Lectionary Reflection: When “Dogs” are greater than Pastors



Today we’ll be wrapping up our Lectionary series.

Our passage this week comes from Matthew 15:10-28…

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

So, what’s going on here?

In this passage, we’re reading two conversations. One with the Pharisees, and later on, one with a Canaanite woman.

These conversations look somewhat isolated, but in many ways they are also connected.

The Pharisees

Jesus and the Pharisees have common thread that runs through nearly ever one of their disagreements.

Law versus heart.

What is the reason for your commitment to God? What is your attitude? Are you humble? Are you gracious? Loving?

You see, within the Pharisaic world, there was a belief that the Messiah would come when Israel fully obeyed the laws of God.

They believed it was the laws that brought redemption and purity. This was the background of their fervor. The future was at stake, and the pharisees viewed the Jewish people and their actions by these unrealistic and unattainable standards.

This thread runs to the heart of the argument we begin with today. They are arguing about food, and what food makes you unclean.

Jewish people had, and still have today (if they follow the Jewish Orthodox faith) extremely strict rules for what they eat, and how they prepare their food.

To eat something forbidden is and was to defile themselves. To defile themselves meant they needed to offer sacrifice or risk a falling away from their family and religious community. There is incredible social and religious pressure here.

For Jesus to have this debate with the Pharisees is for Jesus to go against hundreds, and even thousands of years of law and tradition.

The Disciples

This conversation is so shocking even His disciples aren’t sure if Jesus really means what he’s saying. Because of this doubt, the disciples come up to him afterwards and ask, Jesus, you sure that’s what you mean?

And Jesus, frustrated they’ve once again missed the point (this happens quite often, doesn’t it?) replies, “Are you still so dull?”

Which is a fantastic response. He says, “really, seriously? You STILL don’t get it?!” ::Insert messianic facepalm here::

He goes on to explain that what goes in doesn’t define a person. After all, it’s just food which will get broken down, and released into the toilet. A dirty and unclean end.

What comes out of our mouth, however, that has a deeper meaning. It unveils the secret parts of ourselves. It shows what we try so hard to mask.

It shows our heart, and unlike our the food we eat, our heart endures.

We see this in a far more deep and meaningful way.

First, though, let’s continue the story now:

22 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.”

23 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.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Tyre and Sidon

Immediately after leaving the Pharisees, Jesus and His disciples went to the land of Tyre and Sidon. What’s important to know about Tyre and Sidon is that these towns were Gentile cities, and were located some 50 miles away.

This journey wasn’t an accident. Jesus went all this way to meet this one Gentile woman’s need.

A Canaanite woman

To understand the full magnitude of who she is, and where they are, it’s important to know that Matthew included “Canaanite” here for a reason.

Matthew wanted his readers to know that she was an unclean, and unwelcome woman. Her people were historically the ones who broke the laws of purity and worshiped other gods. They had a name and reputation as those not welcomed.

When this unknown Canaanite woman first calls out to Jesus, she calls him the Son of David- a public statement of who she believes him to be. She believes He’s the Messiah. Shocking because this is an understanding most Jewish people, as well as most religiously educated leaders, could or would not believe.

With this woman having such a deep understanding of who He is, you’d think Jesus would have jumped at the chance to heal this woman’s daughter who was afflicted by a demon, right?

He doesn’t.

The Canaanite is calling. Calling. Desperately calling.

Jesus, however, doesn’t respond. It’s important to also notice the passage doesn’t say He doesn’t hear…only that he is silent.

This is strange, and Jesus’ disciples pick up on it.

They tell Jesus, “Send her away…” the word for “send” having the understanding of a request being fulfilled. In other words, they said, “Give her what she wants Jesus so we can have some peace and quite!”

He responds, honestly, rather coldly. He tells the disciples and to the lady who is now next to him, that he wasn’t sent for the gentiles. He was sent for the Jews.

Undeterred, She comes back by dropping to the ground, kneeling before him, and pleading with him. She pleads, “Lord, help me!”

Seeing her dedication, Jesus rebuffs her one more time.

Jesus says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Here you will find some cultural baggage. It was common in the Jewish world at the time, to compare gentiles, or those outside the Jewish faith, to dogs.

So, this is a bit disconcerting, right? I mean, if Jesus is truly concerned with care, love and compassion, why would he compare this poor woman to a dog?

Two thoughts:
It’s not quite as bad as it appears. If you dig down into the language of this comparison, you’ll find that Jesus softens this word. Instead of comparisons to mangy street dogs- the typical comparison- Jesus compares her to a house pet. An animal which is cleaner, cuter, and more acceptable of love.

Many commentaries even suggest that, were we to hear the tone in which Jesus spoke these words, they would have been in a more playful and soft manner. Not hard and calloused as it seems by text alone.

However, we will never know that for sure.

What we DO know brings us to our second point.

2. Jesus is working towards an end goal here. He is moving this woman to a particular place. He’s not being calloused and he’s not being cruel. He is being true, and he’s being King.

In front of this crowd, Jesus lays this woman bare. He names her for what she is; a woman, without hope of acceptance at the table of spirituality. He names her as unwanted (by Jewish standards) and without any place and without any worth. He says, you’re not quite as bad as most people say, but what makes you think you deserve a miracle?

Jesus is leading this woman to a place of his choosing. He’s calling and inviting, and she responds magnificently.

In response to this calling her a dog, the Canaanite woman says: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

This is as beautiful a response as could be given.

Jesus publicly names her as the woman she was; a woman without hope of a future. She had no name, no religion and no Jewish social standing. This woman was, in every sense of the word, worthless to the world. And I’m sure to her, in her heart, she felt worthless to God as well.

She really, truly gets it

Jesus puts this into words when she says, “Jesus, you’re right. I’m not worthy. I’m not a child of the King. I understand you’re focus isn’t to people like me. I know there are more worthy people to save. I get it.”

She goes on to say, “even if I am a house pet, that’s worth something, for even a dog will themselves privy to a few scraps here and there. Yes, Jesus, I get it. There’s many who are higher than I. But even if it’s possible to be blessed with the scraps from your table, that’s more than enough for me.”

Boom. A moment of theological depth and understanding.

This woman without a name, and without a background, understood what those who studied the Law never could; We are all without a name. We are all without a title. We are owed nothing. Hope isn’t a luxury people like us have.

This truth was spoken, and from this womans mouth came who she really was.

We come back full circle to this conversation with the Pharisees.

The pharisees believed they were defined by their ability to refrain from the things that turned them into common dogs.

The Canaanite woman understood that no matter what she did, she would never be enough, and through this humility, spoke the truth that only God can make right.

The sum of who she was added up to the worth of a common household pet.

Only God can invite to the table, and only God defines who is welcome.

Because of this Canaanite woman’s faith, her daughter was healed.

This story comes to a close as Jesus tells this woman that her faith has healed her daughter. He says she is a woman of great faith, and because of this, because she gets it, her daughter- her offspring- will reap the benefits.

The Pharisees and the Canaanite woman both came into contact with Jesus, and only one found the gift that Jesus was offering; the gift of life.

The Kingdom of God is a backwards place. A place where dogs are the greatest and the religious leaders are relegated to the latrine.


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