Texts for August 16 -Matt. 15: 10-28
Some time ago I came across an essay suggesting that pets introduce us to theology. The basic idea was that we don’t learn about God only from parents or teachers. We learn about God from animals. I forget the name of the theologian who wrote the piece. Before we dismiss the idea, think about this: several early Anabaptist leaders were known for advocating what they called the “gospel of all creatures.” It’s the idea that somehow the good news God displays in the life of Jesus is good news for, well, all creatures. Or consider this: the end of the Gospel of Mark (in what we refer to as the long ending of Mark) Jesus instructs his students to “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” We could add on here a list of saints who affirmed the gospel of all creatures and other biblical passages that show God cares for more than just people.
But let’s come back to pets for a moment. If you have a pet as a child, say a rabbit or a guinea pig, you know something of what care and provision mean. Those are important theological ideas. From your cat you may well have begun to grasp what it means for God to be ‘other’ or what it might mean for people to be free. If you had a dog in your life at an early age, you may have developed a sense of what it means to be faithful and committed. Or maybe it’s a bit different: maybe it’s the fact that we usually outlive our pets that first gets us thinking about mortality. Or, maybe it’s just that animals show us the excellence of basic things like being able to nap in the sun or chase a ball.
It would be fun to explore this a bit further, but let’s look at the connection to today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
This story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a challenging read. It isn’t just modern folks like ourselves who find it unsettling. Early theologians and preachers did as well. Let’s work our way into the passage by thinking about the role that animals play in the exchange. They are an important part of the discussion.
The animals at issue here are sheep and dogs. One is an agricultural animal, the sheep, which required the care of a shepherd. The other animal that takes on theological significance, the dog, was generally disdained by ancient Jews. Most of the references to dogs in Jesus’ Bible were negative. Some medieval Jewish teachers banned dogs as do some modern towns in Israel. On the other hand, ancient gentile communities, like the one where the Canaanite woman was from, likely welcomed dogs as pets.
Let’s walk through the story again. Jesus and his students are traveling outside their usual orbit. Like many areas of our world, the geography Jesus experienced was divided along ethnic and cultural lines. For some reason Jesus and his students were in the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is in modern day Lebanon. In Jesus’ day these were non-Jewish cities.
As Jesus and his group travel through this area a woman calls out to him. She says “Have mercy on me, O Lord, son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Jesus ignores her.
The great fifth century preacher John Chrysostom found this perplexing. His conclusion was that Jesus responded negatively to the woman in order to show the disciples what true faith, her faith, looked like. That’s possible, but it isn’t exactly what the text says.
What the text says is that Jesus simply ignored her and she kept on shouting. Our spidey senses should be tingling here. A woman is ignored by an influential man. Her persistence is labelled “shrill” by the man’s buddies. And some commentators point out that when Matthew tells us the woman was “from that region,” he could just as well have said she was “indigenous.” Jesus does not come across as particularly woke (or sensitive) here.
Jesus’ students want him to instruct the indigenous woman to leave. He doesn’t. He might not be listening to her, but he’s also not listening to them. This tells us that there is something at least slightly different from the usual gendered or colonialized script playing out here.
Even so, what Jesus says isn’t particularly kind. He tells the woman that the focus of his ministry is a different flock of sheep. But the woman doesn’t give up. It’s possible she knows some of Jesus’ own ancestors were actually indigenous Canaanites like himself. That would be women like Rahab, Tamar and Ruth. The New Testament professor Mitzi Smith points this out.
The woman persists, saying “Lord, help me.” If you’re a parent, or if you have nieces or nephews, you might have a sense of what is driving her. The solution to her daughter’s problems was standing right before her. Driven by love, there was no way she was going to let cultural assumptions or racist attitudes get in the way.
Yet Jesus is stubborn, or at least he appears to be. He switches the animal metaphor and says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it too the dogs.” Now, isn’t this just what people often say when they don’t want to give real reasons: they say “think of the children” or “it’s for family reasons.”
Throughout the Hebrew Bible dogs are the dangerous animals outside the village. Dogs kill. Dogs return to their vomit. Dogs lick up the blood of those slain in battle. In comparing this woman and her daughter to dogs, Jesus is saying they are outsiders who don’t merit God’s care. Care isn’t for dogs. It’s for sheep—our sheep.
But this indigenous Canaanite woman doesn’t have the same assumptions about dogs that Jesus and his students do. She knows that dogs can be part of the household. So she responds to Jesus saying, “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Of course, that probably never happened in the households Jesus’ and his students grew up in. But it did happen in the region of Tyre of Sidon. This woman’s theology had been formed by a different experience of animals.
It’s hard to imagine that Jesus didn’t smile. Whether he intended it this way or not, his traditional thinking had been disrupted by that of this woman who was so moved by a love for her daughter that she wouldn’t let things stand as the were. It’s as though Jesus and his disciples had said, “You don’t deserve care and that’s just the way it is.” And it’s as though she responds by saying, “That isn’t just the way it is. That’s the way it’s been made to be. It can be different. Just because you think of a dog one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way.”
Let’s not go too far in thinking that Jesus is convinced by some generic social pressure here. In placing this story where it is, the gospel writer is suggesting that Jesus is acting out of the conviction that he spoke about earlier in Matthew 15. It isn’t what we eat or drink that makes us unclean. Or by extension, it isn’t cultural or gender markers that put us inside or outside of the flock. It’s what comes out of our mouths. It’s what we say. It’s what we do. That’s how we know if we are members of Jesus’ flock or not.
At the end of the story, Jesus turns to the woman, finally speaking directly to her as an individual, and no longer speaking in generalities. In full view and earshot of his students, he says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you wish.” And Matthew tells us that her daughter was healed instantly. Her persistence paid off. Her thinking, her character and her being were blessed.
Like this woman we too can persist in the things of God. And these things are known, not by cultural or gender markers, but by love for neigbhour, love for God and love for those who are afflicted. May we know that God’s care extends beyond the boundaries of our imagination. The gospel is for all, even for all creatures.