At face value, when Jesus tells a Canaanite woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs,” he’s engaging in a racist and misogynist slur.
In Semitic culture, to call someone a dog is highly derogatory, and our Lord directs this slur against not just one Canaanite woman, but the entire race of Gentiles. So he insulted you and me too. Gospels like this one are good for us. Christians aren’t called to unthinking obedience. We’re called to foster intelligent faith.
In the Gospels, the disciples are always asking Jesus questions. We should imitate them. We should not only ponder, but also scrutinise the Word of God. There’s nothing that can’t be Googled these days, but we should, each of us, also turn to our Lord himself. It’s good for us to sit in front of the tabernacle and to question Jesus. It’s good for our faith, and at a personal level it pleases him a lot.
At the Last Supper, our Lord calls us his friends:
“I shall no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know the master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.” (Jn 15:15)
Well, friends can say and do things servants can’t. Friends question friends. They complain to friends. Sometimes, they even repudiate friends. This is the sort of intimacy our Lord wants from us: an easy familiarity, which arises naturally between people who share regular conversation. So, what do we make of our Lord’s racial slur in today’s Gospel?
It’s not what it seems, I think. Recall the context. Our Lord and his disciples are still aggrieved by the recent death of John the Baptist. They have tried, unsuccessfully, to go on retreat. They finally escape the crowds by leaving Israel all together. They withdraw to a foreign land. Our Lord has drawn a line. He and his disciples need to rest. They are resting — maybe even sleeping — when a local woman starts shouting at them from outside the house. Our Lord ignores her, but it’s too much for the disciples. All they want is some peace and quiet. Can’t Jesus quickly oblige her so that she’ll go? He doesn’t budge. His work is in Israel. Right now, he’s on vacation.
Eventually — maybe after many hours — the woman gains direct access to Jesus. We’ve all been in similar situations. How co-operative are we, when people who have relentlessly badgered us finally confront us? Even these situations, though, don’t license us to engage in verbal abuse. But then, maybe Jesus didn’t do that either. There are mitigating details.
Our Lord’s doesn’t refer to street dogs — scavengers — which are common in the Middle East and many parts of the world. Instead Jesus refers to “house-dogs.” The original Greek word — κυνάριον — is a diminutive, like “puppy-dog” or “doggy.” So our Lord’s analogy evokes a family meal, with small children at the table, and puppies at their feet. The children no doubt love their pets, and perhaps the adults love them too. The analogy echoes the prophet Nathan’s parable to King David:
“A poor man had nothing but a lamb, only a single little one which he had bought. He fostered it and it grew up with him and his children, eating his bread, drinking from his cup, sleeping in his arms; it was like a daughter to him.” (2 Sam 12:3)
In our Lord’s scenario, the house-dogs aren’t refused food; they must simply wait their turn. The children are fed first. The Canaanite woman picks this up straight away. She’s apparently not the least bit offended. I don’t think our Lord means to insult her — or us.
The woman gets her favour: her daughter is healed. But what about us? What can we derive from this Gospel? I think there are two lessons.
Firstly, gentiles were always a part of our Lord’s scheme for the Church. Our Lord ministered to the children of Israel first, but his ultimate mission was the reconciliation of the world, as Paul relates in the Second Reading. You and I aren’t an afterthought.
Secondly, in the Lord’s vineyard there is a time for work and a time for rest. Jesus delayed the woman because he and the disciples needed rest. But at the same time, persistence pays off. We can remember this in our apostolate, and in our prayer. In the apostolate, we should be generous with ourselves, and attentive to self-care. Not neglecting the needs of others, but defining healthy boundaries. And in our own prayer life, if our Lord at first refuses, we should pray and pray some more.