Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 33. Bread and Dogs
Mt 15:26,27 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
We are, you will remember, examining the picture language that Jesus used in his teaching. The more we do it, the more I realise just how much he did it – all the time! Wherever we turn in the Gospels we find this word-picture language. It is like Jesus does it, a) to make it more memorable and b) to make us think more – whatever is he getting at here? So often in preaching we try and make everything so simple and straight forward, but Jesus didn’t teach like that. He taught in such a way that those whose hearts were all for him would understand, while those with a lesser commitment would perhaps say, “Nice story,” and go away untouched.
So what is the context of our two verses above? “Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” (v.21) He has left his usual area of ministry around the Sea of Galilee and gone north to the area to the far north of Galilee, in the area of the towns of Tyre and Sidon. An area outside Israel, a land of the Gentiles. We don’t know why but we do know that he did what he sensed his Father was doing, what the Holy Spirit led him to. Now he may have ministered to other people in this area but we are only told about this particular woman, for immediately after his conversation with her, we read, “Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee.” (v.29) i.e. he went back to his usual ministry area.
She is “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity.” (v.22a) Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman, one associated with the old enemies of Israel, those pagans who had previously occupied the land, many of whom would have left the land and settled elsewhere (when others remained and fought Israel). Mark, perhaps more graciously describes her differently: “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.” (Mk 7:26) However we may look at it, she is not a Jew. Now all of this background is very pertinent to understanding the power and significance of what follows.
She comes to Jesus, “crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” (v.22b) Now what is interesting is that Matthew has a variety of supplicants coming to Jesus and addressing him as ‘Lord’ – e.g. the leper (Mt 8:2), the centurion (Mt 8:6,8), a would-be disciple (Mt 8:21), Peter (Mt 14:28,30, 16:22, 17:4, 18:21), now this woman (Mt 15:22,25,27), a father with a demoniac son (Mt 17:15), and two blind men (Mt 20:30,31,33), but in Mark’s Gospel, the only time someone directly addresses Jesus as ‘Lord’ is in this instance, this gentile woman! No doubt both sets of accounts are true but it is as if Matthew goes to lengths to show Jesus’ Lordship and the recognition of that by many people, while Mark, directed by Peter, only uses it in this one exceptional case, to make a point – a Gentile acknowledges Jesus’ Lordship, and that is outstanding!
This story is truly fascinating from a number of angles. She addresses Jesus as ‘Son of David’, she is emphasizing his Jewishness but also perhaps subconsciously acknowledging his role as ruler in the order of King David, possibly the Messiah. Then she openly acknowledges her problem – her daughter is demon possessed. Now this presents a particular problem. A person only gets possessed (as against ‘oppressed’) when an individual opens up their life to Satan in a big way, usually through the occult – or when someone close to them in authority over them, if they are a child, is seriously involved in the occult. So how did this child become possessed? What had the mother (or father perhaps?) been up to? We are not told. Amazingly Jesus does not appear concerned to apportion blame and point fingers!
Now Jesus’ response to her is strange to say the least: “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.” (v.23) Now perhaps he is remaining silent because he wants to see how all the other players in this scene are going to react. I do believe that the Lord sometimes remains silent because He is testing us and wants to see how we will react to such silence. The disciples react negatively towards her, and Jesus’ only comment seems at first sight to support their negativity: “He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (v.24) Again, is he wanting to see how she will react?
He is rewarded as she draws closer: “The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.” (v.25) She has sought Jesus out and now she persists. Jesus prods the conversation on again, again possibly to see how she will respond: “He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” (v.26)
Ah! At last we have arrived at the picture language, but what we find is almost abusive. His analogy is of a parent who snatches away the food given to their child and gives it to the dogs. ‘Bread’ is fairly obvious as meaning something that is good and nourishing, but ‘dogs’ is something different. Dogs, as we’ve seen before, tended to be unclean street scavengers or, at the best, guard animals tethered outside the family home. The term was used negatively of others – ‘Gentile dogs’, ‘infidel dogs’ and even later ‘Christian dogs’. What we don’t know is how Jesus said it. It could have been with a wry smile, as if inviting a repost – and this he gets: “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (v.27)
Excellent! Perseverance with wisdom! “Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.” (v.28) He clearly is pleased with her response and sees faith in her. He responds and the daughter is healed. Job done, now he can return to Galilee.
There is something in what we’ve just said that is quite significant and needs to be considered when we read these accounts. I suggested that the look on Jesus’ face would be telling and would be all important. The words at face value are provocative but the face might have been – and probably was – encouraging. If we wanted to expand what happened we might suggest the conversation went something like this: the woman came to Jesus’ house crying out from outside the front door, “Jesus, please come out and help us for my young daughter is horribly possessed by a demon.” Jesus came to the door but said nothing while his disciples in the background whispered, ‘Send her away Lord.’ So she persisted and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, please help us.’ Jesus smiled and said, “But I’ve been sent to our people, to Israel, should I use what I have for foreigners?” She smiles back through her tears, and shoots back, “Fair enough but can’t we have some leftovers of what you have – you are here after all.” Done!
A simple lesson, but a powerful one. If God either doesn’t answer or appears to give a strange answer, remember two things. First, He still loves you. Second, He longs for your growth and development and is watching to see how you will respond. The ball, as they say, is in your court!
(Addendum: if you want to see more of how God provokes, check out Ex 32:9,10 and Num 11:10-15 and Num 14:10-20)