Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. – Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus called the woman a dog.
She was a marginalized person in her society and definitely someone with very low self-esteem. She was in a desperate situation and Jesus did not make anything easy for her. Of all the people he healed, Jesus gave this woman the hardest time. He had healed ungrateful people before and he dined with despicable characters but he only insulted this lowly woman in the gospels.
This story is inculcated in my mind ever since my insertion into the Anglican tradition as a teenager. The prayer of Humble Access* said before receiving Communion transformed the desperate plea of this woman into poetry.
“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”
The prayer teaches us how to interpret the text. It is about the power of God’s mercy.
The gospels are painting a picture of Jesus for us. It is a Jesus who lived in the harsh reality of his times. In fact, the Bible is a library of books written in the harsh historic reality of the authors and each of them try to show the mercy of God shining through these realities. His mercy is the Light which reveals a deeper reality.
In the Western countries as well as some affluent nations, dogs are treated better than people. People have more compassion for dogs than their fellow human beings. Calling someone a little puppy is sometimes a term of endearment. In Jesus’ time and still in the some parts of the Middle East I am told, dogs are like rats that serve a purpose like guarding a house. There is not much affection between people and dogs. Each society has people who are like the dogs of Jesus’ time.
Our ministry is to this particular group of people. I need to add a disclaimer here that I don’t consider them dogs and neither does anyone in our team. However, many people do consider these homeless children and teens to be nuisances and at best, they are barely tolerated. Churches do not set aside time and money in their annual budgets to minister and reach out to these children and teens. When they do give them something, it is usually the scraps of their time and energy. Just like what we give to stray dogs. Most people do not think about them at all unless they walk pass them in the streets. Just like the fact that I don’t think about rats in this rat infested city but when one rans across my path, I reminded that they are around. However, I would rather not remember this. This is basically the attitude of the churches and people have regarding the homeless. Yet, the same people believe wholeheartedly in equality of all people but reality tells a different story.
The words of Jesus address the harsh reality of life experienced by those who are considered like ‘dogs’. We are here working with young children and teenagers whom we know will not be treated as equals for the majority of their lives. They may never be able to shake off the feeling that they are outcasts. Yesterday I accompanied a young teenager, Igor, to a government agency to help him get his documents. We couldn’t find the specific building and I decided to ask for directions from a group of policeman. One of the policemen gave Igor a look of disgust and was staring at him aggressively as if he had done something wrong. While I was asking them for directions, this policeman still did not stop humiliating this boy with his stance and demeanor. Igor noticed this and walked on. This is part of his life. Igor has accepted the fact that many consider him to be a like a dog. I can talk to him about having a better self-esteem but it would not make a difference. Society will always treat him differently. What is important for Igor to know is if the gospel is for him as well or just for middle class people? He wants to know if the mercy of God can shine through his inadequacies and lowly status. He wants to know if he could gather up the crumbs under the table.
The prayer of Humble Access* reminds us that none of us are worthy to eat at the Table but God’s mercy invites us to participate at the table. However, most of us say this with our mouths but in reality we think that it is our right to be at the Lord’s Table. For people like us, we need to humble ourselves and know our true status. For someone like Igor, perhaps he needs to exercise his faith a little bit more to see that God’s mercy is also for him. There are many voices telling him, through their attitudes and actions, that he has no place at the Table. Igor needs to exercise his faith to see through these lies. Jesus challenged this woman to do exactly this. He called her dog but she knew that this was not going to stop God from pouring out His mercy for her. Of all the people in the Bible, this woman dominates the most respected place in our gospel. She was the only one who outwitted our Lord. Her words have found themselves in the Liturgy and in my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful prayers in our Liturgy.
*More information about the Prayer of Humble Access can be found here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Humble_Access