There’s quite a lot of name calling in this week’s gospel reading from Matthew. Name calling is not generally the sort of thing we associate with Jesus, and this particular example feels harsh: he called a woman a dog (at least by implication). While he didn’t mean this with the same sense borne by the English idiom, it still wasn’t a sweet thing to say, and don’t we all like our Jesus to be sweet?
There are other names used in this passage too. The woman used “Lord” and “Son of David.” These are personal titles, names that apply to Jesus individually. They reference Jesus’ power and authority, as well as his messianic role and his fulfillment of Israel’s story. With the names she used, the woman was acknowledging something specific about Jesus and asking for him to step powerfully into her life.
Jesus used several names too. There’s “lost sheep” and “children,” in addition to “dogs.” These are not personal titles. They are collective names, metaphors used to describe the contours of salvation offered by the God of Israel. With the names he used, Jesus was not saying anything specific about the woman herself. Rather, he was explaining how God’s favor and grace came first to his chosen people of Israel.
Jesus was speaking to a key theological issue, namely the relative positions of Israel and the Gentiles in the plan of salvation. In contrast, the woman — who was a Gentile herself — was simply speaking to Jesus. Speaking directly to him, she overcomes the collective categories. What happened in this story is that promised blessings made to God’s chosen people, “the house of Israel,” were made available to a Gentile though the one person Jesus.
Jesus’ ministry beyond Israel did not negate God’s promises to the people of Israel, it was rather an extension of those promises. That’s why Jesus was so explicit about the sheep and children (the people of Israel) and the dogs (the Gentiles). He went to some length to explain that the blessings and power in His name were a fulfillment of God’s work among his chosen people. God had not changed his mind and chosen new people. God had not gone back on his promises. What was different in this story is that now, through faith in Him (v. 28), even those outside the covenant with Israel could receive God’s blessing.
This week’s reading from Romans explores similar themes. Paul was writing some thirty or more years after Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman. In that time, many Gentiles had embraced the good news about Jesus Christ, and many Jews had rejected it. Paul was struggling to account for that — how could this be so, if the Israelites were God’s chosen people? Had God rejected Israel? By no means, Paul writes. The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.
Our churches today are nearly entirely Gentile, so much so that the “Jew and Greek” distinction means very little to us. We hardly see the world through Jewish categories of identity, and so we don’t often spend our time anxiously wondering about the relative positions of Israel and the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. But it does matter very much that the Father kept his promises and sent his Son, born of the house of David, to the people of Israel. It matters because God’s promise of salvation to us Gentiles in the name of that Son is only worth anything if God keeps his promises.
That Jesus would emphasize the priority of Israel to the very face of a woman in deep suffering is a reminder of how serious God is about the promises he makes. No, it’s not really a sweet a story; but Jesus is more than sweet. Jesus is faithful.
The Rev. Andrew Van Kirk