Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 64 - Winter (Jun-Aug 2020) > Children, Crumbs and Little Dogs (by Pr Julie Fehlberg)
Children, Crumbs and Little Dogs
by Pr Julie Fehlberg
The Syro-Phoenician Woman - Matthew 15:21-28
But she came and worshiped Him, pleading again, 'Lord, help me!'. Jesus responded, 'it isn't right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.'. She replied, 'that's true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters' table.' 'Dear woman,' Jesus said to her, 'your faith is great. Your request is granted.' and her daughter was instantly healed. Matthew 15:25-28
This passage has been a difficult one for me - it doesn't represent the Jesus that I know. My Jesus cares about people, He ministered to the vulnerable. He didn't ignore them. My Jesus wouldn't use racial slurs toward people. And yet, here he does.
This story is often viewed as a troubling embarrassment. A sincere foreign woman approaches Jesus for help. Firstly, Jesus ignores her, and then he appears both racist and insensitive to her suffering.
So how are we to understand this story? What happens when we look at this story in context? Context is so important! If we don't understand the context, we can miss the moral of the story. And there are different types of context as well. The first type of context is the historical:
- In this woman's world she was bringing shame to herself to talk to a man she had never met first. And likewise, Jesus was bringing shame on himself to answer this woman.
- The honour/shame aspect we talk about brought shame, not just to themselves, but to the whole family.
- In this historical context, kinship was valued. You did not ask what you wanted to be - rather, the question was asked, what does the family need you to be?
- Patriarchal rules - men made the decisions. And it was the oldest male for the family who made the decisions for everyone else.
- This is a society of limited goods. There was only so much to go around - someone would have to go without if I had more than my share.
- Tyre was a place with wealthy people, and the use of Greek in this context was also indicative that this woman may have been from the elite of Syrophoenicia. This woman was used to eating at a table - only the wealthy had tables. And this woman also was familiar with beds. Most people in this time did not sleep in beds, but on the ground.
An important component in both the parables of Jesus and the dramatic stories about him, is the ever-present community. Contemporary Western society is highly individualistic. But most societies in the world still function as tightly knit communities. Descartes, the 17th Century philosopher, concluded "Cogito, ergo sum". I think, therefore I am. But African theologians reply, "I am, because we are." Individual lives, move and have their being as part of community. Their community gives identity and profoundly influences both attitude and lifestyle. And in the stories of Jesus, the surrounding community - on or off-stage - is a critical component in everything that takes place. The community's presence must be factored into any interpretation.
In this story, the ever-present community is composed of the disciples who are onstage and in dialogue with Jesus near the beginning of the account. Jesus is not simply dealing with the un-named woman, he is also interacting on a profound level with the disciples. And this double interaction needs to be monitored throughout the story.
[The woman's request:] 'And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, 'have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.' but He did not answer her a word …' (Matthew 15:22-23)
The scene takes place in a Gentile province - and Jesus was clearly able to speak with the people without a translator. The woman begins with the traditional cry of a beggar - "have mercy on me". She reaches out to Jesus across two barriers - first, she is a woman, and Jesus is a man. Even today in conservative areas of the Middle East, men and women do not talk to strangers across the gender barrier. In public, rabbis did not talk to female members of their own families. And secondly, the woman in this story is a Gentile. Her initial request opens with the title Kyrie - Lord/Sir, to which she adds a relatively rare Jewish messianic title, "Son of David", which implies some contact with Judaism. Without the second title it would be possible to translate Kyrie as Sir. But when she adds Son of David, she means more than Sir. For a Gentile woman to use this combination is unexpected. The woman also does not ask for mercy for her daughter, but rather, "have mercy on me". The daughter was not able to feel what the woman was feeling - she was in pain. This woman was at the end of her rope and she also needs healing. Jesus empathizes with her deep needs and responds to them on two levels. Jesus responds to the woman's request with silence. Is this indifference and rejection?
Remember, that Jesus is dealing with the woman, but at the same time educating the disciples. For the woman, Jesus chooses to give her a critical test. There is an obvious parallel to this text in the story of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, and his visit to the region of Sidon. Like Elijah, Jesus is dealing with a Gentile widow who has a needy child. Like Elijah, he begins with an exam. But in Jesus' case, the exam process is being carefully observed by his disciples. The rabbinic scholar - Jesus - is reenacting his authoritative source (Elijah's story), for the benefit of the woman and for the education of his graduate students - the disciples. In this process, he not only heals the woman's daughter but he gives the woman the privilege of earning the unfading honour of passing a very tough exam that immortalizes her. When Jesus did not respond to the woman's plea, he was no doubt seen by the disciples as acting in an entirely appropriate manner; he appears to endorse views toward women with which the disciples were comfortable.
… And His disciples came and begged him, saying 'send her away, for she is crying after us.' He answered, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.' (Matthew 15:23-24)
The disciples note Jesus' silence. Taking their clue, they petition him with the cry "Send her away!" They assume that Jesus has not time for a shouting beggar. They are mistaken. Their plea merely begins the three-scene dialogue. The text can be understood as follows: Jesus is irritated by the disciples' attitudes regarding women and Gentiles. The woman's love for her daughter and her confidence in him impress Jesus. He decides to use the occasion to help her as well as to challenge the deeply rooted prejudices in the hearts of his disciples. In the process, he gives the woman a chance to expose the depth of her courage and faith. Jesus' approach to the education of his disciples is both subtle and powerful. No lecture. On the contrary, he appears to agree with them - his refusal to speak to a Gentile woman; he states his ministry is for the lost sheep of Israel; she will have no choice but to leave.
Jesus was voicing and thereby exposing, deeply held prejudices buried in the minds of the disciples. He was speaking to both audiences. The disciples he was saying "of course I want to get rid of her! We have no time for such female Gentile trash." To the woman, Jesus was initially saying "You are a Canaanite and a woman. I am a son of David. You are not part of my divine mandate. Why should I serve Gentiles like you?" Would she leave? The second stage of her exam was quick to follow. Was her concern for her child so deep and her confidence in the compassion and healing power of Jesus so profound that she would proceed with her request despite this apparent slamming of the door in her face? Her reaction was:
But she came and knelt before Him, saying "Lord, help me." And He answered, "it is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs." (Matthew 15:25-26)
The woman's response is both moving and magnificent. She omits the messianic title and the beggar's traditional petition. In stark simplicity she kneels before Jesus and emits the cry of an anguished human soul, "Lord, help me!" she may not be aware of the story of Elijah and the woman of Zarephath, but the disciples know it well. They are also familiar with the classical prophetic concern for the widow and the orphan. Only the hardest of hearts would be unmoved by the woman's dramatic action and her desperate words. Will Jesus venture beyond his mandate to serve Israel and help this Gentile?
Not quite yet. Jesus chooses to take the theological attitudes of the disciples and press them to their ultimate conclusion. In effect, Jesus tells the disciples "You will be happy if I get rid of this woman, and limit my ministry to Israel. Very well, I will verbalise where your theology leads us. This will give you a chance to observe the response of this unclean Gentile woman." Jesus verbalization is authentic to their attitudes and feelings, but shocking when put into words and thrown in the face of a desperate, kneeling woman pleading for the sanity of her daughter. It is acutely embarrassing to hear and see one's deepest prejudices verbalized and demonstrated. It forces you to face those biases, often for the first time.
And the language Jesus uses is very strong. Dogs in Middle Eastern traditional culture - Jewish and non-Jewish, are almost as despised as pigs. Pigs are worse, but only slightly so. Dogs are never pets. They are kept as half-wild guard dogs or left to wander unattended as dangerous street scavengers who subsist on garbage. To insult the woman with such language is something else. Yet the harsh language also carries a touch of gentleness. Jesus speaks of the "little dogs" not the guard dogs that no one dares approach. But the language is still insulting. The reference to dogs is primarily for the disciples' education - he is saying "I know you think Gentiles are dogs and you want me to treat them as such! But pay attention - this is where your biases lead.
Are you comfortable with this scene?" How will she respond? Her exam has reached its most demanding section. Will she reply with a corresponding insult against the haughty Jews who despise and verbally attack Gentiles? Or is her love for her daughter, her faith that Jesus has the power of God to heal, her confidence that he has compassion for Gentiles and her commitment to him as Master/Lord so strong that she will absorb the insult and press on yet again with her request? She said
'Yes Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the little crumbs that fall from their masters' table.' Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith!" … (Matthew 15:27-28)
She passes the entire exam with flying colours! She accepts the insult and deftly turns it, with a touch of humour, into a renewed request. "I know that in your eyes we may appear as little dogs, and as little dogs we deserve nothing. But the little dogs are thrown the little pieces of bread at the end of the meal. You are still my Lord/Master. I know that you can heal and that you have compassion for all. Do you not have a crumb for my daughter?"
The disciples are watching and listening. They have never seen such total confidence in the person of Jesus, in spite of his hard words, nor such compassionate love for a sick child. Her response is a deadly blow to their carefully nurtured prejudices against women and Gentiles. A new paradigm of who God is, and to whom he extends his love, through Jesus, was born as a result of this scene. In the process the woman's faith is rendered unforgettable, is proclaimed wherever the gospel is preached. Jesus pronounces the woman to be great in faith? He faith is expressed in her unfailing confidence in the person Jesus as the agent of God's salvation for all - both Jew and Gentile. She confesses him as Lord and Master. A final, almost indefinable, element in that faith is her willingness to pay any price, even public humiliation, in order to receive the grace mediated by Jesus, who concludes by saying:
… Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:28)
The silence that Jesus began is now broken with a word of healing power. The verb "was healed" is in the passive. God restores the daughter through the agency of Jesus. The powerful word spoken by Jesus is a divine act. The woman is elevated as a gold medal Olympian in a great test of faith. Her qualities can be noted in these three virtues: First, is her humility as she lowers herself to the place of a dog. Second, her deep faith that a small amount of his food is enough and third is her wisdom in that she was willing to act the part of a dog until she achieved her goal. And throughout this event, an enormous amount of spiritual formation is taking place in the hearts of the disciples and indeed, potentially in the hearts of any readers of the Gospel of Matthew.
What can we learn from this account of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman?
- Firstly, we learn that Jesus breaks down barriers. Not only did he break the gender barrier, by talking to the woman, he also broke a racial barrier by healing a Gentile.
- Secondly, evil cannot be redeemed until it is exposed. Jesus exposes deep prejudices in the hearts of his disciples. They remembered the story - was it a critical event in their journey to a vision for the world?
- Thirdly, Jesus cares about the woman, her daughter and his disciples. The story demonstrates that caring.
- Finally, Jesus praised the Gentile woman for her faith. She believed that he had the power of God to heal and that he cared for all people - particularly those who suffer. And her faith is sustained. God honours the faith of His loved ones.
Literary Context: in Mark 7, the story of the Syrophoenician woman occurs between the two accounts of Jesus feeding the multitudes. In Mark 6, Jesus fed the 5000 on the Western side of the Sea of Galilee, and there were 12 baskets of food left over. In Mark 7, the Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus for some crumbs to heal her daughter and Mark 8 has the story of Jesus feeding the 4,000 on the Eastern side of Galilee where the population was predominately Gentiles. Here, there was 7 baskets of food left over.
These stories give us assurance that there is abundant life available for everyone - Jews and Gentiles. Churched and un-churched - even the crumbs give abundant life. The Syrophoenician woman teaches us that Jesus' healing power is not limited goods!
Unpublished paper presented by Kendra Haloviak-Valentine
Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey. Published by SPCK Publishing, 2008.GB.
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