The 14th Sunday after Pentecost (August 17, 2008)
“Dogs” (Matthew 15:21-28)
“Yo, dog! What’s up, dog!” If you watch American Idol, you’ve hear that before. That’s how Randy Jackson, one of the judges, greets the contestants. Call someone a “dog” today, and they’ll probably take it as a compliment. It’s become a way of greeting your buds, your pals, your faithful friends.
When I was in junior high and high school, though, if you called someone a “dog” that was not flattering. If you looked at a girl and said, “Oh, man! She’s a dog!” that meant you thought she was ugly.
Hang on. This gets worse. St. Paul calls those who do evil and who pervert the Gospel of Christ “dogs.” “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh,” he writes in Philippians 3, referring to the Judaizers, those who taught you had to be circumcised like a Jew first before you could become a Christian. (Phil. 3:2)
And then, in Revelation 22, (22:15) St. John contrasts those who have washed their robes in the blood of Christ and who are in the heavenly city with those who are outside. He writes, “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” That’s not a very nice group of people outside the city gates ... including the dogs.
Dogs make great pets. They are faithful and friendly. They make great companions. They are often treated like one of the family. On the other hand, dogs are still animals, and so they can be unpredictable. They can be mean and dangerous. Big ones will attack. Little ones can nip at your hand or heel.
And wild dogs around the world that live near human settlements are scavengers. They hang around the outskirts of villages and rummage around in garbage dumps for food. These animals are not fit to be pets at all. They run around in packs. They compete with one another for superiority. They gorge on corpses. They attack anyone who passes by. They are filthy, messy, bloody, unclean animals. Outside the city gates is the best place for them. They are nasty outcasts.
So we’re shocked to hear Jesus call this woman in today’s Gospel lesson a “dog.” But that’s what she is. She is a Canaanite ... a descendant of that wicked, unbelieving, child-sacrificing race of people whom the Israelites were supposed to exterminate once they entered the Promised Land under Joshua. And the Jews of that day considered anyone who was not a Jew a “Gentile dog.” Sort of like the same way Muslims today call Christians and Jews “dogs.” The woman cries out for help for her demon possessed daughter. At first, Jesus is silent. He ignores her. Then Jesus’ disciples want to send her on her way. She’s getting on their nerves. “Just send her away, Jesus. Give her what she wants so she’ll get off our back and shut up.” But Jesus responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” ... which in terms of his earthly ministry was true. It wasn’t until after his death and resurrection that the disciples were told to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
Jesus, how could you? How you call this poor woman a dog? Why did you have to make us so uncomfortable with this whole scene? Why couldn’t you have just healed the woman and got on with things, headed back to Galilee where you belong, instead of that pagan region of Tyre and Sidon? You knew that you were going to run into some Gentiles. But even so, people aren’t dogs. You know that, Lord.
But we sure are. And we’re not as domesticated as we like to think we are. We run around in packs ... let’s call them cliques, our exclusive little groups that we don’t want anyone else to join. We compete with one another for superiority ... all the little manipulative games we play with one another, all the malicious gossip that we spread about others. We’re often quick to attack anyone who threatens us ... not physically, but verbally. Our sinful nature makes us filthy, messy, bloody, unclean. We deserve to be eternally outside the heavenly city gates. Our sins have turned us into outcasts.
You know, this is pretty obvious, but did you know that if you spell God backwards it spells “dog”? I’m sure you already knew that. Doesn’t take a mental genius to figure that one out. And for our purposes this morning, there’s a lesson we can learn from this. Because God always seems to do things backwards. He told Abraham to kill his son, the son of the promise. He chose a stuttering orphan to lead the people out of Egypt. He told Gideon to go up against the mighty Midianites with only 300 soldiers. He picked a lowly shepherd boy to be the king of Israel. And he sure did things backwards when he came to save us in the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus of Nazareth, God became a Man. God was born in a barn. God was tempted. God got hungry. God was arrested and beaten to a bloody pulp. And God became a dog when he was led outside the gates of the city like an outcast and nailed to a cross. And as he hung there, the sins of all of us dogs was laid upon him ... all of us “sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” That us in thought and word, and sometimes in deed. But Jesus became all those things for us at the cross. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.” A dog. An outcast. So that you and I never need to be outside of God’s love and mercy forever. So that you and I can be forgiven. So that “in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
Forgiven by Jesus at the cross, you and I can act like faithful dogs instead of wild ones. We can approach God like the woman did. Persistent. Humble. Expectant. Not demanding. Not thinking we deserve anything. But simply trusting in the goodness of our Master ... even when he doesn’t seem to be listening ... even when his demeanor seems contrary to his loving nature. And how many times have we felt that way? We pray and God is silent. We ask for bread and he gives us a rock ... illness, injury, insults, and other daily difficulties and dilemmas. But like a patient pet who waits below the table, waiting to eat the scraps that fall, we trust that our Master will take care of us in spite of appearances. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
And with that humble confession of faith, Jesus grants her request. He praises her humble faith ... her miraculous faith ... a faith worked in her by the Word of Jesus that she must have heard at some point ... because here is this pagan Canaanite crying out and calling Jesus, “Lord, Son of David.” She confesses him as the promised Messiah. And likewise, it’s the Word of Jesus today that creates and sustains faith in our hearts. You and I are given a miraculous faith, because by nature you and I are dead in our trespasses and sins, but through Baptism and the Word of God joined to that water, we are made alive again with a new nature, a god-like nature rather than a dog-like nature. We are made to be a part of God’s family. We are given a place at the Table. And we are invited to eat more than crumbs. Our Master Jesus is both the host and the meal at this sumptuous Feast. He loving serves us with his own Body and Blood, and our cup overflows with life and salvation.
In Jesus, we are no longer dogs. Through Jesus’ blood shed at the cross, our sins are forgiven, and we are no longer outcasts from God’s mercy. Through faith in Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile, we are not dogs, but sheep of the House of Israel, rescued by the Savior, as St. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
I want to close with some words from another sermon on today’s text. It was preached by the Rev. Mark Buetow at the Higher Things conference which our youth went to this summer. The theme of the conference was “Amen,” and so with that in mind, Pastor Buetow said,
Faith's word is "Amen." ... "Yes, yes, it shall be so." Jesus speaks and whatever He says, to that faith says, "Amen. That's for me." Faith says, "Yes, Jesus, I'm a dog. But even dogs get crumbs. And your crumbs will save my daughter." Faith doesn't listen to the world or to rude disciples who are mad that you're sitting in their pew. Faith clings to Jesus. Listens to Jesus. Learns from Jesus. Confesses what Jesus says. Speaks back the promises of God. Faith says that no matter what is true about me, even if I'm a dog, Jesus is still Jesus, the one who has power over the devil and can save my daughter.
That's for you to believe, too, dear Christians, as this woman did. To know and believe that it's all Jesus or nothing at all. When the devil and the world and your sinful nature [cling to you] and even God Himself seems to want nothing to do with you, then you cling to Jesus like this woman did. Cling to Jesus who doesn't come to condemn you but to save you. Cling to the Jesus who carries your sins to the cross and suffers for them, and dies for them. Cling to the holy washing given to you in the baptismal waters of Christ's font, in which God makes you His child. Cling to the words of absolution which declare that you are no orphan but forgiven and that you stand "not guilty" before God. Cling to the body and blood of Jesus which is way more than crumbs falling from the table, but the rich feast that means you ARE a child of Israel, a child of God, one of Jesus' own dear ones. Cling to Jesus and His gifts and there will be no doubt that your faith is a great faith, because your Jesus is a great Jesus.
The word that faith says is "Amen." Sometimes it might sound like a "bow wow" or a woof!" But no matter what, that "Amen" means "Yes, Lord." And that's a "Yes, Lord" spoken to Jesus who casts our demons, takes away sins, and turns even sinful dogs into God's own dear children. "Woof! Woof!" Sorry, I mean, "Amen!"