Humility, the Philosopher’s Stone

In the fifteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel there’s an explosive little story about a Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter approaching Jesus. The story is dynamite because it’s as close to mean as we ever see Jesus get in the Gospels. Not that there’s any shortage of bluntness in Jesus’s conversation – but He always seemed to turn it upon deserving targets. When we see Him put down the cocksure Pharisees and lawyers, we say “good comeuppance.” When He called the Samaritan woman on her sordid history, we say the brazen hussy had it coming. Even when we see Him blow off Nicodemus’s earnest inquiries, we rationalize it on the grounds that Nicodemus was a well-off man, probably a bit too comfortable in his seat of authority, an esteemed teacher who likely needed knocking down a peg or two.

The Canaanite woman, though, approached Jesus with no “credentials” and no presumption. More to the point, she was in dire need – her daughter was “grievously vexed with a devil.” She persisted in seeking Jesus despite all the discouragement His disciples threw at her. Despite being a Gentile in a land whose inhabitants cared little for Jews, she respected Jesus’s lineage by calling “O Lord, Son of David . . .”

She bowed before Jesus. He called her a dog.[1]

Jesus’s leaden response to the woman – “it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to the dogs” – could quickly have turned the encounter into another tedious chapter in the history of ethnic name-calling. But she took His response in stride and ran with it. Having gone one mile in humility, she did not hesitate to go two miles. She finished Jesus’s (apparently leaden) thought with a golden one: “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

The exorcism of the Canaanite woman’s daughter.

Not a few contemporary readers have read this passage as if Jesus really had acted the part of ugly xenophobic Jew, and the Gentile woman schooled Him. My theory of what happened is quite different: Jesus, in His infinite shrewdness, knew the quality of the woman standing before Him, knew how His disciples had treated her, and called on her the way good professors sometimes call on a shy student to humble their star students. Certainly the encounter impressed the disciples: it appears in two gospels, serving as a prelude to the apostles’ ministry to the Gentiles. Later the story found its way into the Church’s liturgies for the Eucharist: “Lord, we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table . . .”

Just a little self-regard in the Gentile woman would have killed her story. She would have blown up, or gone away sad, with her daughter left unhealed. (If the story had happened today, it’d be quite easy to imagine it becoming the subject of a #RacistJesus hashtag campaign.) Her story would have illumined nothing. By her humility, though, she perceived more than offense in Jesus’s part of this tandem story. She discerned and, astonishingly, submitted to the order of salvation: “To the Jew first and then to the Gentile.” By the faith born of her humility, she turned lead into gold and received access into heavenly mystery.

[1] “Dog” in St. Matthew 15:26 is sometimes misunderstood to mean a kind of feral scavenger dog; to call someone that would have been abusive. The word Jesus uses is softer: it means a small house dog. Still, it isn’t a compliment, and it’s a surprising response to the woman’s earnestness.


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