Of Dogs and Dried Trees

Ordinary Time: eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. Texts for the week

He called her a “dog.”

I still can’t get over it. Just what did Jesus think he was doing? He called her a dog!

After all the commentaries, lectures, and sermons have finished trying to lessen the impact of the exchange, we’re left still with Matthew (and Mark’s) texts, in which the embodiment of Love Itself said one of Its precious daughters was no more than one of those mangy, scrap-begging strays living on the outskirts of every village.

Did Jesus legitimately believe he wasn’t called to help her, attending only to the “lost sheep of Israel,” or was he perhaps trying to goad her deeper into the moment? Was he actually flabbergasted by this woman as the disciples seemed to be; or was he perhaps, as my Bible college professor conjectured, “drawing out her faith?” If so, what does that even mean, “drawing out her faith?” What, did she not mean it enough the first time she screamed out for her daughter’s healing? And did he have to use such an insulting term to accomplish this?

* * *

One of the great gifts the Jewish faith bequeathed to the ancient world was a much larger view of God than had previously been expressed. God, as the psalmist said, “Judge[s] the peoples with equity and guide[s] the nations upon earth.” This God was not limited by the changing borders of nations and city-states; indeed, the power of this God was expressed in all creatures, though that fact was often missed (hence the refrain, “Let all the peoples praise you”).

To be sure, the faith of the Jewish people left much to be desired: the ancient Israelites were at least henotheistic (worship of one god while believing in the existence of many), if not downright polytheistic. Their theology as expressed in our Old Testament is a much-glossed version handed down by scribes from the Babylonian captivity, the project of several hundred years’ worth of spiritual reflection. Full of ethno-nationalistic pride, they were often withholding, secretive, and much too bloody and discriminatory for our modern tastes. Even by the time of Jesus, it still placed special import upon ethnic purity and the land, particularly Jerusalem and its Temple.

Yet throughout this fraught and fractured history, so full as it was of violence and suspicion of the other, we discover hints and sometimes outright shouts of a deeper stream. An undercurrent of inclusion and unitive thought that broke down the walls between peoples, placing an emphasis upon justice, mercy, and humility (as the Prophet Micah would say). Indeed, the prophets were the counterpoint to the scribal stream within the Jewish faith, a cadre of flamboyant heterodoxes insisting that the object of their fellow people’s desire and joy lay beyond the broken hills of Judea. The tradition of Isaiah, in particular, sounded these notes again and again, as our text for this week shows:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off (vv3-5).

Humorous thoughts of eunuch’s “dry trees” notwithstanding, the striking imagery cuts (sorry, couldn’t resist) against the grain of what the original audience would have understood to be the requirements to be part of God’s fruitful (sorry again) people. The very ones mentioned by the prophet as accepted, brought in, and memorialized are those who in Jesus’ day were intentionally cut off (sorry, last time) from the presence of God in the temple through a series of courts and gates. Small wonder that when he wanted to confront the religious leaders’ failures at the temple, Jesus quoted from this section: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (v7).


Within the tradition of the prophets we find a beautiful movement of humility regarding the scope of God’s blessing that continues beyond the pages of the Old Testament into the earliest writings of the Church, as when St. Paul declares that God has enough room for both Jew and Gentile in the Kingdom. For instance, as our readings continue exploring the letter to the Romans, we meet time and again the awakening of the Jews to God’s inclusion of the Gentiles . . . and the accompanying awakening of the Gentiles to God’s continued love for the Jews. God cares desperately for and gathers “the outcasts of Israel” (v8) as Isaiah says – or as Jesus puts it, “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt.15:24) – yet God also longs for Isaiah’s “others besides those already gathered” (v8) – Jesus’ “other sheep not of this fold” (John 10:16).

All of which brings us back to the Canaanite woman, the “dog” whom Jesus would seemingly rather dismiss than help.

The reductionist view of his words are simply that Jesus was a first century Jewish man who saw women like her through that lens: as Israel’s ancient Canaanite enemies, the ones whom the judges could not eradicate, consistently leading his people into idolatry, and rejoicing at the devastation wrought by conquering armies.

But if we remember that the Gospel writer has an audience and an agenda, there might be more to find. The writer not only needed to prove to his Jewish-Christian audience that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, but also that the inclusion of these unclean Gentiles they were struggling to accept was part of the plan all along. They needed to be confronted with their myopic prejudice and lack of empathy.1

But it seems likely that there’s more going on with this troubling presentation of Jesus than first (or even second) blush would present.

I don’t believe he was speaking cruelly in order to “draw out her faith,” as though she didn’t want her daughter’s healing bad enough the first time, nor was he simply expressing the parochial mindset of his disciples. Rather, it seems to me that Jesus was responding to the woman according to the way she addressed him and was trying to draw her out of a limited view – to expand her understanding of God beyond the borders and people of Judea, encouraging her (and therefore, the Gospel audience) to a broader perspective.

“Lord, son of David” she named him. The title of the Messiah, the decidedly Jewish savior, who raises up the tribe of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the expense of their unchosen neighbors. If this woman continued to view and address him on those terms, all she could ever expect out of this relationship was to be seen as a filthy outsider, a mangy cur begging for scraps at the edge of town, to be shooed away. “If you wish to view Me as separate, as fundamentally not for you,” he seems to say, “then you shall receive the corresponding treatment. But . . . if you change the rules of game, shift your perspective and break through these imaginary fences, you can discover Me as something new that breaks open your old world.”

The lightbulb came on.

“Yes, Lord,” she says, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

“I may not yet be invited to sit at the table by the children themselves, but you are their master – would you ensure that their crumbs at least make it to me? Is there even hope that you, the master, would offer me a seat at that table?”

I’ve always imagined that in that moment Jesus smiled wide and laughed for sheer joy when he promised the woman that her daughter was healed – that he was there for her, that she was invited to sit at the table.

I also wonder what the first hearers of this story felt, those Jewish Christians struggling with the opening of God’s promises to those whom they believed did not deserve it. Upon hearing this exchange, were they scandalized, or perhaps ashamed of their own prejudice? Were they confronted with their own failure to love as their Messiah did, with their willingness to let this woman’s daughter suffer because she was born to the wrong parents? Did they suddenly shift from smug agreement with Jesus’ first response to shameful quiet when they saw the woman’s “great faith” was broader than their own?

And I, with all my education and progressive, self-righteous piety – do I see this woman’s barrier-breaking faith as challenging me to expand and include, to make a bigger table that transcends my fences?

Because frankly, for me – and this is uncomfortable to admit – it’s not so much those that look differently than me that challenge my closed heart: not the black or brown person, the poor person, the transgendered, or the woman in the hijab who threatens my understanding of Divine belovedness. No, it’s the good ol’ boy; the gun-toting white man in the red trucker hat; the Fox News-quoting woman who says she’s “color blind”; the evangelical preacher explaining why God has chosen America as His instrument. I could go on – my prejudices are quite expansive when once I begin to list them.

But, thankfully, the question before us today is not whether I can identify every single person against whom I have some small grievance or to whom I view myself morally and theologically superior. The question is whether I will continue shutting off my heart to those I would rather send away, the dogs of my own small view.

The question is whether you will.

May our eyes and hearts be opened. May we be part of the gathering of the outsiders, especially those we feel least deserve it. May we open our seat at the table and be glad to find the dogs seated ahead of us; may we, even we, in the banquet of peace with our Messiah.

1. Even if Jesus was just as discriminatory as his words make him out to be, at least he seems to have grown from the experience: immediately following this encounter, the mission expands purposefully beyond Jewish borders with the feeding of 4000 in the multi-racial Decapolis, and then the discussion of the “sign of Jonah,” which, while being about his death and resurrection, also references a powerful story of Gentile inclusion in God’s blessings, despite Jewish misunderstanding and hatred.

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