By Rev. J.C. Austin
In the movies, it seems like it is always the villain who has the plan. With very few exceptions, the greatest movie villains always have the greatest plans, and the heroes are on the defensive, trying to spoil the plan. It’s not a coincidence that that description is the exact plot of the highest-grossing film of all-time, the final movie in the Avengers superhero series. It’s right there in the title: the good guys are called the Avengers, and to avenge something, you have to be reacting to something bad that someone else has done, in this case a villain named Thanos who has a plan to wipe out half of all life in the universe.
But most of the great movie epics follow that same archetype. Think about it: the Wicked Witch of the West in Wizard of Oz; Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life; the Emperor in Star Wars; Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, pretty much every James Bond or Disney cartoon villain. The Joker, in the Batman movie The Dark Knight, tries to insist that he doesn’t have a plan for what he does, but it turns out that even that is all part of his plan. Villains make plans; heroes foil them.
Which is part of why this passage from Matthew’s gospel is so disturbing. Because the person here who is focused on working his elaborate plan is Jesus, and the person trying to foil it is this nameless woman from the Canaanite peoples. We have to both honest and careful here: Jesus is not a villain in this passage, but he’s a long way from playing the role of the hero, too; the plan he is following might be to establish God’s kingdom of heaven, but the only people he thinks are allowed in are Jewish people.
Here he is, on his way through Gentile country when one of the locals starts following him. She does everything right: she confesses him as Lord, she recognizes him as the “Son of David”, the Messiah, she calls on him for mercy and healing for her daughter. But Jesus simply ignores her at first, acknowledging her only when she gets on the nerves of the disciples, who urge him to send her away. And he does. I’m not here for you, he says; you’re not part of the plan: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says.
The thing is, that plan isn’t working out too well so far for Jesus, either. He is discovering that most of them are lost sheep that don=t want to be found, that would rather take their chances roaming the countryside on their own with the wolves and the bandits, that don=t accept the shepherd whom their master has sent to protect and care for them. That has to be frustrating for Jesus; it’s the whole reason he’s come, and he’s being rejected. But that’s the plan, and he’s going to follow it.
So when the woman persists in calling on Jesus, he dismisses her with a cutting insult: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” There’s no scenario in which calling someone a dog is not degrading in first-century Judea; then and now, dogs are looked down upon in the Middle East as dirty, cowardly scavengers. But even so, there is a kernel of grace hidden in what Jesus says, exclusive though it may be. Jesus has switched metaphors from herding sheep to preparing food, but he’s still referring to the plan.
Through his entire ministry of teaching and healing so far, Jesus has been laying out God’s banquet table with the promised feast for the children of Israel, rich sustenance piled high in anticipation of the children pouring in, scrambling for their seats and grabbing their utensils, waiting eagerly for him to heap their plates with its goodness. But, for the most part, the children have not come. Some stay outside playing, pretending not to hear the dinner bell. Others come to check things out, peering in suspiciously at what Jesus has prepared, but decide that that’s not what they want to eat. They’re not interested, they’re expecting something different; they’re not hungry right now, at least for what he’s offering.
But Jesus is still unwilling to throw the feast away, unwilling to give up on the children of Israel even as the food gets cold, unwilling to scrape the plates off and throw the food away by giving it to the Gentile dogs who have not right to it and would not even understand what they’re being fed with. This feast was planned for the children, and it will be kept for them. And, in a strange sort of way, that is a kind of grace; a grace that is unwilling to give up on those who belong at the table but aren’t interested in coming.
The problem is, this Canaanite woman does understand what the food is that Jesus is bringing, and she is hungry for it. That’s what really hurts here: she is clearly hungry for the power of his touch, the comfort of his words, the recognition of her humanity and her need by his gaze; hungry for assurance that her daughter is not lost or abandoned to the demon that possesses her; she is hungry for the bread of life that Jesus promises and embodies. But Jesus does not only refuse her this food, he rejects the idea that she can even sit at the table. It’s not fair, protests Jesus; it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
I never cease to be astonished at those in the Christian community who believe that God has taken away the children of Israel’s food, the covenantal promises God has made to nurture and sustain his people, simply because they think God has grown tired of waiting for them to come to the table and the food’s getting cold. Ironically, it is often those who most fervently claim a literalist reading of the Bible who take this position, skipping over the words of Paul in Romans which could not be any clearer about God’s actions: “Has God rejected his people? By no means….God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”
In fact, Paul devotes three whole chapters of the letter to the Romans to making this argument. And, for that matter, such people must have missed pretty much the entire Old Testament, which is basically one long story of God repeatedly deciding to stick to God’s promises and stick with this people even when they ignore and oppose God over and over again.
And so the new covenant of salvation in and through Jesus Christ does not replace the old one; it adds to it, extends it, broadens it to include the Gentiles. Which is why it’s so ironic that white supremacists, most of whom identify as Christians, chant things like “Jews Will Not Replace Us” at their rallies and marches, because it is they who are seeking to replace Jewish people, not the other way around. The rejection of the children of Israel is not part of God’s plan. Their places at the table will be kept; their food will be saved for them.
Jesus is right; it wouldn’t be fair to take the food away from the children of Israel. It wouldn’t be right. In fact, it would be an affront to God’s promises and purposes. But that’s not what the woman is asking for. She doesn’t ask for Jesus to show mercy to her instead of to the children of Israel; she doesn’t ask to replace the Jews; she doesn’t even ask to be served first. She simply asks for the table scraps of God’s gracious banquet.
Somehow, she knows that God sets an abundant table, and she knows that there will be more than enough left over for her. Somehow, she knows that she is part of the real plan, God’s plan. She understands that has to be the case, simply because of who God is: generous, loving, merciful, just. And when she persists, pointing this out to Jesus, he realizes that she’s right, and he extends her the same blessing and healing that he has extended to the children of Israel. Because it was actually part of God’s plan all along.
In fact, if you go to that section of the letter to the Romans that I mentioned, you’ll see that Paul realizes the same thing. Paul is wrestling in agony over why so many Jewish people did not respond to the Christian gospel in the first century. And he concludes that while Jewish people may have rejected the gospel for the moment, but God has not rejected the Jews. In fact, God is using that rejection of the gospel as a means of both fulfilling its promises and maintaining the covenant between God and his servant people.
After all, he reasons, if all the Jewish people had immediately accepted Jesus as the Messiah, then there would have been no salvation by faith for the Gentiles; at best, they would have been forced to adopt the precepts of the Jewish covenant first. But, more likely, they would simply be sent away. Jesus would have been seen exclusively as he seems to see himself until this encounter with this Gentile woman: as the coming Son of David, the Messiah, the “King of the Jews.”
“The best-laid plans of mice and men so often go astray,” says the proverb that originated in the poetry of Robert Burns. And thank God for that. For, as the poem continues, “they leave us nothing but grief and pain for promised joy.” Perhaps that’s because our plans tend to make such small promises, offering some small joy or benefit or acceptance based on a lot of pain and deprivation and exclusion.
We are good at that; we are good at coming up with plans that we believe will end up giving us the power, putting us in control of the world. We human beings are good at plans that will secure the joy we have promised ourselves, whether it is our own wealth or security or happiness or salvation, plans that accept, or ignore, or even relish the grief or pain they may cause others. And, often enough, such plans achieve the grief and the pain but not the promised joy.
But, thank God, our plans are no match for God’s promises, no matter how well we lay those plans. Each of the human-based plans in these lessons does not simply go astray; they are foiled by God’s gracious intervention. God turns the historic rejection of both Jews and Gentiles into an opportunity to demonstrate the limitless breadth and depth of God’s blessings and judgments through Christ’s death and resurrection, making it clear that each of us has a place at God’s table; not because we have claimed someone else’s seat, or because we have gotten their first, but because God has planned it that way. That is the ending God has promised; and God will keep that promise to the end.