On calling people dogs, and the silence of god

jesus called her a dog

Did God create the world in seven literal days? The Church warns us against taking an exclusive, too literal interpretation of Scripture. Could God have created the world in seven literal days if there was no sun around which to rotate? Those seven days could very well signify times, seasons, perhaps even seasons of evolution. Indeed, there are other passages that lean toward a more literal interpretation, like when Jesus reveals the mystery of His Body and Blood (Jn 6:22-71) and loses disciples in doing so. But there are many senses in Scripture:

the literal sense, what sense to the words themselves have?

the allegorical sense, what deeper meaning is ‘hidden’ in the text?

the moral sense, how does this affect our life?

the anagogic sense, what does it say about our journey of life and end goal?

We see all these layers and dimensions in Scripture that we need to gradually uncover and “chew on,”  in order to understand.

Mission Accepted!

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 15:21-28), we hear very difficult words from Jesus, calling people dogs and apparently limiting His mission to just a certain few.

In order to avoid a too literal interpretation, let’s look at the context of the Gospel. Jesus just multiplied the loaves and fed the thousands of people (Mt 13:14-21). He’s been teaching in parables and explaining those to His disciples. He has just crossed a district. He is away from home in a land that is not His, and He is a foreigner in the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Context is everything.

Back then, the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people, were seen as ritually unclean, those who hadn’t received the promise, the covenant of Yahweh, as a foreigner. A Canaanite woman, a foreigner and requests a miracle.

What’s surprising is that Jesus doesn’t say a word. And the woman needs to insist to the point that even Jesus’s disciples are annoyed and come to him –Jesus tell her something! Send her away already!—We hear his response.

 “I have not been sent but to the house of Israel, to the lost sheep” (Matthew 15:24).  

canaanite woman, silence of jesus, dogs
Jean Germain Drouais, Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Louvre, 1784

What did Jesus know, and when did He know it?

There has been much theological discussion as to the question as to whether Jesus knew that His mission was universal. Did maybe He believe that it was just focused on the Jews? We hear in the first reading in Isaiah (Is 56:1, 6-7) that foreigners are also called to partake of this covenant, this mission of recognizing, of loving the name of the Lord. We see also the universality of the missions of in the second reading (Rm 11:13-15, 29-32), when Paul himself sees his mission to the Gentiles, to those people of non-Jewish descent. But this brings us back to Jesus’ response: It is not right to take the food of the children and give it to the dogs.

In our contemporary, politically-correct ears, we can be taken aback by such a remark.

If Jesus is all-love, all-merciful, God-incarnate, why is He calling people dogs?

Again, the context.

Jesus was a Jewish man with a Jewish worldview who spoke in an Aramaic vocabulary, and in those times, everybody who was not a Jewish man, a Jewish woman, was practically referred to as a dog. Not out of hatred, not out of contempt, necessarily, but because they were not partakers in the mission of the Jewish people.

St. Augustine reads into the spiritual sense of this passage. In Jesus’ silence and his provoking comment to the woman, Augustine sees this as a way of igniting the women’s faith, provoking it, making it stronger.

How many times have you and I in prayer believed that God doesn’t listen to us, that He stays silent? In moments of need that we desperately seek his presence, that, like Jesus, He stays quiet?

St. Augustine says that through our perseverance and insistence, He is also provoking in us our faith, amplifying our hearts, our beliefs, that we may be capable to receive that we are asking, if it aids for our salvation.

What shocks also is that when Jesus responds to this by saying, “…it is not right to take the food of the children and give it to the dogs…” He doesn’t use the formal Greek word for dogs, He uses the word house pets, perhaps even provoking a familiarity with the woman to keep her engaged, but at the same time recognizing that there is still growth. She insists, and the woman has a great comeback!

She says that even the dogs can eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.  Jesus praises her faith, and recognizes that there is faith in the foreigners, in Gentiles, and acknowledges that His mission is also for the nations. It is through a Jewish man that we receive the Word of God.

Isn’t that how grace works, most of the time?

Sure, we may have these strong punches of grace like St. Paul and experience the love of God and His grace every once in a while, but most of the time we receive grace by ways of others. By an edifying way of how they live their faith, their values, their beliefs they show us what it means to be a true son or daughter of God.

If you want to increase your faith, share it.

If you want to experience the love of God in a more profound way, share it: With your children, spouse, friends, colleagues, coworkers, your fellow students.

Faith is multiplied, not divided.

It is in sharing our faith that it increases. Our faith and grace are not meant to be hoarded, captive in a church. They are meant to be preached by our actions, by our words; that is how Rome was evangelized! It was a grass roots movement… the sculptor who shared his faith with his patron, the woman with her neighbor, the carpenter with his peer.

Sharing our faith does not start with a formal induction to truth:  let me show you the way, the path of truth. Rather, sharing our faith starts like Peter’s brother, Andrew did:

…let me show you who I found.

…let me show you the message of Jesus of Nazareth and what He has done for me.

…let me show you the mercy of the Father I have experienced.

We won’t always convince people by the logic of our arguments, by the strength of our convictions, but rather by the reality of how they are lived in our lives.

Christianity is a lived message, something we incarnate day in and day out; that is the strength of grace! Like the poem says, “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”

What is your story to share?

Your obligation doesn’t end after Mass.

It is God who has called us, but not called us just be Sunday-Mass-Christians… called us to assimilate the message of His Son, the message that transcends borders, race, and any other prejudice that we may have, a message so great that it has to be lived in order to be more fully understood.

May Mary show us how to listen to the voice of Christ in Scripture, in liturgy, in our lives that we may also respond to His invitation and assimilate His Gospel.


This post is also available in: Spanish

You may also like