There are times in the gospel when Jesus says something that makes us ask, “Did he really just say that?” For example, his mother came to see him and what does he do but turn to his disciples and say, Who is my mother? (Matthew 12:48). Then there is the time he said, If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away (Matthew 5:29). Today is yet another, as he says to a woman pleading for help, It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs (Matthew 15:26).
Did he really just say that?
Well, yes. The question is, what did he mean? To answer that, we have to know more about the context.
To begin with, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15:21), pagan lands. We might wonder why he went there but I think it was for two reasons: First, as the Catechism tells us, Christ comes to meet every human being (CCC 2560); he wants none lost but all brought to knowledge of him. Second, he has just sparred with the Pharisees about what truly defiles a person, teaching them that it is not what goes into the mouth that matters but what comes out of it (Matthew 15:1-20); that is, vice or virtue. Where better to demonstrate that than pagan territory for, by implication, the Gentiles are not defiled (as the Hebrews assumed) because of who they are; to the contrary, there may be great virtue among them. He has come to see.
The Canaanite woman does not disappoint. She too has come to see – to see Him – and on finding him shows the faith to call him Lord and the love to pray on behalf of her child: Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon (Matthew 15:22). She doesn’t know it but the Holy Spirit is moving within her, making her as St. Augustine once said, “a beggar before God” (CCC 2559).
And a persistent beggar! Three times she is rebuffed. First when Jesus does not answer her (Matthew 15:23), again when he says, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24). Anyone less persevering might have gone away but the Holy Spirit prompts her to move closer, now to the piety of doing him homage and pleading, Lord, help me.(Matthew 15:25). If it is help that comes it is of a mysterious sort, coming in the third rebuff, the now brief but infamous parable, It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs (Matthew 15:26).
Before we get to the term “dogs,” consider the word “food.” Its literal translation is “bread.” In reality, Jesus is the Living Bread; in the parable, he is referring to himself. As for “dogs,” it is true that Hebrews compared people to dogs or called them dogs to imply they were either of very low status (e.g., 2 Kings 8:13; Exodus 22:31; Deuteronomy 23:18; 2 Samuel 3:8; Proverbs 26:11; Ecclesiastes 9:4; 2 Samuel 9:8; 1 Samuel 24:14) or evil (Philemon 3:2; Revelation 22:15). And although Christ softened the term by changing it to puppy or house dog, it was still in no way complimentary. However, taken as a whole, Christ is challenging her by way of parable to ask herself, “Jesus is the bread, Israel are the children; where do I belong? How am I fed?”
Her answer is inspired: Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters (Matthew 15:27). Not only does she say nothing about the term ‘puppies,’ she humbly puts herself in the dog’s place yet proposes an ending to his parable that allows everyone to partake in Christ, Jew or Gentile, each in their own place. The Holy Spirit has enlightened her mind with the gift of understanding; she has begun to see that the answer to her prayer, to all prayer, means uniting her will with the will of Christ, which as we said above is that none be lost but all come to knowledge of God, who is love.
Thus, through this faithful woman’s inspired reply to his challenge, Christ has vindicated his argument to the Pharisees that the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart (Matthew 15:18), in her case humility, perseverance, love, and understanding. These are as he said the key to “great faith” (Matthew 15:28) and they only happen when we allow the Holy Spirit to work within us, slowly but surely uniting our will to the perfect will of God.