Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Fourth Sunday in Great Lent (Knanaitho / Cananite Woman)

Sermon / Homily on Matthew 15: 21-28

"God of Mongrels"

by the Rev. Dr. Gail Ricciuti, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, New York

Gospel: St. Matthew 15: 21-28

A reading from Matthew, Chapter 15:

"Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, 'Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.' But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, 'Send her away, for she keep shouting after us.' He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from their masters’ table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly."

While I was growing up, my family had a toy poodle. But my Mother comes from a line of meticulous Scots and Finns; and so Muffie the poodle lived in the utility room. She was never, to my memory, allowed into the rest of the house; and certainly not into the kitchen or anywhere near the table.

We, too, Anthony and I, began the relationship with Farley, our Sheltie, according to strict rules. No table scraps, no begging at meals. But Farley knew just what slight degree the rules could be bent; and so before dinner was ready each evening he would take his place right where my feet should go, under the table in front of my chair. A good place to stretch one direction or another to grab whatever stray crumb might fall during the meal!

Then as time went by, the table rules got bent a little more. He was so much a part of us, more and more not a foreign breed. He understood our speech and we came to understand his much fuller vocabulary of whimper, posture, body language, claw, touch, nudge, stare, ear twitch. And so at breakfast each morning, Farley eventually got a bit of toast (one of his favorite things) and at the end of dinner, a choice bite of meat or fish saved for him from my own plate. If I lingered too long before offering it, I would notice a chin delicately laid on my knee—just a reminder.

He lived heartily for eight years, and then suddenly cancer encroached before he had ever come near old age. Months later, when he lost his appetite for the dog food he had always relished, the rules became irrelevant. Mealtime became an inventory of the refrigerator. Whatever he would eat, he could have: tuna, yogurt, steak, cottage cheese. When he became too tired to bend and eat from his dish on the floor, then he got it from my hand. And when nothing else appealed any more, he got premium baby food—strained meat—eventually fed a teaspoon at a time from a medicine syringe.

Missing him as we do, I look back now and realize what happened: gradually he changed my mind about the artificial demarcation that we call "species," about "table rules," about ritual purity.

I found myself turning around, letting go of all our rules, all our contrived distinctions; knowing that what was important was not that he be differentiated from us like some lesser creature; but that the life he had be nourished. Farley’s lovely life had changed me; until I would have lifted him up onto the table if only it had meant that he could eat.

It was another "dog" who changed Jesus’ mind. As one of the earliest inhabitants of the pagan region of Tyre and Sidon, the Canaanite dog was known to be the worst of the lot, a long-hardened pagan, a longtime enemy. And this one, the disciples saw as a real cur:

A woman—and an unescorted woman at that, a woman whose undoubtedly shady past must surely have caused the demonic possession in the family; a woman brazen enough to initiate conversation with a man.

Jesus is silent in the face of her. The disciples, however, have their prayer shawls in a knot: Get rid of her, they urge, "Do what she wants, so she’ll get out of our hair."

But Jesus responds, "No; I wasn’t sent for her." Then, this "dog" who is satisfied just to be under the table proceeds to change his heart. She is not beholden to the "official rules" or even to Jesus’ understanding of his own vocation, but insists that she and her daughter have a right to healing. Centuries early, she foreshadows the words of Mark Twain: "I care nothing for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it." And she doggedly reminds Jesus that he is not, after all, servant of the "official version" or of biblical tradition, but of an uncontrollable Spirit who blows where she will blow, touches whom she will touch, beckons whom she will beckon, heals whom she will heal.

The Jesus we meet B.C.W.—"before Canaanite woman"—shows partiality to his own people, distinguishes between insiders and outsiders. This Jesus is a problem, if your theology demands perfection in a savior. I too have wrestled with him: precisely because of what He taught us, I shudder at his initial responses. But you know something? In the end, this incident endears him to me more. Here is no brittle, paper-doll Messiah, but one challenged as we are: one who shares our condition and is not ashamed to correct himself.

Because just then, this "Son of David" remembers who he is. He comes back to himself in a new way. He admits, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (and of course, it is), that he had been wrong and had his mind changed.

In a sense, it is Jesus’ own awakening, one that takes him far beyond first-century Palestine’s "honor culture." Jesus does not save face. He is challenged by the woman on his own terms—by her living, pushy faith—to make room for outcast and alien. It’s a profound conversion for him: continue reading in this gospel, and watch how his encounters have a shifted nuance, his stories a new and pronounced bias for the poor and the outsider. There is an insight threading its way through the rest of Matthew that traces back to the argument of a Canaanite "dog."

Being a faithful people is all about changing the table rules and getting changed yourself! It’s about who gets to be at the table, and who will be at the table in spite of us; and thereby about the social implications for relations between poor and non-poor, genders, orientations, abilities, pedigrees. It is about a banquet for dogs.

Suddenly the persona of the God enfleshed in Jesus does not only have to do with chosen people. Not only with purebreds—Shelties and Great Danes and German Shorthaired Pointers—but with mongrels. Mutts. Half-breeds and Heinz 57s. The ones that track mud into our sanctuaries and shake pond water all over our doctrine, who hungrily snarf up any little morsel that falls and don’t know how to sit and stay.

The secret we must all discover from outsiders like the Canaanite woman is that if we hold their name up to a mirror, we come face to face with the Holy name. And those we wrote off as "dogs" become revealers of God.

Recently I went and sat where Farley used to sit at suppertime—halfway under the table. From down there, you can’t see the whole spread, only the rim of a plate, perhaps whatever is set within a few inches of the edge. It makes you hungry. But with faith, and a good nose, you can imagine the truth: there is more than crumbs there, for a little dog with the temerity to sit close.

May the mark of our lives and ministries be this: that we are not too proud to go sit under the table for a bit, listen for the language of the outsider and thereby learn about the feast of the kingdom to come. Amen.

About the Author:

The Rev. Dr. Gail Ricciuti is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. Her sermons and articles have appeared in many books and journals and she’s a frequent guest preacher. Since 1998, she has been Associate Professor of Homiletics at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York.

See Also:

The Perseverance of Faith - Matthew 15:28
by Charles H. Spurgeon

Yelping Puppies, The Canaanite Woman
by Pastor Edward F. Markquart

Crumbs from the Master's Table
by Hubert Beck

Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for 4th Sunday in Great Lent (Cananite Woman)

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