Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent - Matthew 15:21-28
I want to talk to you about dogs. Two dogs. Two kinds. I’m a cat person so I will try to be impartial. One dog is the Jewish-Canaanite view of dogs. Scavengers. Eaters of the dead. Bringers of disease. Unclean. Equal to dung. Getting only the leftovers or scraps. The trash of what the people will not eat.
The other dog, the dog depicted by this Greek word in our text, is like my sister’s dogs. Treated better than most anyone else. High quality food. Given laps to sleep on. Coddled and loved. Fed from the table. Protected from all harm. A pet that my sister would give her life for.
Two dogs. One is that Palestinian understanding, the other the meaning of the Greek. Two understandings which are vital this morning because we read here of what many say is Jesus the racist. Jesus the bigot. More on that in a second.
Jesus has taken a vacation. He has gone to the beach, to Canaanite territory, the territory of Phoenicia which had the cities of Tyre and Sidon on the coast. He is taking a breather from all the sweat and tears laid bare to his people in Galilee and Judea. He is in a foreign land, a land of Israel’s pagan enemies, and we discover that even there, Jesus is still Jesus. People know him in faith. A woman with a child who would give her own life for that child to be healed. She finds him and begs of him because of who he is, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” Giving to him the title of Lord, of King of Israel. King of the Jews. Son of David. Rightful heir to the throne of God’s people, not her people, and yet she knows that he is where mercy is.
But does she hear mercy from him? I don’t know. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Declaring him as the one sent to Israel, the Bread of life, implying that he came with a purpose in mind. Then equates her status to that of a dog. Israel the children and Gentiles the dogs. Not very nice it seems. Not very merciful. That is how we read it most often.
I have thought over my time that here Jesus is giving a wink and a nod to the disciples. Wanting them to be broken of their thinking that Jesus was just for them. Me and my Jesus, so to speak. Only for Israel, so his equating this woman and her suffering to that of a dog seems harsh yet fitting if he is giving lip-service to what was, or could have been, the view of many of the Jewish leadership and even maybe his own disciples. They want Jesus to do something to get rid of her because they want to get on with the vacation.
“God, Jesus, this woman is annoying. Can’t we go anywhere without people knowing you? Get rid of her. Do something.”
It is as though Jesus’ response is one of apathy. “But I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” But it could be this lesson to the disciples. “I have a mission. It is for lost sheep. Why should I worry about this sheep though? She isn’t your kind of sheep. You want her kicked out of the flock. Why should I do anything?”
The woman says the only thing she can, “Please help me.”
I picture Christ staring into the face of the disciples as he says, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Not looking at her, but looking at them.
Then comes the most theological statement we could ever hear, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She adheres to what he says. Lives within the paradigm of who she is seen to be, and yet in that description she finds the perfect place for Jesus to be. As master, sitting at his table, dispensing his gifts and the very crumbs that fall from his plate are enough.
Our problem with this text is that we judge Jesus based on what we see as disrespect. Or we read this as we are the disciples and so we need to welcome the “dogs” into our midst. Looking for the least, which is all true, to an extent. But the fact is that you and I? We’re the dogs in this story. This woman is us. We are not the chosen people. We are not Israel. We are the Canaanite woman. We are the enemy and outsider. We are the one who comes to Jesus begging for mercy. We are the one who waits patiently under the table for any scrap or morsel to fall from his lap. Or we scavenge around finding any little smattering of grace we can because we hope that it will be enough.
It is much simpler to use this passage to scream at ourselves for the divisions amongst us. To say that we need to make sure everyone is welcome, or to go hunting for the lost sheep. It is harder to realize that we are the lost sheep. Jesus is placing this woman, that is us, in the same category. “This is a lost sheep, but you only think I am for you and not for this one too.” Knowing that it is Christ who comes to seek and to save the lost, and that includes you. Knowing yourself to be lost. Wandering off after so many other things. Dogs nipping at each other in alleys all over the place. Sheep too ill-equipped to hear the voice of the Shepherd calling. In need of God’s merciful hand to reach down and pick you up. That he says that he is here for the lost sheep of Israel, but that this woman is a lost sheep too. A sheep he will gather into his fold. That the lostness is what Christ wants, not the found-ness. The ones in need, not the ones who have it together. The broken ones. The ones who look at the 10 commandments and think, I’m in trouble.
Moses knew this. He knew he needed God to be with him or nothing could be accomplished. Paul in our epistle text sees the necessity of God’s Spirit to take up residency in all of us so that we might avoid the sins which hurt ourselves and our neighbors. Knowing we are lost and dead without Christ.
I began with a two dog analogy because the word here can paint those two pictures. Either one fits as this woman makes her appeal. Either we are the Greek view of the Kynarion. Little puppies. Lap dogs. Finding everything good in God alone and needing to be treated like the fur-babies we are. There is no way we could survive out in the wild, needing the safety and security of God’s hands enfolding us because otherwise we are dead.
Or we are these vile creatures who only live by scraps they find on the street corners and in the gutters. Dirty, flea infested mongrels, but all it takes is that one handout, that one scrap from the table and we will be loyal forever.
Our focus this Lent has been one to peer into our sin. To see our sin for what it is. To know it as fully as we can so that the mercy God extends to us in Christ becomes even greater. Knowing our unworthiness and our sin as bigger than we could ever imagine makes us those dogs under the table, and yet knowing we have a merciful Master who grabs us and puts us in his lap. Who nurses us by his grace to health and wholeness in him. Where even though we are still dogs, we are his dogs. Still sinners, but his sinners.
This past Gesimatide, those three Sundays before Lent, I used an old portion from the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service as our preface to coming to the table. It is a prayer the Church of England has used for almost 500 years as part of their traditional liturgy. It goes like this: We do not presume to come to your Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your Table, but you are the same Lord, whose manner is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful flesh may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
I love that. This picture of us as those in need. That even when we come to Christ and his table in a few minutes, we come as these dogs, these lost sheep, who only need a crumb from the Lord’s table and we will be filled. We will be satisfied. Nothing being able to compare to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So, give thanks that you are that Canaanite woman, and that in Christ we have been handed the children’s bread. Made children of God, gathered by Christ into his fold, held in him as ones he will not allow to remain lost or hidden. For we are Christ’s because Christ has won our salvation from ourselves, from our lostness, from sin, death and the devil. Thanks be to God. Amen.