Lectio Divina – Crumbs from the Table
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 23 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.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Why does Jesus perform this mid-day miracle as reported by Matthew for a Canaan woman? It seems out of place in the Gospel, as it appears after the multiplication of the bread and fish to feed the hungry (loaves & fishes). Why does Matthew place here and not earlier in his Gospel? Perhaps there are important reasons to position the story exactly where it is.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 15, Jesus has left his own region and arrived in a new place, where he is the foreigner. When called upon, he is unwilling to help a Canaanite woman, explaining that his mission is first to the house of Israel. That statement could be the end of the story, but it continues.
The Canaanites have been disdainful of and hostile to the Israelites for generations. Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman stirs up those old boundary disputes. In Tyre and Sidon, Jesus and the disciples have left Jewish territory and invaded this woman’s world. He and his disciples have entered this region. And the native woman instantly greets him. It seems remarkable that the “word about Jesus” had spread to this region, and that the woman would somehow know who Jesus is. She greets him as the “Son of David.” Yet, the disciples shoo her away, as she cries for attention.
Her greeting is even more remarkable because the disciples, who have been around Jesus for years, have been slow in recognizing him for who he is. In the previous chapter, Matthew 14, after walking on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples finally recognize Jesus as the Son of God, but it is not until Chapter 16:16 that Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. Somehow this Canaanite woman hails Jesus as the Son of David, begs his mercy, and entreats him to exert his power over a demon that has “terribly” possessed her daughter. How is it possible that this woman has more insight into Jesus’ identity than his disciples?
Jesus’ response seems the most perplexing part of this narrative. At first, he does not say a word to her, yet he refuses to send her away. Only after she persistently bows down to Jesus, does he talk with her. Twice, he explains that his mission is first to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The narrative seems to emphasize that his chore of caring for the “house of Israel” is more work than one laborer can handle.
Jesus also hesitates to listen to the disciples. Perhaps the hesitation is for momentary hope — hope that the woman would be allowed to speak for her daughter. She kneels before Jesus, as someone would to a king. When was the first time that a non-Jew knelt to Jesus? It may have been when the Gentile magi came to Bethlehem and offered him their precious gifts. The woman treats Jesus as royalty, worthy of the title, the Son of King David.
Jesus responds to her second cry for help by repeating that his mission is to help the lost sheep of Israel. He even likens her status as a Gentile to the low level of a small, pet dog, who longs to be fed from the table of its master. The woman humbly persists, accepting the lowly status as a dog and claiming that even pets enjoy crumbs from the table.
Her statement is striking. She places hope in the crumbs that others have discarded. This Son of David, she believes, has enough power to redeem both the house of Israel and her daughter. She is not trying to stop his mission, she just longs to expand it, ever so slightly to include her child. She is not seeking a seat at the table but simply a crumb, and that humble positioning and simple request are powerful. Even the smallest scraps from the table might be enough to defeat the demon possessing her daughter.
The story of the Canaanite woman from Matthew’s Gospel is also an echo of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes in Chapter 14:13-21. There on the mountain side, through scarcity, Jesus transforms five loaves and two fish into an abundance of food to feed thousands. And, after the meal, when everyone has eaten, seven baskets brimming with scraps remain. “Yes,” Jesus seems to be saying, “There are enough left-over crumbs for everyone.”
“Great is thy faith…” Jesus praises the Canaanite woman’s faith, and rightfully so. Her faith has given her the strength to persist and ask for help. She understands some simple truths that many members of the house of Israel have yet to grasp. This God is in the unsettling business of meeting outsiders and granting them not just a crumb from the table, but a chair there alongside him as well. Jesus is hope for Israel, and for the world.