Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Thank God for Canaanite Women and Dogs!

This week's scripture: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
We just got a dog last week.  He’s a lovely Shetland sheepdog named Myles.  Now I haven’t had a dog since I was a child and have never had an indoor dog.  So this last week has been an opportunity for me to do a lot of learning.

We were sitting down for dinner and had decided that we would try leaving Myles out of his kennel during dinner.  He was fascinated with the events at the table.  He ran from seat to seat, following the dishes being passed. He would bounce from Tim to Bryce, to me, eyes intent on each bite of food.  He watched eagerly, body quivering with anticipation of a dropped morsel.

So, we decided that he needed a distraction during dinner.  We decided that it would be a good idea to feed him just as we were sitting down at the table.  We’d have our dinner and he could have his.  Problem solved.

Not really.  Next dinnertime, we set out his food just before we sat down.  Myles stayed in the dining room.  He wasn’t interested in his food.  No, he wanted the good stuff at the table.  Kibble just doesn’t cut it when there’s hamburger or chicken on the platter.  He remained intent on our table and ignored his bowl.

There’ no way he was going to be consigned to the kitchen either. 

Myles has a new trick.  He will go to his bowl and get a mouthful of kibble, bring it into the dining room, drop it on the floor, and eat with us – at least for a few bites.  I guess he figures he’s one of the family and belongs at the table, so if we won’t share our food, he’ll bring his own.  Once the edge is off his hunger, he’s back to intently watching every our every move to make sure not a single crumb misses his notice.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 

She’s well aware that these men consider her a dog – even less than a dog.  They are Jews, slumming it in this region of Gentiles.  Matthew calls her a Canaanite, a term that evokes a centuries-old hostility.  The Canaanites were the ones the children of Israel were supposed to eliminate and drive out in their occupation of the Promised Land.  In their eyes, she’s not just a Gentile; she’s the gentile-est of all gentiles.  An enemy, outsider, hopelessly unclean.

If her ethnicity wasn’t bad enough, she’s a woman.  A woman who has the nerve to breach social customs to approach and initiate conversation with a strange man.  Who knows what kind of woman she is – such behavior doesn’t speak well of her upbringing or her morality!  But of course what would one expect from Gentile dogs?

And to top it all off, she’s a persistent, nagging, loud woman.  She won’t go away, she won’t be silenced.  She is intent on her mission, whining, barking, begging for attention.

No self respecting man would even notice such a woman.  To notice her, to engage her in conversation, would be to suggest she was his equal – or to suggest that he was no better than her. 

The disciples beg Jesus – send her away.  Jesus responds to their pleas by reminding them of his mission – he was sent to become the Messiah for the children of Israel.  Jesus ignores her, not even acknowledging her existence.

Unmannered dog that she is, she keeps begging unashamedly. “Lord, help me.” 

Finally, Jesus scolds this dog, reminds her of her place.  “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” 

Jesus may be scolding her, but the very act of engaging her in conversation gives her a crumb of dignity and a scrap of hope.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 

This Canaanite woman, this desperate mother, could glimpse the grandeur of the kingdom of God and she wanted it – now.  She wanted the good stuff from the master’s table, not the kibble in her bowl.  She didn’t want to wait for the blessing to trickle down, like crumbs falling from the table.  She took Jesus at his word when he said, “The kingdom of heaven is here among you now.” 

And her kingdom vision that day enlarged Jesus’ kingdom vision.  Jesus knew his mission – to the children of Israel.  He is training his disciples, who will, someday, carry his mission beyond Jerusalem, beyond Judea, to the very ends of the earth.  But, right now - it’s not his time and she’s not his people. 

But the kingdom of God will not be denied – it will break out in unexpected places.  And in this enemy territory, this place of gentile dogs, a place seemingly so remote is exactly where God is present.  Now is the time, now is the kingdom, and now all are healed, now all are fed, now all belong – especially a pushy Canaanite woman and her demon possessed daughter.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 

The scolding ends at her words.  Jesus is amazed at her faith, her vision of the kingdom of God.

This is the kind of kingdom he’s been preaching and teaching - where five loaves and two fishes feed a multitude of families with 12 big baskets left over.  The Father’s house big enough for not only the children, but the foreigner and the weary traveler. A place where the outsider finds himself at home. A community of blessing and mercy, of healing and grace.  The kingdom of God, where all are included, all are loved, all are whole.

A Canaanite (that ancient enemy), a woman (the inferior sex) understands more about the kingdom of God than the disciples who learn at Jesus’ feet.

Jesus responds to her kingdom vision by bringing a morsel of it near to her right then – her daughter was healed instantly.

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 

If the dogs eat crumbs from the master’s table, how much more so is there enough for all people at the table of the Father!

I look at Myles dancing around my table and wonder if the world around us is also so eager and so intent, longing for crumbs of God’s blessing to fall their way.

I wonder who are the ones who feel like dogs instead of children?  Who are the ones who feel unwelcome at the table?  Who looks with longing from the kitchen and wishes they were part of the family?

Could it be someone here today, who comes to worship but never really feels as if she belongs?  Could it be someone we chat with at the mailbox or over coffee?  

Who do we know that think the good things of God are denied them?  Who is content on a bowl of kibble instead of the meat of God’s grace?

I watched Myles at dinner last night and thought again about the persistence of the Canaanite woman claiming her place at the table as a beloved child of God.  

Sometimes it takes a dog to teach us about welcome at the Father's table. And sometimes we need a persistent Canaanite woman to beg us to look past the surface and see the child of God hungering beneath the fur.

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