Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Crumbs For the Dogs”
Rev. Art Ritter
September 9, 2018
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost writes about the various walls we build in life. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” Frost comments as he watches his neighbor put up another stone upon the wall that separates their New England farm properties. While Frost comments that the wall isn’t really necessary and that his apple trees will never cross the line and devour all of the neighbor’s pine trees, the neighbor only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost then ponders, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”
The Scripture lesson from Mark that we heard this morning is one of the most challenging passages in all of the Bible. I hope that you were listening closely. Jesus was traveling the region of Tyre, a land filled with pagans and no established religious authorities or temples. Jesus’ disciples probably were concerned about being there and not doing what they were supposed to be doing: preaching and teaching among the Jews. Mark writes that Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know that he was there. Suddenly a Gentile woman, a Canaanite, an outsider appeared. Her daughter was infested with demons and she bowed down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to cast the demons out.
What makes this passage so difficult is Jesus’ response. He comes off as rude, if not worse. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did he really call her a dog? To our ears, that sounds very harsh, even cruel. While we might think of dogs are soft and cuddly and cute, to be called a dog in Jesus’ day and age was about a low of an insult as there could be. Jesus’ words seem terrible vile. But to the faithful of that day, Jesus’ response was not out of the ordinary. Virtuous women did not approach male strangers and speak to them. Gentile women were especially to be ignored because they were of an unclean race. Religious teachers were supposed to only teach the Jews. There was probably no rabbi alive who would have even spoken to this woman. Yet Jesus did, albeit in a rather demeaning way.
The woman was so desperate to help her daughter that she had a quick response. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Upon hearing that statement, Jesus was moved by the woman’s faith and he told the woman that her daughter was healed and when she returned home she found the daughter well and embraced her. The demons had disappeared.
For centuries commentators have tried to explain away Jesus’ words to this woman. Some believe that Jesus was merely toying with the woman, testing her faith to see how far she would go in believing in his power of healing. Others think that Jesus was using the prejudices of his day to teach a lesson to the crowd. His unkind words were sarcasm at its best.
I prefer an interpretation that puts Jesus into my human situation. He was being tested here. He was being tempted, just like in the wilderness, about his own limitations and his own prejudices and how he would be faithful to God’s command in those difficult situations. Jesus reached beyond his level of comfort. He opened his mind to new understanding. He acted with the belief that God was always creating new possibilities and new potential. He began to take seriously the words he preached when he said that all people are equally deserving in the eyes of God.
All of us draw lines, or build walls if you will. We place limits on what we can do and who we can help. We are fearful of others who are not quite like us and even wonder if our neighbor is up to no good. We make unconscious judgements each day about who deserves our help, our kindness, our attention, and even God’s favor. It is easy for us to grow complacent about how we treat the stranger and those who are different from us. The good news is that Jesus fought through his complacency and saw God’s presence in this outsider, this woman who he compared to a dog. He understood that all creatures deserve even the crumbs of the divine.
Silverius Galvan writes about an old Native American farmer who neighbor’s dogs were always killing his sheep. It got so bad that he knew he had to do something. As he saw it, he had three options. He could bring a lawsuit and take his neighbor to court. He could build a bigger and stronger fence so his neighbor’s dogs could not enter his property. And he discovered a third option. He gave two of his lambs to his neighbor’s children. In due time, the lambs grew into sheep and had other sheep and then the neighbor and his children got to know sheep not as an impersonal property of someone else, but as something warm and fuzzy and personal- with traits and history and names. They soon penned in their own dogs.
Unless you live and eat and sleep with sheep, almost like one of them, then they will never be unique. They will all look alike. It is the same with us. Unless we get to know others as persons, as individuals with problems and concerns of life, then they will be just members of a certain group. They will look like everyone else in the crowd. And we can treat them in a manner that is calculated and distant and uncaring. Yet on that day long ago. Jesus recognized God’s call to see the unique nature and faith of one person, to eliminate his clear and easy lines of perception, and to change how he thought and what he did.
Nadia Bolz Weber was once told that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of the line. On that day with the outsider, the Canaanite women, Jesus saw through his own human tendency to divide and judge and opened himself up to God’s tendencies of grace and mercy.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Let go! Step out! Look a Canaanite in the eye, knock on a stranger’s door, ask an outsider what his life is like, trespass an old boundary, enter a new relationship, push a limit, take a risk, give up playing it safe! You have nothing to lose but your life the way it has been…with Jesus as our model and our Lord, we are called to step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves, not because we have to, and not because we ought to, or even because we want to, but because we know that it is God’s own self who waits for us on the other side.”