It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.
Matthew 15:26

This is a story with a problem right in the middle: why does Jesus call this pleading Canaanite woman a “dog”? I remember the first time I was asked to preach on this passage as a second-year seminary student, it caused me several sleepless nights.

A woman with a sick daughter asking Jesus for help and he refuses. Why?

If the center of power was a male high priest in the temple in Jerusalem, this woman is about as far from that as you can find: a woman, a foreigner, a Canaanite, with a daughter who is sick, and not just physically, but suffering spiritually from demon-possession. She is a real outsider. Surely the disciples agree she is not a priority.

The key to solving this puzzle for me then and now is the way it is framed by what comes right before and after it: Before this story, in Matthew 14, Jesus feeds 5,000 people, mostly Jews, with five loaves and there are twelve baskets of leftover fragments. Then he crosses over to the other side of the lake, the more Gentile side. And in the beginning of Matthew 15, Jesus talks with some Pharisees about clean and unclean.

Immediately after this story, Jesus feeds 4,000 people, mostly Gentiles, with seven loaves and there are seven baskets of leftover fragments.

Loaves and leftovers are now everywhere and both clean and unclean are fed by Jesus who has compassion for both crowds, the Jews and the Gentiles (Matthew 14:14 & 15:32).

In our story, Jesus says “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Bam! right between the eyes.

Nevertheless, she persisted and replied, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Bam! she gives it back as good as she got from him. She is not asking Jesus for a whole loaf, just for some leftover crumbs to her sick daughter.

Some commentators say Jesus was just testing her faith by calling her a dog, or that he was testing his disciples’ faith by expressing out loud what they secretly thought of her and her kind. A few dare to suggest that Jesus learned a lesson from her that day. No matter how you read it, it is a very puzzling exchange. But then Jesus replies, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” The bottom line: he healed her daughter.

The literary framing highlights that Jesus fed 5,000 Jews right before this story and then he fed 4,000 Gentiles right after this story. If the 12 baskets leftover represent the twelve Jewish tribes, then the seven baskets leftover must also represent something. In Deuteronomy 7:1, seven Canaanite tribes are listed, the same number Paul mentions in Acts 13:19. Seven represents all the Gentile nations. And the verbs used in both feeding stories are eucharistic: Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread. Thus, the Lord’s Table is now open to both Jews and Gentiles.

All this is found in both Mathew and Mark. Matthew, however, has even a larger literary frame to consider: Matthew 1 and 28. In Matthew 1, Jesus’ genealogy has at least two foreign women: Rahab (the Canaanite prostitute from Jericho) and Ruth (a Moabite) two outsiders who still became insiders. Then in Matthew 28 there is the great commission: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

This Canaanite woman, framed by both Matthew 1 & 28 and the two feeding stories, reminds us of Jesus’ own mixed heritage and of his compassion for the Gentiles. Even if Jesus downplayed his Gentile mission in Matthew 15:24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he still gave the rest of us a Gentile mission in Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”

As followers of Jesus, whether as evangelists at home or missionaries abroad, we are just one beggar telling another where to find some breadcrumbs. Instead of fighting with each other about what we think we know about the limits of God’s love, shouldn’t we be reaching out to those who have not yet even heard about Jesus?

With Jesus, there is always enough food, healing, and love to go around, for all kinds of people: our oldest enemies, those we consider unclean “dogs,” and other outsiders living on the margins of society.

Rowland Van Es

Rowland Van Es, Jr. is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who currently serves as a missionary at St Paul’s University, Limuru, Kenya where he and his wife Jane have been teaching since 2004. They previously served in The Gambia and Malawi.

9 Comments

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Well done, Rowland,
    with some fresh thinking on the numbers 12 and 7. Never thought of that before. A touch of allegory!?
    I note the woman made no declaration of faith, just a call out for help. That was enough for our Lord. You’re in. You’re saved (Romans 9 – 11).

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks for this. Intriguing. I had never read before the second Miracle of the Loaves was mostly Gentile. I shall have to investigate. Any pointers on sources?

    • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

      Other side of the Lake being the Decapolis was my main clue, but the New Jerome Biblical Commentary notes on the feeding of the 4,000 in Mt 15:37 remarks that the seven baskets recalls the nations of Canaan and the seven table servers (deacons) in Acts 6. The Africa Bible Commentary on same passage but 15:31 “this crowd must have included many Gentiles, for their reaction to the healings was to praise the God of Israel.” Probably more…

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thanks. And we’re the Gentiles…

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Wonderful, Rowland, thank you! Will ponder this; wish it had been printed at the beginning of the week so I could reflect with my commentary work!

  • Some further thoughts on the woman’s witty response.

    Most interpreters suggest that the woman was demur and submissive in her response. Most translations would have us understand that the woman is saying. “Yes, Lord, your right; I’m a dog, but even the dogs eat the crumbs.” However, the Greek does not contain the word “but.” (ἀλλά)
    Instead the word, the word that our version translates as “yet” actually means “because” or “for this reason.” (γάρ) The conjunction is not adversative, but explanatory.

    So what this verse actually means is not “Yes Lord, you are right, I am a dog, but please cut me a break.” Rather, it means “Yes it is right!!! that the dogs get to eat the children’s food. For, as everyone knows, the dogs sit under the table where the children sneak them food or they scarf up anything that happens to fall on the floor. You’re wrong in that regard, Lord, the dogs are just as much a part of the family as the children. And my daughter and I are just as much a part of the family of God as anyone else.”

    So the woman actually disagrees with Jesus’ position and confronts him on it.

    Part of the reason that Matthew includes this story in his gospel is to counteract the ultra-orthodox who believe that belonging is only for the “chosen people.” At the beginning of this story Jesus seems to be on the side of those who want to exclude others and limit the gospel only to a chosen few. These folks would have seen the Canaanite woman as an enemy (or should I say an undocumented worker) who had no rights. They would have silently applauded when Jesus ignored her cries. They would have approved when Jesus said that he had only come for the lost sheep of the Israel. And they would have been ecstatic to hear Jesus insulting the woman by comparing her to a dog.

    So when Jesus turns the tables, when he grants the woman her request, when he gives her the greatest compliment given in the whole gospel, and lifts her up as an example of faith, they would have been befuddled, insulted and angry. But the Canaanite woman and all her spiritual descendants will rejoice in the good news that the kingdom also belongs to them. This story is disturbing, but it’s ultimate target is not the Canaanite woman, but those who would exclude others.

    As Professor James Boyce puts it, “In the Kingdom of God, we are not to assume the role of greedy bouncers at the door checking IDs. Rather we are to take our place on our knees, shoulder to shoulder with this woman of great faith, pleading ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord.’” (Working Preacher, August 14, 2011)

    • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

      Thanks for you long and thoughtful reply. I just discovered another angle that still connects to the feeding stories. In the beginning of the story, when she first presents her request, Jesus does not answer a word but the disciples in v. 23 urge him to send her away, “for she keeps crying out after us.” She was bothering them but back in Mt 10:1 Jesus gave all 12 of them “authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” Perhaps Jesus was waiting for them to heal the daughter. His priority was Israel, but theirs should have been to heal the sick. It’s the same in the feeding of the 5,000 when they again ask Jesus to send the hungry people away, Jesus also refuses and says, “you give them something to eat.”

  • cynthia veldheer deyoung says:

    Thanks, Rowland!

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