“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs”

In our culture that statement could be criticised for being racist and even offensive. Did Matthew quote Jesus correctly? What did Jesus mean?

Jesus and his disciples were on a mission to reawaken the faith of Jews living in a hostile culture. The Canaanites had little or no religion and would have been quite superstitious and ready to believe in all sorts of magic. When the Canaanite woman shouted out Jesus thought it best to ignore someone with pagan magical ideas and not embarrass anyone. But this woman was different. She had used the title “Son of David” showing that she recognised where Jesus came from yet she was so driven to distraction by the sufferings of her daughter that she was not going to be put off easily, because she knew Jesus had healing power from God over devils.

The disciples were obviously embarrassed and they wanted to get away and not cause a scene. It was foreign territory and there would be danger of a disturbance and the ensuing problems. So they wanted Jesus to do something and solve the issue quickly. “Give her what she wants.”

In his reply Jesus reminded his disciples that he had received his mission from God to the chosen people of Israel. Those who wanted to be healed by him had to have faith and to accept the God of Israel. The woman was not put off.  She comes right beside him and pleads personally for help. She calls him Lord, the one sent by God. She recognises that he has a special relationship with God the Father of all.

Then Jesus speaks the controversial words, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the house-dogs.” What’s his point?

He is asking her, “Are you ready to accept the commandments and covenant that God has made with his chosen people? Healing and salvation are for those who respond to God’s covenant. Healing by God is a significant event that requires faith.” Then she makes her great act of faith. “I may not be born into the chosen people but I accept you as the chosen Messiah who speaks the word of God. I am open to whatever you give.”  Jesus responds to her act of faith by asking God his Father to grant her request.

An application to today: we may think it is a waste of effort to speak to those outside the Church who promote abortion. Better to concentrate on those from our own Church who are being led astray. However it may be the case that the worst opponent may convert totally unexpectedly. We must not underestimate the grace of God. Today’s gospel is a stimulus to us to welcome conversation with those who do not belong to the Church and do not practise the faith as we do. Jesus shows that they may be open to God’s mercy too. We have to go to awkward places and speak directly and, please God, Christ’s healing mercy will accompany us.

Our first calling is to remain faithful to the Catholic Church and do all we can to proclaim the gospel to our own people by word and action. When other people want help or advice or even a chat we have to be ready to explain the faith. It is never simply an automatic action like the disciples thought, “give her what she wants.” We may be right to have reservations and suspicions about some people outside the Church, but they could surprise us, as this woman surprised Jesus. We should be delighted when others see the Church as a healing, life-giving community and point them straight to Jesus the Lord and Saviour, the Son of David. Belonging to the Church and evangelising in this way is a great honour and blessing. Be discerning certainly, but above all be welcoming.