One of the most remarkable encounters in the gospels takes place between Jesus and the Canaanite woman who asks him to heal her demon-possessed daughter (Matt. 15:21-28). When Jesus associates her with the “dogs” who have no right to receive what is being offered to the children of Israel, we might well be taken aback. Especially if we hear an echo of Matthew 7:6: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine.”
What are we to make of this?
Dogs Means Dogs
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Bible interpreters have attempted to tone down Jesus’ words. Because the word for “dogs” here is the diminutive form of the word that appears in Matthew 7:6, some have suggested that the risk of insult is greatly diminished, perhaps nonexistent. But although this means that Jesus is likely speaking of household dogs rather than wild dogs, it does nothing to lessen the negative connotations. Jews at that time did not keep dogs as pets. In the world of the New Testament, dogs belonged to, and thus characterized, the unclean world of the Gentiles.
Rather, Jesus’ abrasive words are deliberate.
As Jesus himself says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 11:6, NRSV). This is not the first-century equivalent of saying, “No offense, but. . . .” The New International Version of the Bible interprets this verse as referring to the person who is so scandalized by Jesus that he or she is in danger of losing faith: “Blessed is the [person] who does not fall away on account of me.”
Yet in sharp contrast to the reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus’ words a few verses earlier (see Matt. 15:12), this Gentile woman shows us that if we have the audacious, assertive faith to stay open, then the most jarring of sayings may take on new meaning.
But not if we water them down.
A Sword and a Baby
If blessing lies on what we might call the “other side” of the offense, we too need to hear the full force of Jesus’ words. At this point we might do well to turn to the Old Testament to see how truth is encountered in the context of Wisdom.
The well-known story involving a king, a sword, two prostitutes, and a baby
(1 Kings 3) creates quite an impression. The royal command to cut the living child in two astonishes us. Because this event follows immediately after King Solomon’s prayer for discernment in ruling Israel, this part of the narrative is a telling example of what we might call “Wisdom in action.” Scripture tells us nothing about what might be going through Solomon’s mind. Instead we are invited to discern truth from what happens.
At the end of the chapter, we read that “all Israel . . . stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.” By this stage, we know by her reaction which of the two women is the baby’s true mother. In the Hebrew language, the compassion that burns within her (verse 26) is related to the word for womb. And it is this inner truth that gives direction to Solomon.
It helps to know that the “understanding mind” or “discerning heart” that Solomon prays for (verse 9) is literally a “listening” or “receptive” heart. So Solomon’s wisdom includes receiving the prostitute’s compassion as revelation. But we still have to come to terms with Solomon’s initial order for the child to be cut in two.
Some might prefer to think that Solomon knew what would happen and that no risk was involved. Others might think that it took the love of a mother to rectify the recklessness of a king.
How can either be Wisdom in action?
Bread for Gentiles
I find it significant that Proverbs 8 intimately associates Wisdom with creation. Because new possibilities are brought into being when the knowledge of good and evil is exercised (1 Kings 3:9, Gen. 2:9), the movement from “before” to “after” has a special character. It is hard to describe this creative discontinuity. Perhaps we can imagine a leap of faith at this point, as if the heart of reality skips a beat. In initiating the transition from old to new, Wisdom has a uniquely provocative and evocative character.
In that light, let’s return to the story of the Gentile woman. Initially, her cry for Jesus to have mercy on her is met with complete silence (Matt. 15:25). When the disciples urge Jesus to send her away, they may be asking him to give in to her demands and heal quickly. Yet Jesus refuses, declaring that he has been sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”—reiterating his instructions in Matthew 10:5-6.
When the woman kneels before Jesus, saying, “Lord, help me,” the third negative is unmistakable. Finally addressing her directly, he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The woman’s reply—“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”—is as bold as it is discerning. Although in English this may read as though the woman speaks with meek acceptance, the grammar is assertive; her “Yes” directly contradicts what Jesus has said.
Second, what the woman does with Jesus’ words is remarkable. In what becomes a profound commentary on Jesus’ reenvisioning of the clean/unclean distinction, which has just proven so offensive to the Pharisees (Matt. 15:1-20), she takes Jesus’ own sharp contrast between the children and the dogs into the Gentile household, where the distinction is transformed.
If we are familiar with the story, we know Jesus affirms her great faith and declares her daughter healed. But the full significance of her answer, and the full impact of her unsubmissive faith, can be appreciated only when read within the wider narrative context.
In her wise answer, the children’s food that falls from the table is actually bread (Matt. 15:26, NIV), which refers the reader back to the feeding of the 5,000 and the 12 baskets of leftovers that symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel (Matt. 14:20). The theme of bread also anticipates what happens next.
If Jesus’ provocative and evocative Wisdom is met with the assertive faith of the Gentile woman, this, in turn, now takes on the character of the Wisdom that Jesus himself will follow. Jesus therefore remains in “pagan” territory (the Decapolis of Mark 7:31), where the people come to praise “the God of Israel” (Matt. 15:31). The feeding of the 4,000 that immediately follows is thus a feeding of Gentiles!
And not just any Gentiles. For we can now understand why this Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:26) is introduced as a “Canaanite.” The seven baskets of bread remaining from the feeding of the 4,000 symbolize the condemned Canaanite nations listed in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 (see Sylvia Keesmaat and Grant LeMarquand’s excellent Banner article “Genocide or Healing?” March 2007).
This story encourages us all to exercise the audacity of faith. And if we ourselves experience the Bread of Life that has been offered to the Gentiles, perhaps we can accept that we follow a Messiah who found God’s revelation in the wisdom of a Canaanite woman.
Which sayings of Jesus have confused you and/or made you wonder?
Give an example from your life where you struggled with the knowledge of good and evil. How did the struggle itself reveal wisdom?
Discuss the conversation between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. What stands out for you?
How does this article change the way you understand Jesus?
What insight changes or challenges your spiritual life?