The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15A)
17 August 2008
A Sermon Preached by the Rev'd Dr Andrew C. Blume
Almighty God, who hast given thy only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
I don’t think that this will come as a shock to most of you when I tell you that I am a dog enthusiast. So it probably also won’t surprise you to think that one day when I was at home looking to relax for a bit, I picked up my beautifully illustrated and handsomely bound copy of the Rev’d J. G. Wood’s 1869 Bible Animals and turned to the chapter on dogs. What I found there was indeed fascinating. The Rev’d Mr Wood, being a man of his age, spent most of the chapter ruminating on his impression that “Orientals,” as he called the Semitic peoples of the Middle East, did not share the Europeans’ admiration for this “most cherished and valued of animals.” Indeed he summed-up their feelings about dogs as a “strange loathing” and catalogued the many references in Scripture to dogs “in every case in connexion with some repulsive idea.”(1) Whether or not “orientals” have an innate disposition to hate the dog and the unravelling of the Rev’d Mr Wood’s prejudices are not, of course, the subjects of this sermon, although in the current climate of the Anglican Communion any discussion of the legacy of imperialism is valuable. No, what struck me is that, indeed, most references in Scripture to my favourite non-human creature are, in fact, quite negative. Any trip to a decent concordance will prove this true and this realisation helps to clarify my own understanding of the passage from Matthew that I chanted a few moments ago.
The image of the dogs eating “the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” is no longer the charming picture of a loyal, lovely, puppy dog begging adorably for a morsel of lamb. Now it takes on the cast of a rough and tumble scene with a much less desirable creature, one not widely esteemed and admired, slinking around looking get something for nothing. Indeed the ingidenous Middle Eastern breed that is today called the Canaan dog has been widely known for centuries as the pariah dog. The realisation that the people of first century Judea, unlike the Romans and Egyptians, found in the dog a symbol for the outsider, the one on the margins, the one who is not worthy of getting the best of life is essential for understanding the full power of today’s Gospel.
Jesus is heading towards the coast, towards Tyre and Sydon, known as a region in which the native inhabitants did not worship the God of Israel, but rather practised the old pagan religions of the area.(2) As he was walking a woman, recognisable in some way as a Canaanite, one of these pagan inhabitants of the district, comes up to him and addresses him as “Lord” and “Son of David.” This pagan, this non-Jew, this outsider asks for his mercy, his help in ridding her daughter of a demon. Jesus seems to be dumbstruck. His silence prompts his disciples to tell Jesus to “dismiss her.” Now it unclear whether this means that Jesus should get rid of her or whether he should do as she asks and “dismiss” the demon.(3) Whatever the original meaning of the disciples’ remark, it prompts Jesus to respond. His response, however, is not what we might have guessed were someone to have asked a good, liberal, twenty first-century Episcopalian “what would Jesus have said in this situation?” Jesus basically tells the woman “no, I won’t help you because you are not a Jew.”
The woman is, however, undaunted, and she asks Jesus again. This time Jesus answers with one of those parables about which I have been talking these past few weeks. He answers with an example drawn from daily life, an example of “why not” taken from a familiar situation, an example that in an instant should clear everything up. He asks her, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs?” The woman clearly has ears to hear better than Jesus may have thought and she has an answer to Jesus’ parable of the dog, saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” This time Jesus has ears to hear and he “gets” her answer. He realises that there is another meaning to the dog at the table. Yes, this outcast, this skulking, unworthy outsider is still fed and cared for. The dog does get to eat the scraps. The dog is fed and Jesus can but answer her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
There are several important things going on here, not the least of which is that Jesus shows that his mind can be changed. Jesus shows that he is capable of being taught, of hearing parabolic speech and getting its meaning in an instant in the same way that we are capable of this intuitive leap. And what it is the Jesus “gets” is that clearly more people rather than fewer people are to be included in his mission. He sees that more people rather than fewer people are destined for a relationship with the God of Israel. He sees that those people, considered by his inner circle to be like dogs, on the margins, excluded from the centres of power and privilege, are capable of recognising who Jesus really is and responding to his loving presence. He came to see, in that instant, that those considered to be on the margins are worthy of being enfolded in God’s love.
Indeed, this is the point that Paul is making in his letter to the Romans, a letter addressed to the Gentiles. Paul is writing to say that Jesus Christ has come into the world so that non-Jews may have a relationship with the God of Israel. Jesus opens up an entry point, one promised to the Gentiles in Isaiah, for the whole rest of the world into God’s reconciling project. The Canaanite woman, the one initially considered by Jesus and his followers to be outside of their concern, helps Jesus to realise that there is indeed a mission to the Gentiles. She helps Jesus and his disciples see that there are many, many people out in the known world who are capable of recognising the God of Israel in Jesus Christ. Jesus and his disciples see that there are people from many races and peoples and tongues who seek a relationship, who seek faith, with the God of Israel in the person of Jesus Christ and who are worthy of receiving the Love of God simply because they are his creatures.
This story from Matthew reminds us that God is calling the whole world to himself. God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself so that, when God’s kingdom is fully realised, we all may be one in God, one in Love. We are called to think about all God’s people as worthy of love and care. Indeed, I pray that each of us will regularly encounter someone like the Canaanite woman who will keep reminding us of our task to minister to the world and its people like the sower who throws his seed with abandon out onto the field or like the fisherman who puts his net into the sea and hauls up whatever is caught therein.
Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Florence Nightingale, 12 August 2008
(1) J. G. Wood, Bible Animals: Being a description of every living creature mentioned in the scriptures from the ape to the coral (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869), 39.
(2) Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina, 1 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 234-235.
(3) Harrington 1991, 235.
©2008 Andrew Charles Blume