Thrown to the Dogs

thrown to the dogs

 A reflection on the Gospel passage Matthew 15: 21-28, where Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman.

This is also the Gospel reading from the Lectionary, for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.

The Canaanite Woman

And Jesus went from there, and retired to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold a woman of Canaan who came from that region, crying out, said to him: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, son of David! My daughter is grievously troubled by a devil." He answered her not a word. And his disciples came and implored him, saying: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” But he answered: “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying: “Lord, help me.” Answering, he said: “It is not good to take the children’s bread, and to throw it to the dogs.” But she said: “Yes, Lord, but the dogs also eat the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus answering, said to her: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you ask.” And her daughter was cured from that hour.


It is not clear from the Gospel why Jesus had journeyed into the region of Tyre, where the people were gentiles, not Jews. Perhaps he was just trying to get away for a rest. But as often happened when he tried to do this, people would find out, and seek his help.

Jewish Dietary Laws

In any case, this story served a useful purpose for the writer of the Gospel because at the time the Gospel was written the new Christian community was wrestling with the issue of how to incorporate members who were from a non-Jewish background. The Jews had strict dietary laws, and it was a bone of contention whether gentiles had to comply with these Jewish rules or not. This particular Gospel passage follows straight on from a long conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees about dietary laws (Matthew 15:1-20). Jesus made clear that it is not what goes into a person that is the problem but what comes out, that is, "evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies." (Mt 15:19)

Jesus' Unique Mission

The scene immediately shifts to non-Jewish territory, so it sets up a clear contrast. We go from discussing the minutiae of Jewish dietary laws to a situation that puts it in a larger context. Jesus seems to ignore the Canaanite woman's request. When the disciples ask Jesus to deal with her he says, "I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." The emphasis here is on the word "I". Jesus eventually gave the disciples a mission to announce the Gospel to the whole world, but he had a special mission to the Jews. We can see from a number of examples like this one that he was quite prepared to help gentiles on occasion, but that he also had good reason not to spread himself too thin.

He only had a short time in which to fulfil his mission, so he had to stay focused. The preceding section, with the Pharisees, is more typical of Jesus' mission, because at the core of his message is a truth about the radical nature of human rejection of God. It was only by understanding this that they could grasp the radical nature of the solution. Getting this message across required hearers who already had a sophisticated understanding of God's special revelation. Jesus came into the world at a time when the preparatory revelation, recorded in the Jewish scriptures, had adequately set the scene. It meant he had hearers who should have known what he was talking about with sufficient sophistication to get the deeper message. As it turned out, some did, some didn't.

Why Did Jesus Seem Reluctant to Help?

Jesus' seeming unwillingness to help the Canaanite woman served two purposes. One was simply Jesus trying to stay on track with his core mission. The other was to provide a learning opportunity for the disciples, not just his immediate followers, but also those who would come later.

The conversation Jesus has with the woman is also couched in terms of food. His mission is 'food' for the children (the people) of Israel. When he says this food is not 'good' for others, he is saying something like it is not 'fitting' or 'suitable'. Although she is asking simply for direct help for her daughter, Jesus is putting such actions in the fuller context of his mission of salvation. As well as making a fairly simple point about trying not to spread himself too thin, he is making the deeper point about having a special message that only the Jews are likely to understand. It's not that he doesn't want the rest of the world to hear this message, but there first needs to be a core group of those who have grasped the heart of what he is on about. Then, when the time is right, they can spread that message to the rest of the world.

A Particular Incident

The conversation then cannot be fully explained in a simple way, as if it was solely about a conversation with a particular woman in her particular situation. Nevertheless there are lessons we can learn from considering it from that angle as well, since there was clearly some particular incident being recorded here. A somewhat different account of it also appears in the Gospel of Mark (7: 24-30). Let us consider the story simply at face value as a literal incident.

The first thing we note is that Jesus initially ignores the woman's entreaties. Why might he do that? It is likely that he was waiting for the disciples, giving them a chance to respond first. After all, he called them to be his followers so they could learn to be like him. He wanted them to observe how he acted and to do likewise. How did Jesus act when people asked him for help? He helped them. How did the disciples react? Sometimes they acted more like minders or bodyguards than disciples-in-training. A notable case occurred when there were parents bringing their children to Jesus, and the disciples tried to shoo them away. Jesus was not impressed. They clearly weren't learning how he wanted them to respond.

However, this time, when Jesus did not respond, they did. But how did they respond? They seemed mainly to be reacting to the fact that she was being a nuisance, rather than from seeing her as someone needing care. They didn't bring her forward and say, "Master, here is a woman needing your help. We are concerned for her daughter. Could you help her?" Their request to Jesus is ambiguous. Did they want him to simply send her away? Or did they think the best way to get rid of her is by getting Jesus to give her what she wanted?

Imagining the Scenario

We have already seen how Jesus answered the disciples. He drew their attention to the fact that his own mission was really to the 'house of Israel'. We have already seen how Matthew was trying to convey different layers of meaning here. But if we look at the story simply as a literal event, perhaps Jesus was testing the disciples further. Would they take his answer as final, meaning that they didn't have to help outsiders, or would they press him further and say, "But master, couldn't you make an exception this time?" Because of the other layers of meaning already alluded to, it would seem to be reading too much into it to go on with that kind of detailed speculation.

However, it is worth considering how Jesus then did reply to the woman, since, even without the disciples' assistance she pushed herself forward entreating Jesus' help. Nowadays we are used to stories that give a lot more detail of a psychological nature, painting a fuller picture of personality and manner of interaction. The Gospels were not written with that kind of intention, as if they were like a modern novel. They were very sparing in details of that kind. Read from a modern perspective we might be a bit taken aback at how Jesus spoke to the woman. On its face it seems harsh and demeaning. Part of the difficulty is that we don't really know what the literal encounter was like, because in the Gospel the story serves the main purpose of teaching about relations between Jews and gentiles. It is not trying to give a description, as if spelling out what was captured on a video of the original event.

Two Versions

However, even if the literal event was exactly as described, we would still need to speculate. We could identify two plausible, but quite opposite accounts of why Jesus spoke to the woman as he did. They are based on the sort of detail you only get from actually being there and picking up on people's manner, not just their words. So much depends on non-verbals in these situations.

In the first, we might imagine that the woman was rather rude and presumptuous in her manner. Scholars tell us that from clues in the original Greek it seems that this was not a poor woman, but a 'lady', of some social standing. This could support the possibility that she was perhaps a bit haughty or presumptuous. If that was the case, Jesus could have initially ignored her to send a signal that he didn't like being merely summoned like a servant. Then when she didn't take the hint, he spoke rather sharply to her, as a way of suggesting she mind her manners. Although that is at least possible as an interpretation, I think another would be more plausible.

The woman is not shy or backward in seeking help, but not rude either, simply confident and perhaps a bit feisty in her manner. She is not a 'broken reed' or a 'wavering flame', in which case Jesus would surely have spoken to her quite differently. Jesus picks up on this and decides to respond, perhaps with a slight grin, and saying somewhat playfully, "It is not good to take the children’s bread, and to throw it to the dogs." Then she responds in kind, "Yes, Lord, but the dogs also eat the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters." And Jesus turns to the disciples and says something that conveys the sense, "Hey, I like this woman! This is the kind of attitude I want!" And then he goes on more seriously to commend her for her faith, and grant her request. We don't have to see the episode as Jesus being bested in the encounter. I think it makes more sense to see him as the one who initiated the playful element in their exchange.

The Gospel as a Whole

Either of these accounts could be true, but the fact is, we don't have any way of knowing exactly how it played out. But we also don't have to conclude that Jesus was actually harsh and dismissive of the woman because she was not a Jew. To my mind that would be the least plausible explanation, because it would present a picture of Jesus that contradicts everything else the Gospels say about him. It would also make it harder to make sense of Matthew's intentions in writing it this way.

The Gospel simply gives us the gist of the story, told for a purpose as part of the Gospel as a whole. Taken together with the preceding section it gives Jesus' positions relevant to the question about Christians from a gentile background and Jewish dietary laws. The previous passage makes clear that these kind of detailed laws must be subordinate to the larger purpose of the law. Exterior practices of purity are meant to be reminders and encouragements for interior purity. The present passage shows that any reluctance or ambivalence Jesus might have appeared to show about gentiles was for strategic reasons related to his own unique mission. It was not a pointer to any principle that the disciples were meant to carry forward in the mission of the Church.

If we assume that Matthew wrote the passage in hopes of clarifying that Jesus' own actions implied support for the inclusion of the gentiles in the Church, not on sufferance, but as 'normal' members, it would make sense that the encounter with the Canaanite woman was meant to show her in a positive light, not against Jesus, as if showing him up, but as a response in kind to Jesus' own positive attitude towards her.