Isaiah 56.1, 6-8
Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32
St. Matthew 15.21-28
“It is not proper to take the children’s food and throw it to the little dogs [trans., Kevin R. Maly].”
Some of you here have heard Michael or me tell at least one story about Noah, our Portuguese Water Dog. I apologize if you this morning’s story is a repetition of one you’ve already heard, but a dog story seems especially proper to today’s Gospel reading.
When I was a little kid I wanted my very own puppy dog. But my dad had grown up on a farm, and he didn’t think it proper for dogs to be in the house, and he certainly didn’t think the city a proper place for a dog – and we lived in the city. This business about no dogs in the house was a family thing: three of my dad’s brothers had farms and none of the dogs that roamed their places were allowed in the house. Nor did my uncles and their families think any of their dogs particularly cute, let alone adorable. Dogs came and dogs went, and nobody had much of an emotional attachment to any of them.
But I still wanted a dog – and the time finally came eight years ago when Mike and I adopted into our family Noah, then a ten-week old puppy. My dad, were he alive, would have rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath at the impropriety of the whole thing. And because I do have a little bit of my dad in me, I did make clear to Michael that we were not going to be like those sappy dog-owners who end up living in a dog-dominated household. I had some firm ideas of what would be proper and what would be improper, and so I made up a list of rules for our new puppy: 1) no dog in the kitchen, 2) no dog on the furniture, 3) no dog near the dining room table when we were eating, and 4) definitely no dog on the bed during the day or in the bed at night. These four rules comprised the Law. But since Noah was supposedly crate-trained, all of these rules, this Law, seemed both proper and easy to keep. Noah, however, had other ideas and he made it clear that he would have nothing whatsoever to do with his new crate. And so the first two days and nights were miserable: Noah – crying, howling, shrieking, yapping, yelping and even clawing at the crate every time he was put in there. And Noah made it abundantly clear at night that if he was going to be in that awful crate, no one else in the whole wide world was going to get any sleep. And so it was that only a couple of minutes into a potential third night of no sleep, every notion of what was proper was flung into the wind, Noah was taken out of his crate and scooped up into bed where he has been every night since; in the interest of peace and quiet, Rule Number Four went out the window.
And don’t you just know it too: now Noah is at our heels in the kitchen; he has been on every piece of furniture in the house; and whenever we eat, Noah is beneath, around, and under the dining room table – sometimes just his muzzle is visible as it sticks out from beneath the table cloth – with his eyes covered by the hem, Noah is doubtless sure that because he can’t see us, we can’t see him poised for some morsel to drop from our forks into his awaiting mouth. And yes, sometimes things from the table – especially blueberries, bits of banana, and chunks of watermelon do indeed get dropped into the doggie dish lying only an arm’s length away from where I sit. So much for what is proper and not proper; Mike and I have proven ourselves to be total push-overs, Noah rules in our hearts, and we live in a completely dog-dominated household.
Indeed in the presence of God’s human companions – all of us helpless, unruly, and noisy as ten-week-old puppies, in the presence of us yapping puppies, God’s heart melts, and the Law and all the rules become nailed to the cross.
Which brings us to Jesus and the disciples who have taken their travelling road show, their movable feast, to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Talk about something not being proper. This is after all a region over-populated with the rich and pagan; it’s where properly religious people just don’t go. Be that as it may, news of Jesus has spread to there with remarkable speed, especially since there were no social media back then (hard as it may be now to imagine a world without Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). And wherever Jesus and his bounteous table went (we’ve already heard about the feeding of the 5,000 and immediately following this story we hear of the feeding of the 4,000) – well, the food proved abundant and irresistible – even the crumbs that fell from the table filled baskets full. And as a result a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and starts shouting, demanding, begging for mercy. (Interesting side bar: the Canaanites were the original inhabitants of Palestine, but, so the story goes, the Canaanites had been driven out of the Promised Land centuries before and had become extinct, so calling this woman a Canaanite is the story’s way of making this woman a less-than-sympathetic character. One may also infer from the geographic reference to this wealthy area she might even be rich.) At any rate, we’re told that this Canaanite woman’s insistent yelping and yapping is really starting to bug the disciples – and so they come to Jesus and urge him to shoo her away, to tell her to go home.
And with that, Jesus is presented with a perfect teachable moment. “Listen,” says Jesus to the woman but so the disciples can overhear him, “properly speaking, Messiah has come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But this does nothing to settle the woman in front of Jesus – who comes now and kneels before him, begging, begging, begging. So Jesus says, “You do know, don’t you, that it’s not proper to take the children’s food and throw it to the puppies.” Now, in the near east of Jesus’ time – much like on our family’s farms – dogs were not something much of any sentiment was wasted upon. In fact, if you wanted to insult someone you called that person a dog. And as for feeding dogs from the table – well, it just wasn’t done. But note – and this is important – in the Greek of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses the diminutive, endearing form of the word for dog – he’s comparing the woman’s situation to that of a puppy dog. Jesus is beginning now to play his hand and so he says, “Listen, it’s not proper to feed a puppy from the children’s table.” This of course absolutely begs the question, “What’s the puppy dog doing in the house in the first place?” Obviously someone has found the yelping and crying of the puppy outside the house to be no longer resistible and has disregarded what is proper and has let the puppy into the house. (My dad would be rolling his eyes, and muttering, “Oh, brother. Next thing you know the puppy’s going to be in the master’s bed.)
And then the Canaanite woman once more: “But you know how it is with puppies, Master. They don’t know ‘proper’ from ‘improper’ and they’re going to be right under the table, eating what falls on the floor.” This, then, Jesus – like a kid, like any lover of puppies – this, Jesus can’t resist. Crumbs are not enough, and so the puppy is about to be fed by Jesus from the table of the feast of mercy. And I can see Jesus, laughing out loud. “Oh woman, you do know how God is!! A total pushover!!” Indeed in the presence of God’s human companions – all of us helpless, unruly, and noisy as ten-week-old puppies, in the presence of us yapping puppies, God’s heart melts, and the Law and all the rules become nailed to the cross.
Ha! The next thing you know this pushover of a God is going to be letting us get up on the furniture and is going to be scooping us up into bed at night – probably letting us have our own pillow. You know that it’s inevitable – seeing as how God has already scooped us up from the floor and has – get this – given us our very own seats at the table.
Picture it: us puppies – with our very own seats at the table. Isn’t that just the craziest, most improper thing you ever heard of?