Going to the Dogs
2008-08-10 by Ro Ruffin
Is Jesus a bigot? Such an idea is inconceivable, yet that is the question forced by this passage. The Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon, 1995), suggests that the author of Matthew is showing how Jesus is “learning from a woman of an inappropriate ethnicity (961).” Honesty demands that the negative tone of Jesus’ remarks be taken seriously. There is a history among Jews (and their surrounding ancient neighbors) of the low estate of the dog. Proverbs 26:11 (also referred to in 2 Peter 2:22) tells us that the person who returns to her foolish ways is like a dog returning to its vomit. Ecclesiastes 9:4 sardonically compares the preference for a living dog over a dead lion. And Jesus himself has previously warned his hearers that they should “not give what is holy to dogs (Matt 7:6).”
To call people dogs is a huge insult. We can rationalize it all we want, but the fact remains that Matthew depicts Jesus as denigrating Gentiles. I have been wondering if we don’t spend too much time tip-toeing around the Gospel portrayals of Jesus. Cannot Jesus handle a bit of searing questioning?
Chapter 15 begins with the controversy over unwashed hands. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of demanding a piety from the people that is based on their own ideas, while they are themselves unwilling to follow the law that was passed down to them. Jesus then explains to Peter and the others that one is defiled by the evils that spew from the heart, like so much vomit, rather than by what, or how, one eats. It is here that we have our connection to the dog. Instead of heeding God’s laws, the Pharisees have returned to their own vomit, and now expect others to partake of that vomit. This leads people away from God, rather than restoring them to right relationship with God and each other, which is what Jesus is all about. This brings us to Jesus’ treatment of the “Canaanite” woman.
It is a given that in every way, this woman is an outsider, a dog. But suppose this passage wasn’t meant to be about Jesus’ treatment of the woman per se. After-all, our writer must not have seen anything amiss or he would have written the account differently. If we ask ourselves what his readers, or hearers, would have thought about the words and actions of Jesus, we may remember that to the Jews of that time, all non-Jews were outsiders and all women were non-men. Calling Gentiles dogs was the norm. If it is normal, or ordinary, to call outsiders ‘dogs’ and to turn them away without helping them, what is Matthew’s purpose? It seems to me that Matthew is depicting the ordinary turned extraordinary. If Matthew’s community sees itself as learning God’s ways along with Jesus, then Jesus’ behavior becomes an “everyman” lesson, and the outcome of the lesson is a changed heart. Look, says Jesus, this is something important about God. Come. Follow me! The change is so all-encompassing that when Jesus leaves the woman, he spends several days among other Gentiles and feeds them all, from just a few loaves and fishes, like scraps from the table.
Now let’s strip the story down to what the passage actually says. Jesus moves out of Jewish territory into Gentile territory. The woman pleads with Jesus for her daughter’s life. Jesus ignores her pleas. The woman persists. Jesus gives her what she expects (not necessarily what she deserves, but what she expects). What should Christians today make of this? Most, or all, Christians understand Jesus to be the all-compassionate Son of God. They are unlikely, then, to hear rancor in Jesus’ words. While they understand that the Jews have a covenant with God, they would expect Jesus, according to the new covenant, to give to every person according to his need. Perhaps they would see this passage as akin to the eschatological wedding feast where they have been drawn to the banquet when those invited didn’t come.
What about the first century Jewish Christians of Matthew’s community? Might they have taken this passage as a warning? The Pharisees, they were just previously told, were going in the wrong direction…one of their own making. Would Matthew’s community be left out of the festivities if they did not heed Jesus? Would they become self-righteous, forgetting that God has been gracious to them? Would they become stingy, barely even giving to the needy the scraps beneath the table? Would such behavior constitute a return to one’s own vomit?
The church today would do well to take heed of such warnings. How do we treat our neighbors? Does one spew gossip from the heart? Or, do you speak words of encouragement? Does one give with a tight fist, forcing the needy to tug until one finally relinquishes one’s time, talent, or resources, or do you give freely, with a wide-open hand? Does one look suspiciously at newcomers, demanding their histories before one will accept them as part of the community, or do you welcome the lost, frightened, and the lonely sinner as you would your own child?
All of us must eat. Will we choose to eat from the Lord’s table, glad to have even the scraps which go to the dogs, or will we return to our own vomit?
 Rabbinical commentary (Samuel T. Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 1987.) suggests that the disciples, far from asking Jesus to send the woman away, were actually asking him to send the demon away from the daughter. Otherwise, Lachs says, Jesus’ response to their saying, ‘get rid of her’, which was “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel,” is a non-sequitur. But this takes a slight emendation of the Greek auten to auton (send “it”, not “her”, away).
Deb Mechler and "Lectionary Homiletics" Highlights
2008-08-07 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to guest blogger Deb Mechler for splashing in the tub. Scroll down to read her invigorating thoughts on Peter, Elijah, and Fred Buechner regarding faith.
Below are highlights from some of the articles for this week in Lectionary Homiletics.
Lewis A. Parks suggests that most of us readers of Matthew 14:22-33 understand it either from a pre-historical critical perspective or a post-historical critical perspective. The former believes the story happened literally as reported, while the latter assumes that some other story has led to the formation of this miraculous one. Parks avers correctly that most of us seminary-educated preachers “ [ . . . ] think a post-historical criticism version of the story of Jesus walking on the water but preach a pre-historical criticism version” (p. 18).
With guidance from the writings of Larry Hurtado, Parks offers an alternative, seeing the story as itself an “ecstatic act of worship” in which people are responding to Christ by “[drawing] implications and [taking] the story to new places” (Ibid.). Parks concludes with a example of what this understanding might sound like in a sermon.
Carol J. Cook draws from C.S. Lewis's Prince Caspian, in which, many centuries after the events in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy return to Narnia to find it greatly changed. The four get lost in the woods, but then Lucy sees Aslan. Initially she is the only one who can see him. The four children have the challenge of following Aslan, even though only one of them can see him. Eventually, all four can.
Sharyl B. Peterson's sermon “Seeking Sanctuary” presents advice on how one can find sanctuary, just as Jesus finds it by going off by himself to pray. She offers three requirements for achieving this goal: solitude (a cessation of human interaction), silence (a cessation of noise), and stopping what we are doing (p. 24).
There is a walking path near my home with a bench along it. That's a sanctuary for me, thanks be to the Holy Spirit.
My sermon will focus on 1 Kings 19:9-18, which tells of Elijah in the cave on Mount Sinai. I will paint the scene for people poedifyingly so they can identify intimately with Elijah and then hear the call and reassurance that they are not alone and that God will help them. I am going with Elijah instead of the gospel because the former is not as well known, but I will also allude to the walking-on-water story. My focus will not be on criticizing Peter for having doubt. I'm too much like Peter to do that faithfully.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Elijah and Peter Get Along Well
2008-08-04 by Deb Mechler
The inclusion of 1 Kings 19:9-18 in the lectionary I follow (RCL) is fitting. Both Elijah and Peter seem to be grandstanding in front of other people. Happy to be recognized as players in the demonstration of God’s power.
But doubt and fear plague them as deeply as their displays of faith take them soaring. In both instances, it is not the power or identity of God that ultimately restores them. They have just come from unmistakable demonstrations of divine power. It is God’s presence with them that restores their faith. God’s presence and love are revealed to Elijah in the silence. God is patient with his whining, listening to the prophet’s complaints and reassuring him that he is recognized and loved. Elijah is motivated to return, with faith, to the chaotic and frightening situation to which he was called in the first place.
The image that gives me hope in Matthew 14:22-33 is that of Jesus’ hand pulling Peter out of the water. Then Jesus gets into the boat with him and the rest of the disciples. It is his presence that brings calm and inspires worship. The fear of chaos is pushed back, as with Elijah, by divine presence and love. Jesus is patient, and reveals himself to them in spite of Peter’s reckless behavior.
Casting Parts in a Play
2008-08-04 by Deb Mechler
This fall I’ll be directing the music for “Annie Get Your Gun” in our local community theater. We have auditions this week. It makes me think about Peter and Jesus. If I were to cast these two characters in the drama of Matthew 14:22-33, what would I be looking for in each person?
I am also reminded of one of the rules of acting: never upstage the character who is the focus of the scene. Don’t draw attention to yourself and away from them, or make them turn their back on the audience to talk to you. Peter has a way of violating that rule!
Faith and Doubt Share the Same Host
2008-08-04 by Deb Mechler
My sermons in the past few months, off and on, have been about what a disciple looks like. My congregation’s stated mission is “to make disciples for Jesus Christ in our thoughts, words, and deeds,” so it made sense to think about what that means. The goal is not to be perfect people or spiritual giants, just folks who believe what Jesus says and try to do what he asks.
Most of the time, anyway. If we set the bar too high, nobody qualifies. Which is ironic, because Jesus set the bar really high in his “sermon on the mount,” but grace covers that, thank God. And grace allows us to be called God’s own, even though both faith and doubt (not to mention fear) coexist within each of us even on our best days. If we ever wonder whether we deserve to be called Jesus’ disciples, Peter gives us all hope. He is impulsive and stubborn, but also inquisitive and earnest. The resident king of drama. I like him because he is paying attention, which is what Frederick Buechner says is the most important quality of faith. (Secrets in the Dark, p. 183)
It is the conclusion I have also come to over the years. Faith is demonstrated by living out the Great Commandment as much as possible. Paying attention helps me more than anything else in a life of loving God and loving other people. I might stumble quite a bit, even fail miserably and publicly like Peter, but God forgives and loves and reminds me to remain aware. The opportunities and discoveries that ensue prevent a lot of remorse over the past.
Buechner compares faith to writing fiction in his essay “Faith and Fiction.” (ibid., p. 168-183) We have far less control over either one than we might assume before we get into the thick of them. They are more about what happens to you and how you see those events than about what you conjure up on your own mind.
He describes faith as “Less a position on than movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch.” (p. 173) “To have faith is to respond to what we see by longing for it the rest of our days; by trying to live up to it and toward it through all the wonderful and terrible things; by breathing it in like air and growing strong on it; by looking to see it again and see it better. To lose faith is to stop looking.” (p. 178)
The only reason Jesus could say that Peter had any “little faith” at all was because Peter knew where to look for help when he was sinking. If he had forgotten which one of them actually possessed the power to walk on water, he was reminded in a hurry that his name meant “rock,” and it was Jesus whose name means “save.” So he made his greatest confession while he was flailing in the water: “Lord, save me!”
In spite of your impulsiveness and doubt, Peter, you are still a beloved disciple, and so am I, conflicted as I am.
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