-first century values and sensibilities. But Jesus doesn’t need
to be rescued; we do.
that being said, I would argue that Jesus’ words and actions in today’s gospel
are not as troubling as they, at first, would seem to be. And in fact, the fact
that Jesus seems to be acting so out of character is our first clue that more
is going on here than meets the eye.
 J. Ted Blakley, A Lector’s Guide and Commentary to the Revised Common Lectionary: Year
B, 237 (modified).
Lord, we are not worthy that thou shouldst come under our roof,
but speak the work only and our souls shall be healed.