Recently President Trump called a former staff member a dog. Disappointingly, name calling is a hallmark of this presidency. It’s the immature reflex of someone who is in despair over not becoming a true self. Lashing out is the tribal language of our pseudonym, our adolescent false self. We’ve been examining the true and false self recently and I thought I’d tie this all together with another man who called a woman a dog: Jesus.
Does it surprise you to learn that Jesus called a foreign woman a dog? The basis for Jesus doing so was not a childish jab stemming from untransformed pain, but instead, it’s a portal through which a deeper conversation transpired. The result was a foreign woman who teaches us how to be free from the despair of not being a self, and the power of being liberated from racial and religious bigotry, by taking God at his word.
The story in Matthew 15 tells of a Canaanite woman who was crying out to Jesus to heal her daughter who was oppressed by a demon. But Jesus ignores her. Yet she is persistent to the point that his disciples came to Jesus asking him to do something for her or send her away. He says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v.25). The women prostrates herself and begs for his help, to which he replies: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs” (v.26). Then she says: “Yes, Lord, but even dogs eat crumbs that fall from their masters table” (v.27). When Jesus sees such faith, he sends her on her way with the daughter healed.
Matthew gives a bit more detail than Mark. There, she calls Jesus “Son of David.” This would have been a title that meant a lot to a Jew, but not to a Canaanite. This woman was a foreigner. She was not only culturally diverse, she would have been religiously diverse, she was a Greek, or a Gentile according to the Jews.
Following her request to heal her daughter, Jesus just ignores her. Then when he does address her, he seems to insult her. What is this all about? The reason this passage is so confusing, is because it seems to contradict the Jesus revealed in the rest of scripture: or does it? While I don’t claim to have this all figured out, I will offer what I think is a reasonable perspective.
Context is everything. Separating this story from the surrounding stories gets us off track. Both Matthew and Mark tell the previous stories as set-ups for this story. In both cases, Jesus is addressing the religious leaders who are criticizing he and his disciples obedience to the religious and moral law. The context is that Jesus is trying to help the disciples understand (v.16). The key question that ties it all together comes in 15:3; “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
Once again, Jesus reframes reality away from religious compliance from the outside in, toward a faith that transforms everything from the inside out (VS 10-20). Jesus exposes just how immoral a person can be inside their heart, even if they uphold all the externals. He exposes that compliance doesn’t transform the ugly, prejudicial parts of us.
For this reason, I think Jesus is making an example of the religious (tribal) mindset in his encounter with this woman. The pious religious would ignore non-Jews (Luke 10:32), so Jesus models for them what that looks like to a foreign woman who is desperate to help her daughter. What is more heartless than to ignore the need of a child? Religion is no protection from racism, in fact it often promotes it.
The Jews viewed themselves as the chosen people. They believed God liked them best, so Jesus reflects back to them just how arrogant this disposition is to the rest of the world. He does this by telling the woman that he was sent ONLY to Israel and that it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and give it to “dogs” (v.24, 26).
When the woman says, “Yes Lord, but even dogs get the crumbs” (v.27) Jesus has had enough. The charade of solidarity to religious rules has gone on long enough. He’s proven that the byproduct of obedience is the diminishment and dehumanization of another. Her faith is now rewarded and her child is healed. She takes him at his word and goes.
By reengaging with her at her point of need instead of deferring her, he is undoing religion at it’s heart (v.19) by reprioritizing people over process. He’s proven his point, religion becomes a place of untransformed pain which passes it to others. He turns religion inside-out by giving what is “ONLY for Israel” to someone who is culturally and religiously diverse. By healing the canaanite’s daughter, he not only shows that he has the power to heal, but that this power is NOT sequestered within a prejudicial tribe or people group. Jesus shows Israel and his disciples what it means when their own prophets teach that “Everyone shall no me (God), from the least to the greatest…” (Jeremiah 31:34)
So what about you? Who is the canaanite in your life? Is it the Muslim, the gay, or the democrat? Is it the atheist, the fundamentalist, or the TV preacher? What people group is “not your people”? Who is easy to call a “dog?” Which team or tribe can you easily diminish as “less-deserving”? Do we break the commandment of God to love others, for the sake of our tradition? Our Tribe? A self (soul) like this woman, that is not defined by the labels, is a free and true self.
Folks this hits us all. Otherness disease is the ugliest part of our humanity. But it can be overcome by taking one sentence deep within our heart.
The next time we think of “those people” we must say this to ourself:
“While I am NOT you, I am not OTHER than you either.” Then, right before our eyes, we will see a new world emerging from the inside out.
May we all learn something from this faithful foreigner.