As we read this story, we first consider what the disciples said. When the woman loudly begged Christ for help, the disciples asked Him to “Send her away, because she is crying after us.” This may sound at first hearing as if they were callous. How could they be so unfeeling as to suggest that the Lord send this poor woman away without helping her? But that is not what they said. They did not say, “Do not help her.”
What they most likely meant was, “Give her what she wants so she will stop bothering us.” This is probably the meaning because of Christ’s response: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” If He was responding to the disciples pressuring Him to send her away without aid, it makes no sense to say, “I was not sent to help her.” Why would Christ talk about not helping her unless He was resisting their suggestion? If He agreed to send her away without aid, then He would have simply sent her away. Instead, He seems to be saying, “No, I will not help her, because I was sent to help Israel, not her.”
Set aside for a moment how strange that is to our ears. Ignore for now that Christ sounds racist and uncaring. Instead think of the disciples. They want this woman to get help, although it is for a less than noble reason. If they want her helped only because she is annoying them, that is not exactly pure, unselfish love. Yet it is surprising that they want her to receive help at all, considering the common attitude of Jews to people like her.
She was a Canaanite, one of the worst kinds of Gentiles. The Israelites were never supposed to intermarry with them because their idol-worshiping practices would lead them astray. Instead, the Israelites under Joshua were supposed to wipe out the Canaanites and take their land. God’s patience ran out for the wicked Canaanites, and the time of their judgment came. Yet the Israelites failed to destroy the Canaanites completely. Some survived. They were an accursed people, hated and shunned by Jews at the time of the Gospel Reading.
So the fact that the disciples seemed to want her daughter healed was a good example of kindness. We do well to imitate their desire and prayer that even enemies receive mercy from God.
But Christ refused their wish. Why? It does not really say. We can guess, but we do not know. We know that He is not unfeeling and unkind. For a time He refused the prayer of a loving mother, as sometimes He refuses our prayers. We do not know why He refuses us, either. We know there must be a good reason for the loving Lord to say no to our prayers.
Yet Christ goes even further. Not only does He say that He was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but then He adds that it would not be right to help her because she is a dog. That is even more shocking. Dogs were not admired, beloved pets and companions, as today. To be called a dog was to be identified as an unclean, wicked, or, at best, useless creature. Christ’s words are devastating: The woman is not worth helping, and should not receive the help for which she begs.
But the woman does not lose hope. She sees the Lord as merciful and generous, even though He is treating her as if He holds contempt for her. It is as if she is saying, “I know this is not Your true face, O Lord. You are hiding Your loving heart from me, and I deserve it. But I know that You will be merciful, because that is who You are.”
The exact response of the woman is not well translated. Every English version I have seen says something like this: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” The word “yet” indicates some disagreement or counterargument with Christ. But the Greek word never means “yet”. It means “for”; “Yes, Lord, for even the dogs eat the crumbs.”
She is not disagreeing with Christ’s conclusion at all. She is not seeking a loophole through which she might get what she wants, or making a clever play on words to impress Christ. She is simply agreeing with what Christ says, and explains that she understands.
She understands that it is wrong to take food for children and throw it to the dogs. But when children sit down to eat, there will be crumbs. Dogs will get some, without having to take food from children.
By saying this, the woman shows that she understands what the Son of David is like. He comes to bring an abundance of gracious gifts. An overflowing feast of mercy arrived when Christ did. Yes, He was primarily sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But where so much abundance happens, some crumbs fall to those outside. Such a great feast cannot be contained to the table of the Jews. After all, Christ is the One who fed thousands and there were baskets left over. He is not a Son of David who must carefully ration out His acts of mercy. He overflows, even though His main mission is to His own people.
So the woman is saying, “I am here for the crumbs because I know that You are the Son of David who brings an exceedingly overflowing outpouring of tender mercy.”
The woman could have said, “You are racist and sexist!” or “I am more worthy than anybody else!” or “Call me a dog, will you? I was just trying to help my daughter! How dare you?”
But instead she responds out of humility, refusing to take offense. She also responds by testifying to who Christ is: the Son of David who brings enough mercy to Israel that even some scraps can fall to an unworthy dog like her. That is great faith!
The Spirit strengthen us to have such faith. We cling to God even when He seems to push us away or seems to treat us with contempt. We wait for Him to show His true face, which is kindness and mercy. He will not hide that face forever.
He will abound with mercy for us, as He already has and will again. He filled the table of the Jews so full of the Bread of Life that mountains of crumbs even fell to us Gentiles. We were the dogs and the unworthy ones. We should have received no mercy. But He calls us His people. He has even called us to sit at His table. We are not dogs, hunting for scraps on the ground! Nor is He a miserly scrooge who makes sure no crumbs reach the dogs.
For the Bread of Life is Christ, who gave Himself into suffering and death to give life everlasting. His sacrifice could not be contained to one people on earth. Such precious Blood – the Blood of God! - could not atone for only a few chosen ones. No, Christ atoned for all. He purchased all. We, too, the dogs, have received the mercy of the Son of David.
Remember what a gift this is. We should not receive mercy, but we do. He has noticed us, begging for mercy, and He has chosen to help us. Although He tests our faith for His good reasons, He never fails to rescue. Although demons may afflict us and death may seize us, He will save in the end.
Be patient and humble, and trust Him. Remember that He is the Son of David, the merciful, overflowing One.
In His Name and to His glory, Amen.
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