Cards on the table – I’m uncomfortable with this story.
I always have been. I think it’s the way Jesus comes across – here’s a woman who desperately needs help for her daughter, and instead of jumping straight in there and healing the kid, Jesus is dismissive, appearing not to want to help the woman because she isn’t Jewish. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and I’d much rather Jesus be eager to help someone who’s suffering, thank you very much. Our sympathy is with the woman, not Jesus. Maybe that’s the point.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend I fully understand this, but there’s more going on that I originally realised. The language Jesus uses here may be uncomfortable, but it seems to be making a bigger point, and as the gospel writer, Matthew seems to be pushing us in a certain direction. Something’s going on here…
Okay, first of all, where’s the woman from? Tyre and Sidon, in modern day Lebanon. In other words, not Israel. So when he says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”, it’s not that straightforward because he’s deliberately walked to a non-Jewish area. Sure, there may be Jewish residents in Tyre and Sidon, but if he’s really only focused on Israel then he’s going about it in a funny way. The word ‘only’ is interesting as well – working with the lost sheep of Israel first is one thing, but only? That’s an exclusivity that doesn’t seem to marry up with the rest of the New Testament. In fact, it flat out contradicts what happens in Matthew 8, where Jesus heals a centurion’s servant, praises the faith of this gentile and goes on to talk about how non-Jews will have a part in the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
So, does Jesus say anything else about Tyre and Sidon that might explain his attitude towards the woman?
Matthew 11:21-22: ““Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you…”
The pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon are closer to God than towns in Galilee? An occupying Roman centurion has greater faith than Israel?
And this woman gets ignored? Nah, there’s a twist somewhere.
And anyway, she isn’t completely ignored. Jesus tells her that you don’t feed your kids’ bread to dogs; the woman replies that even dogs get crumbs from the table. And it’s that response that gets Jesus’s attention, resulting in her faith being praised and her daughter being healed.
Even though she’s been compared to a dog. In some ways, Jesus’s words echo the Sermon on the Mount – don’t give dogs what is sacred – but there he’s talking about wild, unclean, feral dogs; the word here refers to a pet, which makes things a little better, I guess, but it’s still uncomfortable language. At least when he’s talking about lost sheep, it plays in to an Old Testament metaphor with layers of meaning and history and theology behind it.
But the woman seems to accept it. Maybe she picks up on an underlying point that the disciples don’t – that God isn’t just for Israel, even if that’s where the whole things starts. Maybe Jesus is right to focus on particular communities at the moment, but right now this woman needs help and if Jesus has moved on tomorrow, then she’s willing to take today’s crumbs because it might be the last chance she gets.
Maybe that’s why Jesus praises her faith – he’s not one option among many, another tick list. Meeting him is last chance saloon for the woman’s daughter, and in a world where messianic claimants were fairly commonplace, the woman’s trust in Jesus is quite radical. In fact, she illustrates to the disciples (who wanted to send her away) what Jesus was saying in Matthew 11. If they’d had their way, she’d have gone away and left them in peace… And her daughter would remain unhealed. Yes, Jesus’s language sounds harsh, but maybe it’s rhetorical, aimed at an audience of 12 men who would one day have to carry the message of Jesus far beyond Israel’s borders. They need to see that people from outside their community can have faith in their God, because that’s going to be their mission in years to come.
I still don’t know if I’m entirely happy with the story, and I’m not pretending to have any great answers here. But the Bible is bigger and more complicated than we sometimes give it credit for, it’s meant to challenge our assumptions and make us ask questions. The sheep and dogs in this story have, for me, been a reminder of that.
And that’s before we start looking at the bread…
(Thanks to @AcombParish, who inspired me to look at this story in more detail.)