Feed the Dog

January 20, 2008




© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

January 20, 2008

Reading: Matthew 15: 21-28 (Scholar’s Version)

So Jesus left there, and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And this Canaanite woman from those parts appeared and cried out, “Have mercy on me sir, you son of David. My daughter is severely possessed.”

But he did not respond at all.

And his disciples came and began to complain: “Get rid of her, because she is badgering us.”

But in response he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

She came and bowed down to him, saying, “Sir, please help me.”

In response he said, “It’s not right to take bread out of the children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs.”

But she said, “Of course, sir, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”

Then in response Jesus said to her, “My good woman, your trust is enormous! Your wish is as good as fulfilled.” And her daughter was cured at that moment.[1]

Tomorrow the nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. As I have thought about that great man I tried to imagine a sermon that would allow us to think about his legacy in a way that challenges anew our thinking about prejudice and the temptation to exclude people from the table board of life. I want to honor the determination of women and men that makes it necessary for them to find and claim their place at the table. The text that I have chosen to preach from is one of the most problematic texts in the entire New Testament. It is a story that we do not like to hear. It is a story that most preachers avoid because it is so troublesome. It is a story that many scholars gloss over or neglect entirely. But I think if we can place the story in a larger context we will see that the challenge is not Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman. The challenge is to the entire church, which despite the gospel, always struggles to find room for minority and marginal people. Though we claim the universal love of God for all human beings, we are often quite selective when that same love must be shared with particular people. We are like Will Rogers who said, “I love the human race. It’s the people I can’t stand.”

This story is found in Mark and Matthew. There is no source evidence for it. Scholars at the Jesus Seminar conclude that the story in an invention of Mark and adapted by Matthew. We could also wonder if the story was inserted into Matthew’s gospel at a later period. We might be tempted, therefore, to dismiss the story entirely. If Jesus probably did not have such an encounter nor utter words about dogs and the house of Israel, what is the point of dealing with the scripture at all? The problem is that the story is included in the New Testament canon. People still read their Bibles and are puzzled about such an encounter. What is the 21st century Christian community to do with this story?

I think it is very important for us to be reminded that Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience. The whole question about the relationship of Jesus to the life and story of Israel would be essential to them. It is deeper than the question of whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. Can the Jews be certain that Jesus is rooted in the Jewish tradition and how does his mission reflect on a Chosen People? Matthew’s challenge is complicated by the fact that the early church struggled with the question of Jesus’ mission. Was his mission Jewish, or did the gospel extend to the Gentile world? This was one of the most critical issues that confronted the church in its formative years. The problem takes up significant space in the book of Acts and is touched on frequently in the letters of the early church.

Prior to this particular story, Matthew tells us that Jesus has been having an argument with the Pharisees about rituals of purity. They have complained that the disciples do not wash their hands according to the law. Jesus pointed out that these were only human inventions and do not get at the heart of loving God and one’s neighbor. He also insulted them by saying that it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you but rather what comes out of it. In other words, Jesus has taken the position that obedience to the laws of purification was insignificant compared to just and right relationships between human beings in their love for God and one another. Jesus understood that purity laws were means by which people were excluded and denied entrance into the community of faith.

Now if you were going to write a story about who would be included in the kingdom of God; or who are the elect of God; or for whom the gospel is given, you could not create a much larger challenge than a Canaanite woman. Matthew’s character is a Greek woman. That is to say, she is not Jewish. She is clearly a Gentile. She is shaped by the Hellenistic culture not by Torah. She would be considered a pagan and not one of God’s chosen people. Obviously she is a woman, and brings to the story all of the sexist prejudice of first century Palestine. In a nutshell, she is unclean, contaminating the very room she enters. In the minds of those who would read Matthew’s gospel she is unworthy and defiled.

She is a mother on a mission to save her daughter. The child is “possessed.” She is out of her mind. She is given to fits of outrageous behavior. And there is nothing the mother will not do to save her child. She has been to every physician and every other faith healer to no avail. She can only trust that Jesus has the power to make the child whole.

So let’s get this straight. Jesus is trying to take a break from the controversy about purity. Into the room walks a woman who represents all that would be considered impure. She is a pagan woman asking a Jewish rabbi to heal her pagan daughter, who is out of her mind. The mother begs Jesus to heal her child. And the Physician’s first response is to ignore her. He could not be bothered. Her presence and pleas do not register. The disciples try to shoo her away. Can’t you see he is tired and resting? This is his afternoon off.

Overhearing all of the clatter and scuffling in the front room Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Does he mean to suggest that, indeed, there are limits on God’s grace? Are there some who are welcome into the Kingdom of God and some who are not? Does Jesus really believe all that he said about purity? Or does the Savior have his own code about who is clean or unclean?

The Canaanite woman could not be bothered by such questions. She is single minded when it comes to the well being of her child. She is not going to be lured into theological penury. A life is at stake here and her values are in tact.

On bended knee she said, “Sir, please help me.”

Jesus replied, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs.” You know the old saying, “Take care of your own.” “Charity begins at home.”

You can imagine that there were some in the early church who were applauding the Nazarene now. That’s right preacher, your first obligation is to the church’s membership. We’re paying you to care for the saints. It is not unlike a parishioner in Tulsa who bitterly told me that I loved the African-Americans on the north side of Tulsa more than I did the members of our church.

But the Canaanite woman knows that love has no boundaries. Never mind the insult. She knows that such a comment was a blow to her dignity. She understands that she is a person of no value. But what is that to the value of her child’s life? I can see her rising to her feet, both feet firmly planted on the floor. Her eyes sharply focused on the Teacher, her words wisely chosen. “Of course, sir, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”

The children get messy and food slops off their plate and onto the floor. Some kids feed the dogs what they will not eat themselves. But when you are so far down in life you will eat the scraps. The Canaanite woman knows the routine. She knows what you have to do to survive. She has stood in line at the free clinic and soup kitchen. She has rummaged through garbage bins and waited for restaurants to throw out the evening’s leftovers. No, sir, Mr. Jesus, she knows what it takes to survive. Love is stronger than pride and there is no place too low to stoop for the life of a loved one.

That is the wisdom of a mother, Gentile or Jewish, pagan or Christian. That is the courage of a parent who rises above social barriers, religious customs, and age-old prejudices to bring grace to those whom she loves. That is the faith that would set her and her child on the path to wholeness. Matthew declares that the child was cured at that moment.

Regardless of whether this incident is true to the life of Jesus, I submit to you that it is a crafty piece of writing. Imagine being a Jewish Christian of the first century reading this story for the first time. Matthew has walked you into a trap – a trap that first lifts up and then affirms whatever prejudices you might have had. He offers the accepted wisdom of the day as to why salvation would be denied to the pagan woman. Just when you think Jesus has laid down the best line of defense, the moral dignity of the woman shatters the illusion. Matthew’s story can leave no doubt in the mind of the reader that just as God’s love embraces all of humanity, so the church is called to open its doors and arms to all who trust in the grace of God.

There is no nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, age, or ability that can keep us from the love of God. As Paul wrote to the church at Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3: 28, NRSV) Tertullian of the second and third centuries wrote, “For you as women, have the very same angelic nature promised as reward, the very same sexual respect as men. You have the same dignity in making moral judgments. This the Lord promises to women.”[2] All who place their trust in the grace of God are our brothers and sisters. There are no artificial barriers by which they are to be excluded from Christian fellowship. There are no prejudices or fears by which we justify their disbarment from the faith community. The Canaanite woman’s passport to communion was her trust or faith in God.

Radical love in communities of acceptance – inclusion – full fellowship with all of the rights of membership is the path of salvation. We are made whole when we will gather the crumbs from under the table to feed the children of God. There is no movement of grace so humble that we will not engage the love and welfare of every member of God’s family.

And what a hard faith this is. The woman chose to remain steadfast. She was not to be discouraged or rebuffed. Persistence is ever the hallmark of trust. We cannot lay claim to a relationship when trust is sporadic or partial. If we follow Matthew’s storyline, even the rebuff of Jesus Christ would not dissuade her from the path of fidelity. Her integrity is a lesson to those of us who so easily cave in to the slightest difficulties in keeping our faith. We give up the disciplines of discipleship at the smallest inconvenience. Perhaps we do not understand what the Canaanite woman knew. Faith and life are inseparable. Life often hangs in the balance of moral constancy and we cannot cave in to social phobias, political correctness, or cultural biases.

Why is it that those on the outside of the local church teach us the true meaning of our Christian faith? Why do hope and salvation so often arise out of the ashes of oppression and tyranny? Why are Christians so often asleep in the pew? Why do we wait for some peasant woman from another culture to teach us about love and justice? Why do we wait for some black preacher to write to us from jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”? Why does the church insist on throwing up barriers, creating divisions, and insisting on the segregation of human souls?

It is not enough for us to accept Jesus as Messiah or “Lord and personal savior. The acceptance of Jesus is the acceptance of one another. To love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself is one commandment – not two – not either or – BUT ALL OF THE ABOVE.

Would that the community of Christ shares the vision of Langston Hughes. Hughes wrote:

When I get to be a composer

I’m gonna write me some music about

Daybreak in Alabama.

And I’m gonna put the purtiest songs in it

Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist

And falling out of heaven like soft dew.

I’m gonna put some tall tall trees in it

And the scent of pine needles.

And the smell of red clay after rain

And long red necks

And poppy colored faces

And big brown arms

Of black and white black white black people

And I’m gonna put white hands

And black hands and brown and yellow hands

And red clay earth hands in it

Touching everybody with kind fingers

And touching each other natural as dew

In that dawn of music when I

Get to be a composer

And write about daybreak

In Alabama.[3]

Shouldn’t the church be that community where hands of every color and accents of every tone touch everybody with kind fingers? The Canaanite woman models for us the radically inclusive community of faith. Her story calls us to touch everybody with kind fingers, regardless of red necks, or brown skin, or shape of their eyes, or the accent of their tongues. FINIS

[1] Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1993), pp. 205 – 206.

[2] Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women,” Ancient Christian Commentary: Mark, Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 1998), p. 96)

[3] Langston Hughes, “Daybreak in Alabama,” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), pp. 220-221.