When Dogs Eat at the Family Table

Jesus left that place and went off to the territory near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman who lived in that region came to him. Son of David! she cried out. Have mercy on me, sir! My daughter has a demon and is in a terrible condition. But Jesus did not say a word to her. His disciples came to him and begged him, Send her away! She is following us and making all this noise! Then Jesus replied, I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel. At this the woman came and fell at his feet. Help me, sir! she said. Jesus answered, It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. That’s true, sir, she answered, but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their masters’ table. So Jesus answered her, You are a woman of great faith! What you want will be done for you. And at that very moment her daughter was healed. (Matthew 15:21-28 GNT)

Modern ears recoil when they hear Jesus’ figure of speech in Matthew 15:26:

It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

It is the use of the word “dog” that is troubling. Of course it is not right to starve your children to feed dogs, no matter how much you might love animals. It wouldn’t even be right to starve my children to feed hungry human beings down the street, but I don’t think I would compare the people I had to turn away to animals.

If anything, the impact of Jesus’ words might have been stronger 2000 years ago than it is today. Try to find one positive reference to dogs in the Bible. You can’t. You get a picture of dogs roaming the streets, threatening passers by and scavenging for food, even among the remains of the dead.

Still, Jesus’ figure of speech only makes sense if dogs had some place in the household. Dogs, remember, are a domesticated species. Humans brought them into their communities and bred them for a reason. The only way a dog can eat the bread that falls from the table is if it’s near the dining table. And if dogs weren’t in some way a part of daily life, Jesus might as well have said, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and feed it to a aardvark.” It would be a figure of speech that made no sense.

We view the world through a sociological lens that 1st century Judeans would not have shared. Ancient people would have not brought the same preconceptions and concerns to the text that we do. If we can get past our emotional reactions and let the ancient words speak within their own context, we may find that the conversation between Jesus and this Canaanite woman has something important to say.

Ancient Israel saw itself at the center of God’s actions in the world. God chose Abraham and his descendants to have a special place in the economy of God. It’s important to note that this was not simply ethnocentric prejudice on Israel’s part; this is what God revealed to Israel. God made covenants with the patriarchs. He gave instruction through Moses and made promises through the prophets. The author of Deuteronomy captures a central theme of the Old Testament.

The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy 7:6)

At times, Israel became presumptuous and arrogant about its relationship to God, but Israel’s failures don’t erase the basic fact of its election.

While Israel held a special place in the economy of God, God also intended to bless the world through Israel. God’s initial promise to Abraham made this clear.

… and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:3)

As time progressed, God’s revelation expanded on this theme. The author of Isaiah 56, for example, sees God’s salvation as extending to foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:6-8)

The apostle Paul understands the salvation of the those outside the covenant in a similar way, but with an important distinction. Salvation comes through union with Israel, but not through circumcision or the covenantal works of the law. It is faith in Christ that unites one to Israel under a new covenant of the spirit. In Paul’s view, then, God doesn’t save people from the pagan nations just because they are human and deserve it, but because they have been grafted into Israel through faith in Israel’s messiah. He warns non-Jewish believers against becoming presumptuous about their place in God’s kingdom.

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. (Romans 11:17-18)

We outsiders who belong to the nations of the world were doubly-graced in Christ. First, God poured out his mercy on his chosen people in Christ. Second, through faith in Christ, believing outsiders were incorporated into God’s salvation of Israel. If it were not for this second part of the equation, we outsiders would still be without hope, lost in ignorance and death.

“I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel,” Jesus said. In Jesus, God is fulfilling his manifold promises to deliver his chosen people and give them the kingdom. “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The primary distinction between Jew and non-Jew is theological, not sociological. Those within the covenant belong to the family in a way that those outside do not.

“That’s true, sir,” the Canaanite woman replied. “But even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their masters’ table.” The woman doesn’t say she deserved Jesus’ aid or that we are all God’s children or that she had any right to call upon God’s covenant promise. She may have known very little about God’s covenant with Israel, but she recognized that God was doing something remarkable for his people in Jesus and she hoped that she might pariticpate in it. While she has no inherent right to eat from God’s table because she’s not a member of the family, she hopes that there is something there for her anyway. There is.

In churches influenced by Archbishop Cramner’s Book of Common Prayer, the Prayer of Humble Access makes this Canaanite woman an example for all of us when it echoes her words of faith.

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy:

The woman wanted Jesus to free her daughter from demons and suffering. Jesus rewarded her faith by granting her request. For Jesus, these are not just arbitrary miracles or acts of kindness. They are the very same signs of the kingdom that Jesus offered his own: casting out demons and healing the sick. Wherever Jesus performed these acts, the kingdom of God had come into the world. In other words, Jesus gave her the full-meal-deal, and not just the leftover garbage. She received the same food as the sons and daughters of the kingdom.

At The Sacred Page, John Bergsma writes:

We recall that Jacob himself, father of all the sons of Israel, was not the direct heir of God’s covenant, but connived and struggled his way in. We recall Rahab’s family and the Gibeonites, both Canaanite groups that should have been wiped out in the conquest, but who tricked and struggled their way into the people of the covenant. We recall Ruth the Moabitess and Uriah the Hittite, who renounced their ethnicity and swore oaths to the God of Israel, and entered his covenant. And we realize that throughout salvation history, God has been finding a place in his covenant for people who, in some way or other, didn’t belong there, but wanted to be there.

Matthew’s identification of the woman as Canaanite is worth pondering. “Canaanite” was an anachronistic term in the first century when Matthew wrote the gospel. The people living near Tyre and Sidon didn’t think of themselves as “Canaanites.” There hadn’t been any ethnic Canaanites for centuries. As Matthew uses the label, it has more to do with theological identity than ethnic identity. In the Old Testament, the Canaanites were the people Israel displaced when it occupied the land of promise. Because of Canaanite idolatry and Israelite weakness, Israelites and Canaanites could not occupy the same space. Now, in Christ, the kingdom is not a matter of “either-or.” Israelites and Canaanites can both participate in the blessings of God’s kingdom through faith in Christ.

In Jesus, what God is doing for Israel he is also doing through Israel for all the world. As we follow Matthew’s gospel to its conclusion, we find that what began as an “exception to policy” in Matthew 15 became the mission of the church in Matthew 28: “Go and make disciples of all peoples,” including, presumably, Canaanites who find salvation in Israel’s covenant Lord and his messiah. Including you and me, who, absent God’s mercy in Christ, have no more right than a Canaanite to eat from the Lord’s table.

[Updated August 31, 2015]