August 17, 2008 - Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
“Don’t feed the dog at the table!” It was a key rule. My sister and I were not to respond to those big, brown, pleading eyes that gazed up at us as we sat eating. We weren’t to sneak bits of meat, or better yet, vegetables we didn’t like, off our plates and let our pet gratefully take them, licking our fingers as he did so. The dog might lie down at our feet, but he was not to beg and we were not supposed to feed him.
Jesus seems to have had a philosophy similar to my mother’s. Children’s food is not for dogs. That’s how He responded to a poor woman with a demon-possessed daughter in verse 26.
He was in Gentile country, we’re told in verse 21, in the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon, two notorious enemies of Israel in the Old Testament. These places are on the coast in today’s Syria and Lebanon. In Mark the woman is identified as “Syrophoenician,” a mixed ancestry from Syria and from the sea-faring Phoenicians. But Matthew uses the old Hebrew term “Canaanite,” identifying her with the ancient foes of the Jewish people.
Yet, like a hungry dog, this Gentile woman was oblivious to how disliked her people might be by this traveling band of Jewish men. It was like a Serb coming out to beg from a Bosnian, or a Turk from a Greek, or a Russian from a Georgian, or an Al Qaeda Muslim from an American. A despised, hated, dog of a person begged mercy from a Jewish teacher. And, despite her mongrel heritage, she presumed to call Him by a Jewish name for the Messiah, crying out in verse 22 “‘Son of David,’ have mercy on me!”
Jesus’ response was silence, says verse 23. He ignored her. Yet she was as persistent and annoying as a hungry dog. She just stayed there, crying out, like a starving animal whimpering at the smell of food. Finally the disciples got so tired of it that they asked Jesus to “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
Those words, “Send her away,” are ambiguous in Greek. They could mean to send her away either with or without granting her request. But what Jesus says in verse 24 makes more sense if the disciples were so fed up that they were asking Him to do what she wanted. Toss the dog a bone, and be rid of her.
It’s not that simple for Jesus. Verse 24 is His stony reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus had priorities. Just like we couldn’t feed every hungry person in Eugene last week, we chose a few select projects to alleviate hunger. Jesus’ selected project was His own Jewish people. This woman was a pitiful puppy, but she was not one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. So Jesus spurned her.
The dog woman was listening. Realizing she’s about to be run off like an annoying stray, verse 25 says she came right up to Jesus. It was her last chance. The disciples had barely tolerated her, but the Master was about to have her chased away. Desperately, she knelt down in the dirt right in front of Jesus to beg one last time, “Lord, help me!”
It’s hard to believe this is our tender, compassionate, gentle Savior here. Jesus looked down at this woman and said the cruel words of verse 26, “It is not right to take children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” He compared His own people to children and non-Jewish people to dogs. Like most Jews he referred to Gentiles as dogs—wild, stray, scavengers that roamed ancient Palestine. You don’t take children’s food and throw it to stray dogs. You don’t take the blessing God means for His own people and give it to others.
These are hard words to our ears, and they were hard words then. One way to handle them is to suggest that Jesus was teasing this woman. One of the problems with text, as anyone who has sent much e-mail knows, is that you can’t see facial expressions and body language behind the words. These cruel-sounding words might have been gentle banter. Jesus reminded the woman of who she was and who He was, but not with meanness. William Barclay wrote, “We can be quite sure that the smile on Jesus’ face and the compassion in his eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness.”
If Barclay is right, then these dog words are an example of ancient middle-eastern wit. One person challenges another with a picturesque phrase and the other responds in kind. A camel salesman says, “This beast moves like the wind.” His customer replies, “Yes, but the wind does not always go where you want.”
So in verse 27, as she says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” the woman is matching wits with Jesus. Even in His picture of her as a dog there is room for her beneath the table of His mercy. We can see Jesus responding with a wry laugh and a nod of the head, acknowledging a perfect comeback and granting her prayer.
If you like that interpretation, stop here. You can quit listening now. But I think there is more than gentle humor here. Jesus did say some funny things, but this was not meant to be one of them. In verse 28, He commended this “dog,” saying, “Woman, you have great faith!” He did not compliment her on her wit. He praised her for her faith. The point here is not a clever comeback. It’s faith, the faith of a dog.
My daughter loves dogs. Lots of people do here in twenty-first century America. We spend millions of dollars to feed them, groom them and provide medical care for them. Yet in ancient times they were “the most despicable, insolent and miserable of creatures,” as one writer said. They were creatures of the streets, tolerated because they would eat dung and garbage. They performed sanitary service. To be called a dog or compared with a dog was the gravest of insults.
Despite our modern love for dogs, it’s still insulting to be called a dog. Just ask any young woman. Even with our own pets, we retain the awareness that a dog left to itself will quickly stick its nose—and if possible its whole body—into the most offensive pile of filth it can find. Consider for a moment how dogs greet each other. They have absolutely no dignity or self respect. Which is just what makes them good models of faith and trust.
Imagine a modern woman coming to Jesus. If He dropped on her that awful word in verse 26, calling her a dog and not a child, she would have bristled with pride. She would have stood on her dignity. “I am no dog! I am a woman, a human being. I am as valuable as any other human being. I am entitled to mercy. How dare you refuse me?”
Yet the Canaanite only offered a meek acknowledgement that Jesus was right. She admits she’s a dog in verse 27. Then she pleads for mercy on that basis. She may be a beast, but even dogs receive the leftovers. She exhibits a dog-like humility and faith.
Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down, gives us a rabbit’s-eye view of dogs. In a rabbit fable, we learn how a disgusting brute named Rowsby Woof is fooled into imagining a visit by the canine goddess, Queen Dripslobber herself. His pitiful response is: “Oh…!” cried Rowsby Woof, “What joy it will be to grovel and abase myself before the Queen! How humbly I shall roll upon the ground! How utterly I shall make myself her slave! What menial cringing will be mine! I will show myself a true dog!”
The Gentile woman cringed and abased herself before Jesus. She didn’t ask for her rights, not even for kindness or mercy, but only for the mere indulgence of scraps falling from a table set for someone else. If He called her a dog, then a dog she would be, licking around His feet for any falling crumbs.
It’s hard, but dog faith may be more realistic than how we usually think about ourselves relative to God. In relation to the awesome perfection of the Almighty, we are more like dogs than we suppose. To approach our awesome Lord from the low angle of bent knees is just what we need. As it was for this woman, it’s the true route to grace.
Suppose your child does something wrong. Let it be a wrecked car or a night of drinking or a failed class. Now she or he turns to you for help, for mercy. It might be bail or a ride home or a signature on a school form. A popular view today is that your help should be offered without judgment. No criticism or hard words, just pay the money, drive the car, sign your name and you will be showing love. But is it really love? Is it really help?
Without a chance to see themselves through your eyes, will your children change their ways? Without any discussion of how they went wrong, will they take a new path? Part of the help you offer your children consists in an objective, adult appraisal of their behavior. They learn some humility about their failings in order to someday take pride in success. Not always, but sometimes the best gift you may give your child is a good chewing out.
Our heavenly Father lovingly corrects us. Like parental correction, it may appear harsh and uncaring. We may get the impression we’ve been left outside of His mercy, like the Gentiles outside God’s covenant with Israel. We feel like dogs rather than children of the heavenly Father or sheep of the Good Shepherd.
What we need in order to be truly healed of our sin is just what your child needs: a real confession and apology. He needs to say, “I was wrong. It was stupid to go along with the others.” She needs to say, “I know I don’t deserve it, but I’m really in trouble. Will you help me?” Only when those things are said, can mercy and compassion offer true help and healing. It may take hard words to produce that hard confession. And those hard words might make it seem for awhile that there’s no mercy, no love.
Martin Luther taught that the lesson we learn from the dog woman is to continue in faith and trust in God’s love even when it seems not to be present. He said, “She… takes no heed of a such a stern answer, still trusting firmly that His kindness yet lurks beneath and will not yet judge that Christ is ungracious or might be. That is what it means to hold fast.”
Luther explains how the words of Jesus must have felt like an ungracious “no” to her request, as we so often feel that God is saying no to our pleas for help. That, says Luther, is when our heart, “must turn from such feeling and grasp and hold the deep and secret yea beneath and above the nay, with firm faith in God’s Word, as the woman does, and concede God the rightness of His judgment on us.” And in so doing a marvelous turnabout occurs,
So have we won and captured Him in His own words, as when we feel in conscience that God condemns us for sinners and judges us unworthy of the kingdom of heaven, then we feel hell and think ourselves eternally lost. Whosoever will then learn from this woman and capture God in His own judgment and say, “Yea, Lord, it is true, I am a sinner and not worthy of Thy grace, yet Thou hast promised pardon to sinners…” and behold, so must God by His own judgment have mercy on us.
So the Canaanite woman answered Jesus in humble trust and faith, saying, “Yes, Lord,” to the suggestion that she was only a dog undeserving of mercy. Just those two words make a confession of faith. Her “yes” is her confession that she’s a sinner from a race outside God’s Covenant. And the title “Lord” for Jesus shows her confidence in Him. In Mark she is the only one in the whole Gospel who calls Jesus “Lord.” She’s a dog, but she believes in Jesus and honors him as Lord.
Jesus called faith “great” in verse 28, And He granted her request even as He spoke to her. She went home and found her daughter already healed in that same hour in which she was pleading for mercy. Once granted, Jesus’ mercy was swift and complete.
The dog woman shows us how much we need dogged, dog-like faith to hang on and wait for Jesus even when it feels like He doesn’t care. My mother wouldn’t let us feed the dog at the table. But our little terrier knew that if he just hung on, when the meal was over, and we were clearing the dishes, scraps would get tossed his way. He just had to wait. And sometimes so do you and I. Wait like faithful, humble dogs.
There was a story in Tuesday’s paper about a faithful dog who guarded the body of her dead master for six weeks on the dry plains of eastern Colorado, guarding him from the coyotes. Somebody spotted her and then found her master’s body. She was thin and dehydrated, but she hung on by his side. If we love and trust Jesus, sometimes we have that kind of faith to hang on.
This poor foreign woman came to Jesus as her last and only hope. She fell down on her knees and worshipped Jesus. She pleaded with Him, willing to be called a dog, if it only meant He would help her. I can’t help but be a little reminded of the awesome faith of our friend Arezoo only last year, as she would fall down on her knees, bowing completely to the floor at the front of our sanctuary as she worshipped and pleaded with Jesus to help her, to heal her. You and I need more of that kind of faith.
Jesus loved that Canaanite. Jesus loved Arezoo. Jesus loves you and me. In tender love, He sometimes desires us to be more like dogs, more humble, more dependent on Him, more conscious of our unworthiness. Ultimately, to be more faithful.
As wags like occasionally to point out, “God” spelled backward is “dog.” And God can ask you and me for dog faith, because He was not ashamed or afraid to turn everything around, turn even Himself around and take on the same, humble dog-like nature that is yours and mine. Philippians 2:8 teaches us that God in Jesus, “humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” If Jesus let Himself get treated like a dog for us, then let us be faithful dogs for Him.
The love and mercy of Jesus is always there. It may seem He’s ignoring us. It may seem like we’re merely dogs to Him. But He is the good Master. He never forgets us. He will never disappoint us. When the meal we come to is His holy Table, even crumbs on the floor are a banquet of joy and delight. Trust in the Lord like a dog and He will raise you up to be His child.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj