Good pastoral care (we would hope) should avoid insulting the person asking for such care.
Yet, when the Canaanite woman — a non-Israelite — approaches Our Lord asking to be saved from demonic possession, we hear in reply, “‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. … It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs (kunariois)’” (Mt 15:24, 26).
Should we simply attribute Jesus’ response to having a bad day? Or maybe Jesus has realized a new dimension of his messianic vocation in his encounter with the woman.
Both of these suggestions are problematic. If Jesus’ bad day involves passing over those in suffering, then his identity as the God-man is put into question. Acting out on our own irritability is, well, unbecoming of the Lord of heaven and earth. And if Jesus can become irritable and annoyed by the requests of a woman in need, then he is not much of a savior, is he?
What will Our Lord do when I pray to him? Dismiss me as quickly as possible for my paltry concerns?
The Gospel of Matthew also reveals a mission to the gentiles early in the Gospel. The Magi from the East, non-Israelites, visit Jesus in Bethlehem. It is Tyre and Sidon, gentile territory, that is held up by Our Lord as better prepared for the day of judgment than Capernaum (11:21-23).
The Lord’s mission to the gentiles is present from the very beginning.
Then what is Jesus up to?
In the Old Testament, Israel had begun to hope that all the nations might come to the mountain of the Lord, to worship the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants — all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer” (Is 56:6-7).
Notice that gentiles are made holy by keeping the commandments, by coming to worship God in the Temple courts. Israel’s mission is not to gather the nations by denying her particular call, her vocation to the nations. Israel will save because she has been saved.
Our Lord saves the Canaanite woman because she recognizes the vocation of Israel. When Our Lord calls her a dog, he uses a diminutive form, something akin to a little puppy.
The Canaanite woman does not deny that Our Lord’s vocation is to Israel. She instead becomes what the Lord suggests, a little puppy seeking to scrounge for the scraps of wisdom of the Chosen People: “‘Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters’” (Mt 15:27).
We know that today the Church of the Jews and gentiles alike has become the living Temple of God, meant to draw all people to worship our crucified and risen Lord.
This does not mean that the Church’s existence is the end of Israel’s vocation. For the Church still is sustained on the scraps of the table of Israel, the chosen people first and irrevocably chosen by God: “For if [Israel’s] rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Rom 11:15).
This is good news indeed.
The Church remains the little puppy, who sups upon the wisdom of Israel.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.