The Gospel reading for the twentieth Sunday in Ordinary time features a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus tells her that he was sent to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” rather than to minister to Canaanites and foreigners. By the end of the conversation, Jesus remarks on the Canaanite woman’s “great faith,” in much the same way that Jesus praised the faith of the Roman centurion in Matthew 8.
Sent to the House of Israel
In the original Greek of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses the verb ἀποστέλλω (apostello, to send) in the negative, telling the Canaanite woman that he was “not sent except to the House of Israel.” This sending is the mandate Jesus receives from God. In John’s Gospel, “to be sent” is to formally be commissioned and to represent the Father. John the Baptist was “sent” to announce the coming of the Lord. Jesus was sent as the messiah and Son of God. The disciples were sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news, and to baptize all nations.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus highlights the idea of God’s sending especially in the Parable of the Wedding Feast, in Matthew 22. In that parable, the Lord’s servants are sent to invite guests to attend his Son’s wedding feast, yet few respond. The king, outraged that his own did not respond, invites instead anyone who will accept the invitation.
The woman respectfully challenges Jesus
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes the case that he was not sent to minister exclusively to the people of Israel. His response to the woman is even more blunt than meets the eye. He says, in effect, ‘God did not send me to help you, or any gentile or Canaanite for that matter.’ Of course, we can see that his statement is more rhetorical than an assertion of fact. Though Jesus is brutally direct, his unambiguous response, and his defense of his mission to the house of Israel, becomes an unexpected opening for the woman. He tacitly invites the Canaanite woman to challenge his assertion that he has no mission outside of Israel. And indeed, the woman challenges him, with a great deal of respect and patience.
In defending his position, Jesus cites a Jewish axiom that a child should not throw their own bread to the dogs. This is advice a good Jewish mother would give to her child. In fact, a close reading of the original Greek suggests that Jesus implies to the woman, ‘I am a good Jew, my mission is to Jewish householders.’ The Greek οἴκου Ἰσραήλ can suggest not only the “house of Israel” but also, an “Israeli household.” The woman, clearly concerned for the welfare of her daughter, is totally unfazed by either the apparent put-down nor the prospect of continuing to implore Jesus – someone she believes is fully capable of helping her daughter. And so she presses her case, stating that dogs still eat the scraps off the table, whether deliberately thrown on the floor or not. In fact, the Canaanite woman understands the householding reference and responds in kind, suggesting, ‘you may be responsible to Jewish households, but I will accept even what a Jewish householder would reject – food off the floor.’
There is some irony here in that Jesus has referred to himself as “the bread come down from heaven” elsewhere in the Gospels. If this is the metaphorical food of which we are speaking, the woman tells Jesus, “I will accept what I can get.” After the woman presses her case, and says that she will accept whatever support Jesus can offer, the story takes a parabolic or unexpected turn.
Far from rejecting her plea, Jesus exclaims, μεγάλη σου ἡ πίστις! Or, great is your faith! Keep in mind that in chapter 13, Jesus referred to his closest disciple as you of little faith. Matthew, the sacred author who writes a Gospel intended for Jews, tells us that Jesus will indeed direct his mission towards gentiles as well as Jews, those at the margins and not just those related to Jesus by kin or culture. Finally, we should note that this story precedes the miracle of the feeding of the four thousand. Even here in this story, there is a subtle reference to the Eucharist, as the “bread” intended for the children of Israel is extended to the Canaanite woman as well.