The Table Scrap Feast

What do you do with table scraps?

It's a serious question these days. Think about those fruit peelings, the half-eaten broccoli, the dropped macaroni, the cut-off bread crusts. All of it goes straight into the garbage, wasted. I am certainly guilty of that.

According to one report, the average American wastes up to 25% of food and drinks that they purchase.[1] Just discarded, spoiled. This is at a time when one in six Americans are hungry, and over 800 million people worldwide don't get enough to eat.

Scarcity in a time of seeming abundance--yet, no one seems to agree on how to fix this problem. Food--even the most meager scraps and crumbs--can be a divisive topic. And from the story that we just heard, we realize that the same could be said in Jesus' time as well.

Jesus is walking into the territory of Tyre and Sidon--he's going into an area filled with Gentiles, people who aren't like him, who have a different history, who don't worship like him, who don't eat like him. And he's just had a debate about eating and diet and cleanliness. And I can imagine that after all of that he just wanted to be left alone, to get to wherever he was going and to turn in for the night.

Yet a woman called out to him--a Canaanite woman. Now, already the disciples are wary. A Canaanite? Those people? Oh no, no, we are not to be associating with Canaanites. They're bad--they've always been bad--they're unclean--they don't worship our God. What could this woman possibly want?

Yet there she is, in the middle of the street--wailing desperately: "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; Help me! My daughter is not well. She's tormented by a demon."

Yet Jesus doesn't say anything. He just keeps going...head down, power through. He just leaves it alone.

But there she is, still crying out, creating a scene. "Get lost, lady!" one of the other disciples might have yelled. Get her out of here. Send her away; she keeps shouting after us."

So Jesus pauses, and he turns back to the woman....

Now, this is where we'd expect Jesus of all people to understand where this woman is coming from. We'd anticipate this scene to play out like a cut-and-dry miracle story: woman cries out, disciples scoff, Jesus heals, and we all learn a valuable lesson. 

But it doesn't go like that.

In fact, Jesus comes off a little callous: "Ma'am," he says, "I'm here to feed the children of Israel, not the Canaanites. Not you. It's not fair to take the children's bread and feed it to the dogs, now is it?"

What is Jesus saying? Christians have been debating this for centuries: Maybe Jesus was just grumpy. Maybe he was testing her. Maybe the human side of him was mistaken. We could tie ourselves in theological knots trying to find the true answer. But maybe we should here this encounter as a parable playing out within the larger story that Matthew is telling. Perhaps we should think of it as something like a riddle with multiple answers.

You see, what matters most in this story is not the initial rejection but the action that follows:

"I shouldn't throw the food to the dogs," Jesus says.

"Yes, Lord," replies the woman. "Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table. Even we Canaanites are entitled to the scraps, don't you think?"

Can you imagine the looks on the disciples' faces when they heard that? Their mouths gape open and their eyes bug out. "What did she just say to him? Did she just talk back to our Lord?" It was a brave act on her part--those bold and jarring words--an action that rattled everyone's assumptions.

Now, we can't read Jesus' mind in this story. And we'll probably never know why he acted the way he did. But we do know that he was moved by what the Canaanite woman said; he was moved by her passion and her persistence and her faith. Jesus grants her the mercy that she sought. He heals her daughter and restores their family.

The experience of the Canaanite woman shows us that faith is not always simple or straightforward. Speaking up for ourselves and others, calling out unfairness, challenging the status quo--these aren't signs of weak faith or a lack of, Jesus pronounces this type of persistence "great faith." Great faith, indeed. The Canaanite woman comes in a long line of scrappy biblical figures who simply do not take "no" for an answer, who engage in what one scholar calls a "worshipful struggle," all the way back to Jacob who wrestled an angel in the Book of Genesis.[2]

I wonder, where is the Canaanite woman today? Who is she? Perhaps she is part of the one in six Americans who don't have enough food to eat, or maybe she is one of the millions who face daily violence and abuse, or perhaps the countless many who live with addiction or mental illness.

How many times in our lives are we like the disciples, trying to ignore these rather inconvenient problems? "Oh, I just don't have time for this today." "I've already given my money to the church for the week." "Well, she's just going to waste it...."

How often do we sidestep someone who is crying out to us for help? And, you know, we sometimes get a little defensive or even offended when someone else points out an injustice to us.

Now perhaps you've been on the other side, too. Have you ever reached out to others (perhaps even good, churchgoing Christians) only to be hushed up, shooed away, or dismissed with a callous comment? "Why aren't people listening to me?" might say..."I feel like I'm invisible."

We live in a world that is hungry--not just physical hunger, but spiritual hunger, too. People all around us long to be fed by things that have meaning and substance. We long to be part of something bigger, to be given direction, to be loved. And some of us are so desperate that we cry out in the street, "Have mercy on me!" Just a crumb, just a scrap will suffice.

Part of our Christian journey, our calling through our baptism, is to listen for those people calling out in pain or hunger or torment--to be attuned to their needs, to meet them where they are, to let them speak to us on their own terms. And sometimes they may seem as strange and foreign as that Canaanite woman. What she has to say to us today may sound as jarring as her words to Jesus. They may even shake our worldview and challenge our assumptions.

And if you, listening today, are the Canaanite woman--if you're the one crying out in the streets to seemingly no avail--don't be afraid. Take heart. Don't apologize for your persistence. God hears you and even in times of struggle and doubt, God proclaims your faith to be great.

It's no coincidence that after this encounter with the Canaanite woman, the next thing that Jesus does in Matthew's story is to go down to the sea and meet with a crowd of 4,000 hungry people. And he will feed all 4,000 of them from just seven loaves of bread and seven fish.

You see, God has this amazing ability to bring about change in the most astonishing ways, through the most unexpected people. God's work in our lives is always surprising us, always jarring us, always shaking up our worldview. God makes abundance out of scarcity. God is constantly taking the scraps from our table, the crumbs that we discard, and turning them into a feast. A feast to which we are all invited.

I'm grateful for the Canaanite woman, that unnamed saint, because through her perseverance, through her outspokenness, we catch a glimpse of God's vision for our world: It's a world where grace comes to us in the most unexpected ways, where the smallest speak with the loudest voices and the powerful act with humility. It's a world where soup kitchens become lavish banquet halls, where sick beds languish unused and graveyards lie empty. It's a world where all of us, each and every one of us, have life--life that cannot be taken away from us--eternal life.

Like the Canaanite woman, we too hold tightly to the promise of the Lord, the Son of David--"Brother and sisters," he says to us today, "great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish."

God's mercy and love are for all people--for those with little faith and those with great faith, for those who are hungry and those who are full, for the disciples and the Canaanite woman, for me and for you.

So what do we do with the scraps, those crumbs collecting on our table? Well, for starters, we can use them to nourish a hungry world.

Let us pray. God of abundance, we give you thanks for people like the Canaanite woman, for people who rattle us with the truth. Help us to be ever mindful of the voices of others, to those who cry out for mercy. Feed all of us with your grace and bring us to the day when all may gather at your banquet table. We pray in the name of Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.


[1] US News and World Report. "How Much Food Does the Average American Waste? - US News." US News RSS. (accessed June 1, 2014).

[2] Leander Keck, "Matthew," The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1995), 337.