Matthew 15:21-28 goes a little like this:
Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus ignores her, Canaanite woman persists, Jesus basically calls her a dog, Canaanite woman points out that dogs get scraps, Jesus is impressed, and heals daughter of the Canaanite woman.
This was the scripture passage for yesterday’s Sunday school lesson and I had to teach it. Going over this passage the first time, then the second time, and then the third time, I was fairly flabbergasted. I believe that Jesus, as part of his fully human-fully God being, was perfect. Yet he seemingly cold shoots down a mother (possibly the only time that phrase has been used with Jesus as the subject) in this passage.
²⁵ But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” ²⁶ He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
At first glance, that isn’t perfect. It’s disconcerting and troubling. It seemingly runs against a lot of what Jesus says/does when he encounters Gentiles in other passages.
Some commentators have tried to skirt the issue by saying that by calling the woman a “dog,” Jesus was talking about a beloved household pet and not a mangy street mutt. This idea, besides not making a lot of contextual sense, doesn’t really make the scenario that much better.
Thankfully, the website that we use for our Sunday school lessons, had a background video that dove deeper into the text. And I discovered that this exchange that was causing me great concern could actually be a fantastic lesson.
We often think that God just zapped everything into Jesus’ head. He knew everything from how his life would play out to how he could whip a massive feast out of a kid’s meal. Yet Luke 2:52 tells us that Jesus increased in wisdom, years, and in favor of God and people.
Don’t get me wrong. Jesus was without sin. I believe that. But his understanding of who he was and what his mission looked like matured over time. God spoke to Jesus through the scriptures and prayer. And it seems in this passage that God spoke to Jesus through this Canaanite woman. After all, Matthew ends with Jesus telling his disciples to take the gospel to all nations. That’s a far cry from only coming for the children of Israel.
That’s a pretty big deal and I realize it can be a little disconcerting for people. Historically there are people that get uneasy when we highlight the humanity of Jesus. Yet when I think about it, that’s pretty great news for Christians as we’re supposed to follow the life of Christ.
So we can learn from the fact that Jesus was always keenly aware that God was speaking to him in a myriad of ways. We need to keep our eyes and ears open for those places where God speaks, especially the unexpected ones (and a Canaanite woman was about the most unexpected place a rabbi could hear the voice of God short of a talking pig wearing a shirt of wool and linen).
We can also learn from the way he responds to her; the end result, not the dog part. When the woman persisted, Jesus could have responded to her by saying, “Do you realize who I am? How dare you question me?” If anyone ever had the right to respond that way, it was Jesus. But he didn’t. He was impressed by her faith (my commentary said “master’s table” could just as easily be translate as “Lord’s table”) and it changed his outlook.
Now I realize that this is not the end all, be all interpretation of this passage. There are other ways this might have played out. But the idea of Jesus, even as he was perfect, growing and maturing as he pursued God is a Savior that I can hold on to all the more.