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Going to the Dogs

God in the Present Tense
Cycle B Gospel Text Sermons for Pentecost Middle Third
There are some Bible stories that embarrass me and this is one of them.

Jesus has traveled north along the coast. He is a Jew but he has temporarily stepped over Jewish boundaries so he ducks into a house and hopes nobody discovers he has come to town.

Too late! A local woman finds him. She bows down and begs for the health of her little girl and Jesus insults her. He speaks a racial slur: "It's not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

In other words, "Lady, you are a dog. I'm not going to throw my food to you." It looks like we have caught Jesus in an un-Christ-like moment.

Say what you want -- it doesn't soften the embarrassment of the moment.

Some folks will thumb through Bibles and see how the other gospels tell the story. Luke is too polite to touch it, while Matthew leaps in with further explanations. He says the woman was bugging Jesus, shouting and carrying on. It was embarrassing. Jesus tried to ignore her but she kept pushing him to do something. She was so obnoxious that the disciples said, "Lord, send her away."

Matthew also says that Jesus gave a reason for his reluctance. He said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." There he is, standing on foreign turf, yet crystal clear about his constituency. According to Matthew's gospel he said, "I'm here only for the Jews."

In our version of the story, Jesus does not make any exclusivist claims, although this is a rare encounter between him and a Gentile. Not only that but public contact between men and women was considered improper. This woman ignored the cultural rules and spoke directly to Jesus, publicly placing him in the awkward situation of having to speak back to her.

What's more, she was a Syrophoenician. We don't know if Mark wants us to take that literally or not. The term "Syrophoenician" had an unsavory reputation. It signaled that someone had impure thoughts, went shopping for late night consorts, and lived in the steamier part of town. Here she is, throwing herself at the feet of Jesus... and talking to him. Given her reputation, her shameless behavior, his rebuke was completely appropriate in the culture of his time.1

Now that was centuries ago. Surely we can't picture Jesus annihilating a woman with a sick child just because of her race. As hard as it may be to picture, he does brush her off with an insult: "It's wrong to throw my bread to the dogs."

If it had to do with her daughter's medical condition, we could understand that. When some people get sick, the illness turns our stomachs. Mark says the girl had a demon. We don't know the particulars.

Perhaps the mother saw her child wake every day with twisted limbs beneath her. People would have said she had a demon. Maybe she dropped the laundry in the dust and pushed her hands on both sides of her brow. Everybody back then thought migraines were caused by demons. Some migraine sufferers still believe it. Or maybe she hollered when the moon came out and everybody thought she was "moonstruck."

We don't know the details. All we know was that the daughter suffered because of forces beyond her control.

Rather than relieve her pain, Jesus called her mother a "dog." If you were to rank Middle Eastern insults in the first century, calling somebody a "dog" is about as low as somebody can go.

Now if you prefer to rush ahead to the end of the story, go right ahead. It is true, in the end, that the woman's daughter is cured. However, it doesn't explain why it took so long for Jesus to get there. We would like to believe the Lord healed everybody on demand and whenever somebody came with a problem, he was right there to do whatever they asked.

I guess it didn't always work that way. Maybe it still doesn't.

Years ago I preached a sermon on this story. The congregation seemed to swallow everything I said. We had a minister visiting in the congregation that Sunday and he took me to task. In my sermon, I suggested it took a while for Jesus to come around. He was a Jew, after all, and this woman was a Gentile. He discerned his call was to go to his own people and he struggled with his own cultural boundaries when an outsider asked for help.

I was only trying to defend Jesus, but this man jumped on my back. "You are preaching a developmental Jesus," he sneered. "You are claiming it took Jesus a while to grow up and overcame his biases." Well, guilty as charged. Jesus was fully God but he was also completely human. I don't know how else to understand this story.

I do know that Jesus was a traveler in the "region of Tyre and Sidon." He was traveling in a foreign land. You know how that is. Even if we move across the border into another country, sometimes we carry our boundaries with us.

Years ago I pinched and saved my money for a vacation to the Bahamas. One day I was sightseeing in Freeport. We took our seats on a cramped little bus. The bus rolled up to another hotel. More tourists got on. Here a man with a camera hanging around his neck got on the bus. He wore orange pants and a brown and white checked jacket. He puffed on a big fat stogie and smelled of Jade East. Everything about him reeked of being an American.

As the bus cranked up, the man with the cigar began to comment on everything. "Look!" he pointed to the natives. "Must be nice to sit around and eat fruit all day."

Half a mile later he says, "Why don't these Bahama people mow their yards?" We tried to ignore him but he kept blathering on. "All these people do is stand around on the street and sell T-shirts."

When the bus stopped briefly, he got off and bought a T-shirt. I was hoping we could leave him there, but he climbed back aboard. Why did this guy ever leave home?

Then it hit me: He never left home. He brought home with him -- with all of its bigotries, biases, and boundaries. Some people should never be left out of our country. They will embarrass the rest of us.

Well, here's the picture: Jesus the Jew stood on foreign soil. A native woman came up and said, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood there, not saying a word. The woman kept begging for help.

The disciples said, "Jesus, can't you get rid of her?" The woman kept begging for help.

Jesus said, "Excuse me, lady, but I came only to seek lost Jews." And the woman kept begging for help.

Jesus said, "It's not fair to throw my good bread to the dogs." The woman kept begging for help. She would not let him go. She said, "Speaking of fairness, is it fair for so-called dogs like me to go hungry?"

With that, I think we can picture Jesus standing there, his jaw hanging open. For a second time he did not know what to say -- so amazed at that woman's faith, a faith which beckoned his love beyond Jewish boundaries. When Jesus found his voice, he healed that woman's daughter. Even with her daughter out of sight, even though he would probably never see her face-to-face, even though it was against the ancient unwritten rules -- Jesus healed the woman's daughter.

As somebody observes, "This woman believes that divine mercy knows no bias. She believes that Jesus will show this kind of mercy. As she expresses this faith in him, he also begins to believe it. He, the one sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, can also do a miracle for a Gentile woman. He can extend help even to a Syrophoenician Hellenist, who belonged to his and his people's oppressors. For mercy -- true mercy -- is unbounded."2

Flannery O'Connor tells in one of her stories about a judgmental woman named Ruby Turpin. As far as Ruby knows, there are only three kinds of people in the world. She has titles for them. One day she confirmed her distinctions while she sat in a doctor's office. Ruby saw a fat young woman with a bad complexion reading a book and began to size her up: "Probably white trash." Suddenly and without warning, the young woman hit Ruby on the head with the book and said, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog." The girl was quickly sedated and taken away, while respectable old Ruby bit her lip and deepened her prejudices.

One evening, however, she stood beneath a crimson sky and noticed that the sky was marked by a long purple streak. Suddenly she saw life in a way she had never seen it before. The sunset became an enormous bridge aiming skyward through an expanse of burning fire. On that bridge, "a vast horde of souls were rambling toward heaven." All kinds of people marched toward glory, cleansed for the first time. Crazy people and others she judged inferior were dancing and singing.

At the end of the procession, she saw people like herself, always so confident of their own goodness, settled in their self-declared purity. They took up the rear of the procession with dignity and purpose. Yet as she leaned forward and looked closely, "She could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away."3

In a moment the vision faded but she would not forget what she saw: "a vast horde of souls rumbling toward heaven." That sounds like a glimpse of the love that does not, and cannot, distinguish between people. It is the kind of love that God has for all people everywhere, a love that will not be hemmed in by the borders of nations and the boundaries of prejudice.

Taken by itself, the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman remains troubling. It offers a brief glimpse of old-fashioned provincialism, an ugly picture of people divided by ethnic distinctions. As Christians we remember the rest of the story. In love with the whole world, Jesus gave away his life to save people: Jews and Canaanites, pilgrims and pagans. Three days later the risen Lord gathered people to say, "Authority beyond all boundaries has been given to me. Go and spread God's love to everybody. Make disciples from every kind of people under heaven" (Mark 28:16-20, see also Mark 16:15 for a variant ending).

Ever since that moment, we have known what to do. We know whom to embrace. For the rest of the story is clear: true love has no boundaries, because on the cross Christ our truest lover has stretched out his arms to embrace strangers of every nation.

He reached out far enough to gather people like us and I suppose that is why Jesus healed the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman. Amen.


1. See Mitzi Minor, The Spirituality of Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 48-49.

2. Judith Gundry-Volf, as quoted in Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 214.

3. Flannery O'Conner, "Revelation," in Three by Flannery O'Conner (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc., 1983), 423-424.
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