Jesus puts Jews and gentiles under the same roof, and the first to get there is the Canaanite woman from our Gospel today.
In fact, you could say that the day the gospel went to the dogs was the day it came to us.
In Catholic Christianity, the word dog is used positively in mottos, by saints, in the Book of Tobit; however, when Jesus called the woman a dog it was a derogatory term, e.g. St. Paul calls partially converted Christians “dogs” in Philippians 3:2 since they tried to impose circumcision and other Jewish practices on converts instead of acknowledging that we are saved by grace alone and by faith and baptism.
It is striking that she had to face a purposeful insult from Jesus to test her ego. One Catholic commentator says that Jesus used the b-word, unlike its technical use today by veterinarians and dog breeders.1
The background is that the Canaanite woman lives in the region of Tyre, and Josephus, the first-century historian, referred to Tyre as enemy territory to Israel. She accepts that gentiles can have no expectation of—let alone any right to—the blessings that God has promised to Israel.
Jesus actually said “little dogs” or “puppies” in Greek, like Border Collie? In the book, The Intelligence of Dogs, neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, PhD, named the Border Collie the most clever dog, prized for its intelligence, instinct, and working ability.
The woman understood the riddle or allegorical challenge of Jesus by responding that since the crumbs are not anyone’s possession, but merely fall from the table of the dogs’ masters, she has access to Jesus’s healing power as a non-Jew. In Mark’s version, she even uses the diminutive that refers to “little children” with fondness, thus she stays within the Jewish perspective of Jesus’ riddle, by referring to the Jewish children of God with a term of endearment.
1). The lesson is to turn a [quote] “negative status,” in the eyes of some, into something with positive value. She may belong to a pack of dogs, as it were, but there are enough “scraps” of bread not just for the “children” (Jews) but also for the Gentiles like herself. She persisted after four rejections.
E.g., It’s possible to get hired at a company even if they’ve previously rejected you if you made their short-list. In large organizations, perhaps you won’t be considered for the same exact position you initially applied for, but your skills are quite likely useful elsewhere in the organization.
The spiritual and moral meaning of the testing by Jesus, according to St. John Chrysostom, is that the Canaanite woman signifies repentant souls. Incapable of boasting, contrite sinners lean wholly on God’s mercy.
Another lesson is to never give up in seeking your healing. She wants Jesus to heal her daughter.
The woman’s remarks are ultimately praised by Jesus who grants her request and heals her daughter long-distance, and through the mother as a third-party. Situations of conflict and suffering can become opportunities for transformation, for renewal and healing, and for witnessing God’s amazing grace.
How? By doing what she did. Notice how she came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” This is language of conversion from paganism to faith in Jesus.
The story of the Canaanite woman asks us to move deliberately beyond our comfort zones by welcoming into our midst those who are already here: the stranger, or the different other like the refugee, the undocumented. When Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, he opened his church to the world. Now we are to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.
1. J. Cronin, 20th Sunday in Ordinary time, Franciscan Media, 2023.
2.David Rhoads, Currents in Theology and Mission, 47 no 4 2020, p 36-48