Reading time: 7 minutes.
Oh no He didn’t! Did Jesus just call a woman a dog? It sure looks like it in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Here’s what happened…
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. [Matthew 15:21-26]
You may hear this and think, “Whoa! I didn’t think that was Jesus’ style. Insulting women like that.” And you’d be right. It’s not. Because that’s actually not what He’s doing here. He’s actually pointing out how ridiculous other people’s attitudes are. What do I mean? Well, we need to back the camera up a little. You know, like in a movie. The camera is focused up close on someone and you think one thing’s happening, but when the camera backs up it’s actually something else going it. Same thing here.
So let’s back the camera up to include what happens immediately before Jesus talks to this Canaanite woman. What’s going on? Selfish people getting offended.
Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. [Matthew 15: 10-21]
So what’s the deal? Jesus is teaching, nothing new there. The disciples respond saying, “Do you know the Pharisees were offended by what you said?” So Jesus breaks it down for them and Peter says, “We still don’t get.” And Jesus replies, “OK kids…time for a little object lesson. Start hiking.” And “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Jesus and His disciples immediately embark on a one-hundred mile round-trip hike so they can “get it.”
Now, I must admit, I am speculating a bit that their confusion is why Jesus takes them on a 100 mile hike up to Tyre and Sidon. We can’t know that for sure. But if you follow me to end of this you’ll see why I believe it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Matthew, who wrote this down, makes clear…
- Jesus speaks the Truth. The insiders [Pharisees] get offended over what makes you clean and unclean. They let offense obscure the Truth.
- Jesus speaks something offensive. An “unclean” outsider [Canaanite woman] is not offended when she’s seemingly called unclean. Instead she clings to the Truth.
See what Matthew did there?
The Pharisees are insiders. They’re Jewish. God’s chosen people. And as Pharisees they’re really Jewish. And men. They should know the Truth. Not be offended by it.
The Canaanite woman is an outsider. Big-time. She’s a Gentile a.k.a. “unclean”. And not just any Gentile…a Canaanite. [Remember the “Promised Land” that Israel went in and conquered? It was the Land of Canaan. So you could say there was a little bad blood between Israelites and Canaanites.] And she’s a woman. [Need I remind us that the Ancient Near East was not as egalitarian as, say, UW Madison?] She is the last person the insiders would expect to recognize the Truth. And she doesn’t just recognize it, she clings to it.
So why did Jesus hike the disciples 50 miles each-way up to the Gentile Region of Tyre and Sidon? Two reasons. First, He’s the Son of God, so He knows that this Canaanite woman’s daughter is suffering, and He wants to free her from it. Second, because the disciples were concerned about offending insiders with the Truth. And they themselves were offended by an outsider. And Jesus response to it was: Absolutely not. If you’re worried about offending insiders with the Truth and you are offended by outsiders, it is so important that you get this straight that we’re going to take a 100 mile hike to fix it.
So they arrive in Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory, and a…gasp!…Canaanite woman walks up to Jewish Rabbi male Jesus and does something unthinkable…she talks to Him. This just doesn’t happen in the Ancient Near East. Woman don’t talk to men. Gentiles don’t talk to Jews. Rabbis don’t talk to the proletariat. You get the idea…
Why is a Gentile Canaanite woman talking to a male Jewish Rabbi? Because her daughter is suffering. She’s desperate. And she needs help. Her opening words are “Have mercy on me!” What kind of scenario would you need to be in to walk up to a stranger and say that? Pretty desperate. Also, she correctly identifies Jesus. She calls Him “Master” [which is what “Lord” means] and “Son of David.” Her way of saying, “You’re in charge” and “You are Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Savior.” This lady gets it.
But how do the disciples respond? “Hey Jesus, you really should talk to this lady. Her daughter’s really suffering. She really needs help.” No. They get offended. They tell Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” They tell a suffering woman at the end of her rope to be sent away. Somehow, her presence offends them. Just like Jesus’ Truth offended the Pharisees.
There is no room for taking offense as a follower of Jesus. Taking offense excludes outsiders. Taking offense makes you small…when God wants you big. [Believe me, I know; I struggle a great deal with the temptation to take offense at things. I’m preaching to myself here.] And it is so important to Jesus that His followers, and especially His leaders, not be enslaved to offense that I believe He took them on a 100 mile hike to make sure it never happended again.
In fact, we find this in our own Episcopal Church. In our 1928 Book of Common Prayer this exhortation was given by the Bishop to those being ordained as ministers:
…beware that neither you yourselves offend, nor be occasion that others offend.
Beware that you do not take offense, or offend others. That was part of the requirement for Christian leaders in the Episcopal Church. Taking offense and giving offense is a big deal. It excludes outsiders. It makes you small when God wants you big.
So…what about Jesus calling the Canaanite woman a dog? We left off with the disciples being offended and telling Jesus to send her away. And in front of his disciples Jesus says:
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Why would Jesus essentially say what would’ve sounded to her ears something like, “I wasn’t sent to you filthy Canaanite Gentiles! I was only sent to Israel”? Why would He say that? Because that is exactly… what… the disciples… were thinking. It was the same thing that offended the Pharisees: “Who’s clean and who’s unclean?” I believe the reason Jesus said this was to show the disciples how ridiculous it sounded. Sometimes just saying it out loud does that, doesn’t it? For ex: “Well…when you put it that way it really does sound absurd.” I wonder if the moment He said it they all didn’t cringe and start staring at their shoes.
What he said to the woman was really, really offensive. Dogs were considered filthy curs in the Ancient Near East. Calling her that was very, very offensive.
But is the outsider offended? Does she reply with, “What?! Oh. No. You. Didn’t!” She didn’t call her husband or brother and say, “This Jewish Rabbi just called me a dog. You better teach Him some manners!” No. She clings to the Truth. She doesn’t take offense. She knows that taking offense will make her small when God wants her big. And taking offense in that moment will get between her and her Savior. And she may have picked up on Jesus calling out the disciples with it. Maybel, So she replies:
Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.
And then Jesus pays her the greatest compliment possible:
“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Don’t be offended just because someone is an outsider. Because they’re not like you. Because of their social class…financial situation…ethinicity…lifestyle…political party…generational or age difference. Taking offense is not what God has for you. It will exclude others. It will make you small when God wants you big. And…if you’re serious about your relationship with Jesus, and you’re letting it take root in your life…I suspect He will take you on your own “100 mile hike” to help you see it, repent of it and reconcile with the people offending you or that you’re offending.
Stop right now.
Who offends you?
Who has offended you?
Who have you offended?
You realize Jesus Christ thought they were so beautiful and worth it He died for them? Right?
He loves them that much. And He thinks you’re that beautiful and worth it too. Let the offense die. Confess it to God. Repent of it [repent = make 180 degree turn]. If need be, apologize to them. Make the phone call. Invite them over. It will make you big. It will make outsiders into insiders. And Jesus will look at you and say, “Great is your faith!”