Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Crumbs From the Master’s Table
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us,
that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.
May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you.
May the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you rule the peoples justly
and guide the nations of the earth.
May the peoples praise you, O God,
may all the peoples praise you.
Then the land will yield its harvest, and God, our God, will bless us.
God will bless us, and all the ends of the earth will fear him.
(Psalm 67, the Psalm of the Day)
A Haunting Question
What are the “boundaries” of God’s grace? It is an age-old question, haunting all the corridors of time – and even haunting the Scripture itself. The psalmist is confident that God’s grace reaches out to “guide the nations of the earth,” making “his ways known on earth, his salvation among all nations.”
One is tempted to say that there are no “boundaries,” for the very word “grace” would seem to contradict the idea of “boundaries.” If God’s grace is the defining description of how God deals with humanity, then grace would seem to supercede all boundaries. The result of such thinking, of course, is a universalism suggesting there are no “boundaries” at all.
The Scripture permits no such universalistic thinking, however, for it is clear that it understands there are “boundaries” to be recognized, lived within and obeyed in the kingdom of God.
It is hard to find any clear “boundaries” in the first eleven chapters of the Scripture, although it is equally clear that there are those who are godly and those who are ungodly. They, themselves, become the defining “boundaries” by virtue of the way their lives are governed by God. But the narratives are broad and the margins within which the godly and ungodly live are generally vague save when overt evil becomes apparent as in the case of Cain or the flood or the tower of Babel. No clearly defined laws are expressed, however, as clear-cut “boundaries.”
With Abraham and his posterity, however, the “boundaries” become much clearer. They were identified by blood lines and a particular history of a particular people called Israel. The Old Testament is the continuing story of how that distinctive family of people drew around itself specific “boundaries,” calling themselves “the people of God,” identified not only by familial ties but also by specific and particular ways of living and worship prescribed by the One who had called them into existence. Moses drew the boundaries quite clearly under the guidance of God.
Thus did the grace of God identify itself through a particular people with a defining way of life and worship. Yet there was always an awareness that God’s grace could and did and would always reach far beyond such narrow confines. The Psalm of the Day is clear that God is interested in, rules over, reaches out to, and can even be identified by the way he relates to “the nations of the earth.” (Psalm 67:4) And the prophet speaking in the First Lesson for today insists there will be “foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him. . . . These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Out of this long tradition of “boundaries” established within what is called “Judaism” came this man Jesus who stands at the heart of today’s Gospel. He well understood these “boundaries.” He knew that his task was to take up this long history of Israel, making it his own, filtering it through his life and body, filling it full of new meaning that could, at least initially, only be understood from within that story of God’s people called Israel. He would eventually broaden those “boundaries” in ways unimaginable to the disciples around him – and unthinkable in general to those out of whose midst he was arising. It took an immense struggle to expand the horizon of thinking about these “boundaries” on the part of his disciples and those who followed him to move into the world on a new level.
The Book of Acts speaks of that long, hard struggle to expand the “boundaries” of those who thought of themselves both as children of Abraham and followers of the Christ. The Second Lesson for today speaks of the tensions that were being raised as those “boundaries” pushed outward. “Did God reject his people? By no means! . . . God did not reject his people.” Quite the opposite, their disobedience was coupled with the sins of the Gentiles, and Christ died for all. “God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” This entire section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans reflects on the tension between those who were his people Israel and the new people who had entered the kingdom of God by faith. The extension of the “boundaries” was filled with stress.
Nor has this stress been overcome to this day. Over and over the people of God have had to recognize anew how old “boundaries” are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been overt -- plainly in sight. Racial divisions, gender differences, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. At other times they have been much more subtle. But we keep wanting to establish “boundaries” and God keeps pushing on them. We like neat, cozy, clear-cut “boundaries” to our lives, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn.
Yet we know that God’s kingdom is not nor can it be “boundary-less.” The tension concerning how to recognize those boundaries and to live within them creates a constant strain within the church.
Bread and Crumbs
This brings us to today’s Gospel, for the woman who approaches Jesus was a Gentile, a foreigner to the kingdom of God, an intrusion into the tidy “boundaries” with which the disciples were comfortable and within which Jesus proposes his basic arena of activity to be centered. The Canaanites were, from the days when Israel first entered the Holy Land, mortal enemies who were to be exterminated by the command of God. This woman, living just beyond the borders of Israel, is of the heritage of those who were the most unwanted of the unwanted. Not only is she of such an extraction, but she, as the pronoun makes clear, is a woman – one who is not to speak to a man in public. Not only does she approach Jesus, though – she nags at him, she makes a public scene around him.
If that were not enough, we now encounter a number of very odd things in the narrative.
First of all, she addresses Jesus in terms that makes one wonder where she got the terminology: “Lord, Son of David. . . “ These are Jewish terms, terms applied to the hopes Israel harbored for a figure who would change the course of their history. To “save” them would mean that he must establish a new rule among them. Perhaps the term “Lord” indicates such a hope on her part, but it may well be little more than we would say by way of courtesy, “Sir.” The term “Son of David,” however, would hardly have meant much of anything to anyone other than the Jews. Yet she has such an address on her lips from the beginning. .
Jesus’ peculiar initial unresponsiveness to her appeal is equally strange. This is the same man who responded so willingly to another Gentile, a centurion who pleaded for the welfare of a sick servant, only a few chapters earlier. (8:5-13) There was no reluctance or hesitancy then. Why should it be so now? Is it because she is a woman? Is it because she is a Canaanite and the centurion was a Roman? There is no answer to the question “why?” There is only this strange, surprising silence.
Not so with the disciples, however! They want to be rid of her. “Send her away, for she keeps crying out to us.” Possibly she has been nagging the disciples to get Jesus to do what she wants him to do. Consequently they may be asking Jesus to respond to her so that she will leave them alone. But they may simply be asking him to do something drastic in order to rid her from their presence. The woman certainly is getting under the skin of the disciples. Still Jesus seemingly remains unmoved.
In fact, to add to the oddity, he says, perhaps to the disciples within hearing distance of the woman, or perhaps directly to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” He claims to have a clear goal, a fixation – an all-consuming passion, in fact – on where he is to direct his attention and his energies. The woman is not in that vision, for she is a Canaanite. He is preoccupied, he seems to be saying, with one unifying commission, and that is entirely wrapped up in his relationship to the people of Israel who, themselves, are as “lost sheep” who need his full and undivided attention in order to return them to the fold from which they had strayed.
But the woman seizes on this immediately! Now he is “in conversation” with her and she will not let the opportunity pass by. His silence had been terrifying, but now his words open a new door! Again it is an oddity that she should be so bold, so brave, so challenging that she presses her case with force. She has been reduced to desperation, to be sure, but she will not turn loose. Like Jacob in his struggle with the Angel of the Lord at the River Jabbok, she hangs on for all she is worth. She started with the plea, “Have mercy on me,” but now she kneels before him as though in worship and supplication: “Lord, help me,” she says. “You are my only hope. You can’t turn me down, for you are the only One to whom I can look.” As Peter said in another setting, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So now: “You have the word of authority over this demon. Who else can do this for me? I throw myself entirely on the grace of your good will!”
Then the most extraordinary thing of all occurs. This merciful One, this man filled with grace, this Prince of Peace, speaks in terms that sound harshly rude: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Attempts are made to modify these words, to make them less harsh, by appealing to the word “dog” as a “household puppy” who licks the crumbs from under the table. But no matter how one wants to revise their sense, Jesus is speaking as an Israelite spoke of Gentiles. They were “dogs,” and there is no way to change that offensive sense.
Yet, glory be! The woman grabs hold of this very rejection and turns it into a response from which Jesus can no longer carry his case! “Yes, Lord,” she says. “I affirm what you say! I am not of the house and lineage of those from whom you come. Nor am I worthy to approach you as I have. Nevertheless I still make bold to say one last thing and ask you to consider it most seriously! Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. You are correct that it would not be right or proper to take the bread of the children and give it to dogs like me. Yet I, as a dog, ask only that you let me have the crumbs that fall from your table!” What an astonishing statement!
“Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted.” He who has fed five thousand from Israel only a short time before and who will feed another four thousand only a short time hereafter grants to this woman the “crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Do not the feeding of the five and four thousand serve as a great parenthesis around this story? He who feeds Israel, to whom he is sent, has given an “appetizer,” as it were, to a Gentile woman in the “crumbs from the master’s table.”
She has pushed on the “boundaries” of grace and has found them malleable, accessible, ready for penetration. She has not extended the “boundaries” herself, for that is not her task. It is for Jesus who will, following his death and resurrection, instruct the disciples to take up that task: “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he will tell them once he has completed his task among those whose “boundaries” had been most visible before this. The “boundaries” are not new, as the Psalm for the Day and the First Lesson have made clear, but now an unveiling of the larger “boundaries” is taking place, and through this Canaanite woman we catch a glimpse of it.
The “Boundaries” Newly Defined
So now the “boundaries” of that kingdom of God concerning which we raised the questions earlier are more clearly discernible: “You have great faith,” Jesus said. It was not a broad-based “faith in faith.” It was not a faith that everything would turn out all right, for she had long hoped that things would turn out right for her daughter, but they had not done so. She comes with no appeal for justice, no claim based on her “rights” or merit . . . only a plea for mercy, an undeserved help. She has nothing to bring with which to barter for her daughter’s wellbeing. Her only clothing is humility. She simply brings the faith and confidence that in Jesus alone she finds hope for herself and her daughter.
Thus did she “break through” the barriers that could have hindered her. In this way she signaled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, being carried on the waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had broken upon the face of the earth. Her story can well be and often is used as an example of the need to persist in prayer when the silence of the One to whom we pray devastates us. Her story is surely a marvelous and powerful assertion of this necessity to persist in prayer.
But in her we all find ourselves, for we, the church, largely Gentile today, are all “dogs” before the older “boundary lines” of where and when and how God’s grace arched over the earth. Long before this woman pushed those margins out by virtue of her faith God had made plain that his grace was far larger than anyone dared to think it was. “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people,’” the prophet had said of old. (Is. 56:3) In the blood of Jesus the “boundary of sin” was broken down and people of every nation poured into the kingdom of God. The “dogs” of the earth were transformed into the “people of God!”
We have been bound to this saving and gracious Lord through our baptism and the word that leaped upon us powerfully through those waters. We have been fed on the crumbs, the bread and wine that bear our Lord’s body and blood. We have been visited with wondrous promises that “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” We have been secured “by faith” into the family of God.
But let these “boundaries” within which we presently live and rejoice not become a fortress into which we retire to rest in safety. Let them be, rather, a penetrable place to which a Canaanite woman can come with her plea, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And let it be a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!”
Crumbs are enough to satisfy the hunger of the world – so long as they are crumbs from the Master’s table!