By Amy C. Schifrin
Ruff, ruff says the Golden Retriever when she wants the treat from her master’s hand. Yip, yip, yip, says the says the tiny toy poodle when she hears the can opener and knows her dinner bowl will soon be filled. Hm, hmm, hmm (whine, whine), says the mixed-breed pup, when pushing through his brothers and sisters to get at his mother’s milk. Ow-uul, ow-uul, says the border collie to remind you that she really is a wolf in dog’s clothing and you’d better feed her anything she wants. M’mmm, num, num, num, tastes good, says the pit bull after he’s taken a bite out your rump.
My sweet Miss Tea, whom many of you have gotten to know and love, will suss out any crumb at 200 paces. Sometimes on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, I’ll bring her over to the office with me. She will sniff every carpet in the administration building with the voracity of a pig on a truffle hunt. If a faculty member has dropped a crumb, they needn’t worry about finding a vacuum, because she will have found it first. Her favorite place to go, by the way, is Jack Gabig’s office, because this little dog knows there are always crumbs under that coffee table.
Dogs, people, and food. There has been a relationship between humans and canines that goes back even further than your Ancestry DNA kit can take you. Dogs in the wild fend for themselves. They scavenge; they hunt; they travel in packs. Ask a military veteran who has recently served in Afghanistan how many times he or she was bitten or chased by a pack of mangy hounds, and how many of them needed to have rabies shots, and you’ll get the idea. Dogs can be domesticated, fed and loved. Dogs can sleep in beds and be the best cuddlers in the world. Dogs can be trained for show or to provide therapy for the blind, the deaf, the aged, and the combat vet struggling with post-traumatic stress.
But in the ancient world, the world of Roman domination, the relationship between the Syrophoenicians and the Jews could be described as one between hulking Rottweiler and a scrappy Jack Russel, with the Rottweiler making a snack of the Jack Russel whenever he felt the urge. Jews in Tyre were mostly part of the rural poor, the wealth in this Gentile city, staying with Gentiles. And the Gentile, the Syrophoenician woman who came to Jesus that day, was what we could say was well-heeled (no pun intended) for the Syrophoenicians were among those who held the wealth of the urban centers of Tyre and of Sidon.
Many had homes, homes with roofs and walls. Many of their children had beds, not just mattresses, but beds, not just hay in a stable, but actual beds. And some of them would have had the ancient equivalent of Williams-Sonoma pots in their kitchens. They had enough, in general, to feed their children and to give their pampered lap dogs their scraps (As far as we know, Pedigree and Science Diet did not yet exist.) And unlike the subsistence Jewish farmers who lived on the edges of this Gentile world, who were perpetually outsiders, who were always looking for daily bread, these people did have their bellies full and their grain bins topped off. And they would certainly have had enough sense to feed the children in their household before they fed their dogs, because if they fed the dogs first, given the nature of dogs and even of puppies, there would be nothing left for the children.
So Jesus, having fed 5,000 with plenty of crumbs left over; Jesus, who was rushed by the crowds at Gennesaret, so that they could receive his healing just by touching the fringe of his garment; Jesus who raised a little girl from her death, Talitha cum, who stopped the flow of blood from a hemorrhaging daughter of Israel; Jesus, who excoriated the Pharisees for their move to withhold God’s gifts from those around them, and who then taught his disciples that their intentions often were no better than those of the Pharisees; this Jesus now enters Gentile territory as quietly as possible, for he is not looking to be a miracle-worker for hire, a maker of spectacles to entertain the wealthy and well-fed. He’s looking to feed people with his life. He’s looking to give them life with his life. And so he engages this unexpected (and intrusive) woman in a conversation about bread. Dogs are just the pretext for the One who is manna in every wilderness, whose flesh is bread, indeed. For dogs have long been part of the story of Israel, since Caleb, which means “the dog,” was given Hebron. Caleb, the Edomite, the hairy descendent of Esau, the original wolfman. Caleb, a dog after the crumbs, who, in spite of the taunts and distain of others, trusted that God would sustain him. The eyes of all look to you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living creature. Ruff, ruff.
And now Jesus is talking to this Syrophoenician woman. She is a Hellenist, that is a woman who speaks Greek and is part of the Greek culture, most likely with some socioeconomic clout. And she is a Gentile. But Jesus, a Jew in Gentile territory, wanted to keep his entrance quiet. It is not a safe place for him or his disciples to be. He has some work to do in this Gentile territory, especially for the children of Israel who live here. But before he embarks on that journey she has found him. Jews were oppressed in the Gentile city of Tyre. Outside the city, in the countryside, Jewish farmers worked the land to provide for the folks in the city, but like the rich man whose barns were full, like the haughty man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury and who walked by Lazarus every day, the rich here hoarded the harvest so that there was never enough left for the poor who worked the land. This was a dangerous place for a Jewish man to come, especially one who fed the hungry, without money and without price. Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you who have no money, come buy and eat.
So he says to this woman, this woman who has enough clout to find out and then work her way into the home where he is staying, Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. This is not just a test, or an oppressed people’s way of taking a jab at their oppressors. Neither is Jesus using her as an object lesson to teach something to his disciples, who are blinder than the blind and deafer than the deaf. In quoting this common proverb, he’s giving her a moment, a moment for her to look into her heart. Would she use his gifts and then dismiss him? Does she see him as a commodity whose powers can be bought and sold? Is she willing to share the bread that he gives, that is, the power of his life, with any that need it? And most of all, will she keep hoarding the bread that the poor need to live? If just a crumb of the One who is bread will heal her daughter, will she at last know that there really are enough crumbs for all?
To the outside observer, this conversation might have sounded like no more of the same edgy banter between Gentile and Jew, because each group saw the other as no better than a dog. But this woman who comes and bows down before Jesus is looking for something more, even if she really doesn’t know who this man is, and really what he has to give. When she asks him to heal her daughter and he responds by talking about dogs and food, she now sees something of what he has to give, because anyone who has a dog knows they are going to get the crumbs, they are going to get fed, and so even the smallest morsel of what he has is enough to give her daughter freedom and life.
And so knowingly and with a new humility, she replies, Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs, and with that her daughter is healed. In her new vulnerability she understands that no one is beyond God’s care. No one should be starving. No human being is beyond God’s mercy. In speaking this word, she is proclaiming the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even the dogs, even the dogs.
Jesus will keep on this road of healing. Next it would be a man who could neither hear nor speak plainly. Spittle, and touch, and a word filled with the power that called the universe into being. Then he will break and bless seven loaves and feed 5,000. This is what he does with his body. Soon he will open the eyes of the blind. And he will walk this earth bringing healing, life, and salvation until packs of wild dogs surround him and he is poured out like water; until the company of evildoers encircle him and divide his garments among them.
We are brought to this place every time we come to his table. Like beggars in the city of Tyre. Like a pack of wild dogs running from the Decapolis to Jerusalem. Hungry, afraid, lashing out at anyone who gets in our way. We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs that fall from this, his table. We are not. But because his property is always to have mercy, he takes our nasty yipping, our incessant howling, and our ever-annoying whining, our snapping jaws and inchoate growls, and he opens wide his arms for us, feeding us with his very body, crucified and risen.
He knew that we were all wild dogs, Jew and Gentile alike, for all of us want him to do for us as we want, but he means to do for us what his Father wants: setting us free from our prisons, opening our eyes from our blindness, lifting us up when are bowed down, so that with all who trust him the word that comes from our mouths will be his:
The LORD will reign forever.
Your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD!
The Rev. Dr. Amy C. Schifrin is associate professor of liturgy and homiletics at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pa.