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Even the Dogs

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Mark 7.24-30.

Mark (who writes for a Gentile readership) factually describes this woman as a Greek from Syro-Phoenicia, whereas Matthew (who writes for a Jewish readership) calls the woman “a Canaanite woman” (Matthew 15.22) and thus reminds his readers that she was not only a Gentile but was actually descended from Israel’s ancient enemies. However, it was not the woman’s Canaanite ancestry but only her non-Jewishness and the fact that he was outside Judea that seems to have posed a problem for Jesus at this stage of his ministry. When, in Matthew, the disciples urge Jesus to send the woman away — presumably by granting her request (for otherwise his response would make no sense) — Jesus reminds them: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15.24). It is true that Jesus had healed Gentiles before, but only on Jewish territory (Matthew 4.24-25) as “nations came to Israel’s light” (Isaiah 60.3).

Even if Jesus did not feel free to heal the woman’s daughter at that point, however, his response to her cry for help seems unduly harsh and positively offensive to our ears. Why call her a dog … even if only by implication? The clue, I think, lies in Matthew’s version of events. There, the woman addresses Jesus as “Son of David” when she asks him for mercy (Matthew 15.22); but this puts her on completely false ground. It means that she, who is outside of the covenant and will always remain so, has come asking for the covenanted mercies of God. Gentiles mustn’t pretend to be Jews; but that is what this woman is doing. She is pleading the very covenant that would shut her out of God’s blessings and render her a dog along with all Gentiles. No, if she wants healing for her daughter from this Jewish Messiah (which is what her title for him acknowledges him to be), she must come to him as what she is — a Gentile, forever outside the Mosaic covenant — looking not for covenanted mercy but for uncovenanted grace.

The woman gets the message and that is how she now comes. “OK, I am “a dog”. I am a Gentile and therefore have no right to what I am asking for under the terms of the special arrangement between God and the Jews. But let me carry the ‘dog’ idea forward a bit. I see dogs getting bits of food that fall from the children’s table. And that’s why I’m standing here. I’m waiting for a bit of the healing you have for Israel to fall on my daughter.” What an answer! What faith! “You have what you came for,” says Jesus.

Though she did not know it, the woman had come to Jesus under an older covenant than the one with Moses. She had come under the covenant with Abraham which promised blessing for “all nations on earth” (Genesis 22.18) … the covenant of faith. And that, of course, is the only “old” covenant under which I can come to God too — the covenant that Jesus himself so wonderfully brought to fulfilment on the cross and turned into the “new” covenant, the covenant of grace and mercy for all the world … written in his own blood.

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