Among the most challenging stories in the Gospels – challenging to our sensibilities of manners and inclusion – is the one where Jesus calls a woman a dog. She’s described in the Gospel according to Matthew as a woman of Canaanite ethnicity. This, itself, may have been an outdated, derogatory label, a throwback to the Israelite conquest of the Land of Canaan centuries earlier.
Jesus meets this woman while trying to take a break. He heads out of his home territory of Galilee off to the foreign lands of the Phoenicians who live along the Mediterranean coast. He’s no sooner gotten there than a local woman comes to him crying for him to have compassion on her. What’s interesting is that this woman, though she’s not of Jesus’ ethnicity, uses a title for him that only his fellow Jews would know; “Son of David.” She’s connecting him with the political power of the great King David who fought her ancestors.
Jesus ignores her (we can only speculate why) and the disciples try to goad Jesus into sending her off (with or without satisfaction is unclear). Jesus makes his ethnic bias clear, saying (to both her and the disciples?) that his mission is limited to the people of Israel.
It’s a mission from which he is seeking rest – that’s why he’s gone over the border.
She’ll have none of it. She comes now with a title that the Patriarch Moses would have recognized, calling Jesus “Lord” and identifying him with the God of the Exodus, who led Israel against the Canaanites in the first place.
Jesus seems to double down on his refusal saying; “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the pet dogs.”
The woman remains unfazed. “Yes,” she answers, “for the dogs eat the pieces that fall from their master’s table.”
It’s almost as though she’s made a calculation: “I might be a dog, but I’m YOUR dog.”
From the perspective of Christian theology, what matters in all of this is this woman’s laser focus on the identity of Jesus. She knows who Jesus is (Son of David and David’s Lord) and she knows he’s got something for her and that, whatever it is, it will be enough.
It’s this resilient combination of conviction, hope and trust that Jesus identifies as “great faith.”
This was the point of my message on Welcome Sunday.
On my way to that point, however, there was another observation; that this life-changing conversation happens between two people in a place in-between. The woman is identified by Matthew as a foreigner, but it’s Jesus who’s not in his homeland and yet she welcomes him with titles that his neighbors would recognized but never use in his honor.
This account of Jesus and a woman who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, reminds me of a story I heard a few years back of the musician Daryl Davis. As it happened, Mr. Davis’ story and that of his odd hobby of collecting robes of former members of the Ku Klux Klan was reprised last Sunday night in a seven minute piece on NPR. If you’ve got 20 minutes, you can hear a longer version, called “The Silver Dollar Lounge here. Davis’ story stretches our sense of what’s possible and calls us to pay attention to the power of small conversations between two people.
Here at a university, we have a nearly unending opportunity for conversations. Valpo has attracted people from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. We might not be as divided as Davis and the Jerry Lee Lewis fan with whom he began talking. But we can use this time together to learn the power and joy of conversation for the day when it becomes the gift we can bring for others.
Would you like to talk? We can find a time here.
Aug. 23, 2017
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as one of our university pastors at Valpo and takes turns writing weekly reflections.