The Rev. Frank
Food for the Dogs
I knew that woman was going to be trouble the moment I laid eyes on her. She was not one of us that was for sure. Her clothes, her jewelry, everything about that woman was Canaanite. As soon as we saw her, all of us disciples worked to keep ourselves between her and Jesus. Making sure her type doesn’t get too close is part of what a good disciple does for their Rabbi.
Not that I was surprised to see a Canaanite. We were walking near the border of Israel. In that area we often saw pagans in the towns and on the road. But good Jews knew to steer clear of people like that. And the Canaanites left us alone for the most part. They didn’t care for us and we certainly didn’t care for them. Canaanite’s were lower than Samaritans. That’s why we all called them dogs. Dogs. Wretched little dogs nipping at your heals.
Don’t look so shocked. You just don’t understand the bad blood between us Jews and those people. After all Canaanites were the remnants of the evil tribes who had lived in our land before Moses brought our ancestors out of Egypt. Canaanites were the nasty idol worshipping scum Joshua conquered as we took possessions of the Promised Land. Those people were depraved. You don’t know what sick practices they found normal. Canaanites sacrificed their own children to there idols! I don’t know the half of what those people did in their rituals myself and it still makes me sick.
The Canaanites were the ancient enemy who now lived on the borders of our land. The disgust I felt on seeing a Canaanite was mixed with a bit of fear, an ancient apprehension. A Canaanite always got the hair on my neck standing on end. Even the women, but especially that woman.
You always knew that Canaanites had no idea about how a decent person was to behave, but this woman was unbelievable. As soon as she saw Jesus through the pack of us disciples trying to keep her at bay, the Canaanite started calling out to him. Yelling like an idiot. What did that cur think she was doing? A woman talking to a Rabbi was strange enough, but we knew Jesus didn’t bother with that tradition. He always spoke with women as well as men. But this woman was bellowing through the crowd, yelling the strangest thing.
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”
She had her words so perfectly right when she was so completely wrong. It’s like hearing a precocious child explaining some complicated bit of learning. The words are all right, but you can’t quite believe the one saying them has any idea what they just said.
Lord, could mean “sir” but it was also what we Jews said instead of the name of God when reading scripture. So when you surrounded the word “Lord” with “Have mercy on me” and “Son of David” it was as good as calling Jesus God’s Son.
This was before any of us disciples had dared to name Jesus’ as God’s Son ourselves. I suspected it, knew it in my bones really, but I hadn’t dared say it yet, not even to my brother, Andrew.
Sure, we had seen some mighty miracles. Stuff that is hard to believe even when you see it with your own eyes—paralyzed people get up and walk, lepers made clean, the blind receiving their sight and the deaf hearing. Even with all of that, I think most of the disciples still thought of Jesus as a great Prophet like Elijah. And here was this foul beast crying out over and over, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” As if she could even possible know what those words meant. It was blasphemy!
She said her daughter was tormented by a demon. At least those words were true. “Your daughter’s a Canaanite, of course she is tormented by a demon. Woman, that’s what happens when you take part in those idol worshipping rituals.” That’s what I would have told her if I had bothered to speak with her at all.
But the woman got in close. Jesus heard her incessant mewling. He said nothing. He didn’t even look her way. Good. But the woman kept up her howling. So I told Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
Then Jesus turned to the woman, looked her right in the eyes and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Yes! Put her in her place I thought and I could tell the other disciples felt the same way. But the chutzpah of this woman was astounding. She wouldn’t leave. Instead, the Canaanite knelt down at Jesus’ feet and said, “Lord, help me.”
But Jesus had grown a backbone and he put her back in her place once more saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Perfect! Jesus referred to her as a dog. Even with that kind look in his eyes. This would show her that Jesus had just come for us Jews.
Then she said it. The most bizarre line in that oddest of encounters. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
I saw the look in Jesus’ eyes and I knew it was all over. Of course he healed the Canaanite woman’s little girl. Jesus loved encounters like this one. You could tell that he was delightfully amazed. There was no doubt that Jesus had loved every second of that little drama.
Why not? The woman believed. Really believed. It was like she knew who Jesus was and what he could do for her and she was going to ask until she got it. I can’t blame her really. Her daughter was hurting. What parent wouldn’t do everything they could in a situation like that?
Yet, if I was honest with myself, I was still at the point where if I were in her shoes I would have asked, “If you are the Son of David, command my daughter to be healed.”
The thing that galled me most in the whole scene was not that she could out faith me, though that did rankle me a bit. No, what really got me was that Jesus changed. There is no way around it; he was changed by this woman.
That was not what I wanted him to be like. I think that is why he called me Cephas, the Rock. That’s what Peter means and I lived into it. I was steady, solid and in those days often steadily and solidly wrong. Hey, at least I didn’t change. If nothing else, you could count on me. Even if you could only count on me to get it wrong.
Yet there was no way around it, Jesus was changed by this woman. He was dead set against taking the gifts that were by rights for the children of Israel and giving them to some pagan Canaanite. Then she cried out to him, he heard her and acted in a way that surprised all of us.
But time changes even a rock head like me. Within time I would come to see that the Good News Jesus had given to us Jews was for the whole world. I would even have to give that church-persecuting Saul his due. After his conversion and naming by God as Paul, he started really reaching out to the Gentiles and things changed. I hated it at first, but God showed me that it was all part of the plan all along.
My rough edges have eroded a bit with time and experience. Now I realize how much I have always counted on my words and actions having some effect on God. After all, if God will always do the same thing no matter what you say or do, why do you pray?
But God can be changed. It was right there in the scripture all along (Exodus 32). Moses goes up to get the 10 commandments, the people below wait 40 days and then Moses’ brother Aaron makes a golden calf and all fall back into idol worship. God is ready to strike every one of them down and then Moses speaks to God, imploring mercy for God’s people and God relents.
In the Book of Jonah, God declares destruction for Nineveh. The people repent, turning from their evil ways and God relents again.
I could go on with other examples, but you get the idea. Prayer changes things because God hears us when we call out, even if the answer isn’t always the one you had in mind. Prayer changes things. It’s not that prayer changes God from mean into nice, or from thinking one thing to thinking another, but there is a change.
If you think it’s all a coincidence that when you pray for things go better for you, stop praying and see how many coincidences like that occur.
The Canaanite woman yelled after Jesus and his mission of love and grace came to a small part of the rest of the world sooner than Jesus had thought would happen. Not only did that woman I thought of as a dog get what she wanted, but Jesus told her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
The twelve of us disciples were more than a little jealous of that last line, I can tell you that. Can you imagine? In just a few moments, we went from thinking she was beneath contempt, to being jealous of a Canaanite woman of all people. So her words might have had an effect on our Rabbi, but you would have to admit that the whole thing was a very Jesus encounter. How very like him to make room at God’s table for an outcast, after all he had already made room for the likes of me.
 M. Eugene Boring in his commentary on Matthew for The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII.
Taken from this quote from William Temple, “People tell me that answers to
prayer are merely coincidences. I can only reply that when I pray
coincidences happen and when I stop praying they stop happening.”