The Hard Sayings of Jesus: The Children’s Bread & the Dogs

A sermon preached September 18, 2022 to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican). Part of our ongoing Hard Sayings of Jesus series. By Fr. Justin Clemente

Abundant Crumbs

We do not presume to come to this, your table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your abundant and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table;
but you are the same Lord, whose character is always to have mercy.

The Prayer of Humble Access

This beloved prayer from our Communion liturgy was inspired partly by today’s Hard Saying – the faith of the Canaanite woman and the bread of Christ. What she found that day, and what we will find today, is that even the crumbs Jesus has to offer are abundant. If this is what the crumbs that fall off table can do, then how great is the feast at the Lord’s Table!

An Unlooked for & Unexpected Request

Let’s first recap the episode. In Matthew 15, after controversy with the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus departs to the area of Tyre and Sidon. This is non-Jewish territory. In fact, in the Old Testament, this is where the enemies of Israel resided. Mark 7 (the parallel account) specifically says that Jesus hid himself. He’s not openly ministering to Gentiles…but they begin to come to him.

As he’s incognito and ministering this area, he and the disciples are accosted by this woman. The disciples try to make quick work of her (v.23)  – “Lord, send her away, she’s bothering us!” And here is the first thing that might strike us as odd: the Lord is silent. Not a word. John Chrysostom writes here, “She asked not James, she did not pray John, or apply to Peter, but…ran alone to the Lord. But, behold, a new trouble. She makes her petition, raising her voice into a shout, and God, the lover of mankind, answers not a word.”

The question is, is he blowing her off or drawing her in? He’s drawing her in that God would be glorified and that her confession of faith would be seen by all.

Here’s a good time to mention that this passage can easily be misread. In his sovereignty, God gave us the revelation of his Word – not a video or voice recording. So what we don’t have here is the tone of the conversation (did it even include humor?), the gleam in Jesus’ eye, and the non-verbal cues of the back and forth of the banter. On the face of it, and in our politically correct hyper-sensitive era, if this dredged out of the history of our Lord’s tweets, Jesus would almost certainly have been cancelled in social media for this episode, losing followers by the scads.

So how does Jesus answer her plea for help? Not yet with a ready hand, but a proclamation (v.24): “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Mark’s version has a crucial piece of interpretation here: “Let the children be fed first.” In this stage of Jesus’ mission, he is regathering Israel and ministering to the lost sheep of God’s chosen people. We should never forget that Christianity arose from the Jewish context – all of the Apostles were Jewish! Christ is the fulfillment of all the promises made to God’s Old Testament people. And so when he comes in the flesh he goes to them first.

But she presses in. She even falls down at his feet: “Lord, help me!” She’s rebuffed again in verse 26: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Now this is the heart of this hard saying. We think of dogs as cute house pets today, but that wasn’t primarily how they were thought of in the first century. They were more of a nuisance, sort of like the racoons of Jesus’s day. In fact, there isn’t a single positive word on dogs that I could find in Holy Scripture. They were scavengers on the outside of society. And so, this was the common way in which Jews of first century spoke about Gentiles – as those who were in the dark, unclean and on the outside of God’s promises. But, it doesn’t mean that Jesus shared all the attitudes that went with that. More than that, it seems again that Jesus is testing her. Is she on the outside? Does she want in?

The woman’s response is masterful (v.27). She owns Jesus’ description, but also transforms it. She says, in effect, yes, I’m unworthy, yes I’m on the outside, but I place myself at your feet. How does she win her argument with Jesus? By submitting to him. She had called him Lord, now she says you are my Lord. She places herself under the table of Christ and in the household of God! She calls him “master”! She counts herself as a puppy under the table, willing to receive even the scraps. St. Jerome puts these words in her mouth: “I am content with that which is left for the [puppies], that through humble fragments I may come to the amplitude of the perfect bread.” (Jerome)

Our Lord says, (v.28) “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” She is the second Gentile is Matthew’s Gospel to be told that her faith was “great.” Great because it recognized and submitted to Jesus’ worth and person! Great because of the greatness of its object! Mark ends his account like this, “She went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.” What a day, what a story, and what a savior! But what does it mean?

God Outside the Bounds

We need to reflect on this as a case of God’s grace at work outside the disciples’ boundaries. After all, in how he deals with this woman, he is also teaching them! We do not know how the woman heard of Jesus, but we do know this: the Father revealed his identity to her. Jesus says that no one comes to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44).

Of course, this passage is just a foretaste of what’s coming: Pentecost, the birth of the Church, and world-wide mission. Whatever boundaries we’re tempted to draw around where God can be at work, drawing people to Jesus, they are probably too small. Take heart – the Lord is at work, especially in unexpected places like Tyre & Sidon.

The Great Irony: The Woman’s Confession & the Leaders Rejection

The woman in this story is unknown and unnamed – she appears and then disappears. She stands in contrast to the Pharisees and the scribes whom everyone would have known.

With the little knowledge that she has, this Gentile woman is the great example to all of us. She had a sliver of revelation about who Jesus was – and yet it was enough. It was enough for her to become indignant, to throw herself down at the feet of Jesus and cry out for mercy. She calls Jesus “Lord” twice in this passage – that’s typically how the disciples addressed Jesus. Next, she calls him “Son of David” – that is to say, King & Messiah, Lord & Savior. The heart of it is, she believed in Jesus’ authority, and she was willing to express it publicly for the sake of her daughter and herself.

Now think of the Pharisees & scribes. Just before this, they’ve been squabbling with Jesus over handwashing. How does Jesus respond? “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:10-12) Out of the mouths of these Pharisees & scribes came rejection – out of the mouth of the woman came faith!

Now here we are on another glorious Sunday morning – receiving the good gifts of God, being bathed in the light of Christ, well fed from pleasant pastures – good grass and pure water to drink! Does it serve to increase your love of the Lord? Are you more like the outsider let in lapping up all that God shows to her about Jesus, or are your more like the Pharisees, on the inside but not under the table, “honoring God with your lips, while your hearts is far from him?” (Matthew 15:8)

Prayer for God’s Glory & Our Good

Finally, this passage is a rich treasure trove of lessons in prayer. No doubt each one of here can think of seasons in our lives when it seems like the Lord’s face was set against us. When we found him to be silent. Can we pursue prayer in seasons like this, not just for our good, but for God’s glory? Could it be that God is up to something bigger than just answering our requests? There are three answers we may receive from the Lord to every petition we make: 1) yes, 2) no and 3) wait. Sometimes the third one is the hardest.

No matter what season of life we’re in, we’re called to persevere in prayer, believing that Christ is always more abundant in giving than we are in our asking. So if he doesn’t answer in the way we expected, it’s not that he’s stingy – far from it! But he does have larger (better!) purposes at work than we can see. What else could we expect from the God whose crumbs are even abundant and satisfying?

A prayer for you: Now “May [you] have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)