Sermon: A Dog at the Table
Note: updated, final edited version ready for preaching this morning
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
• Mark 7:24-30
I have never been one who is comfortable preaching about politics, and I’m not going to begin today. However, I am going to mention our president as a way of introducing today’s message. No matter what you might think of him as a person or as our nation’s leader, I think we can all agree on one thing: President Trump often speaks his mind, speaks directly, and doesn’t always speak with a great deal of sensitivity.
Recently, a White House staffer left and wrote a book that was critical of the president. He wasn’t happy, and when he tweeted about it, he called her a “dog.” Now that makes most of us cringe. To call someone a “dog” like that is a clear insult, equivalent to saying someone is lower than a human being. And especially when we think that it was a woman he was talking about and that the woman was an African-American, the statement took on sexist and racist overtones that make us all frown.
Why bring this up this morning? Well, did you hear today’s Gospel? You might have missed it, but unless I’m mistaken, didn’t Jesus just call a woman a “dog” in this story? And not just any woman. A foreign woman. A Gentile woman. An outsider. The kind of person the Jews didn’t like. The kind of person the Jews thought God didn’t like! This sounds like a despicable insult. Did Jesus just call a Gentile woman a dog?
If we read it that way, this sounds so unlike the Jesus we imagine. The woman came to him with a serious need. She came with great respect, bowing down at his feet. She made an emotional, earnest appeal to him. And yet he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This appears to be a religious and racial epithet: Jesus came for the children — the Jews — and since she was not one of the children but one of the dogs — a Gentile — she wasn’t entitled to his help.
Did Jesus just call this woman a dog? What’s going on here? The short answer is, “No, I don’t think Jesus called this woman a dog. I don’t think Jesus was using the word “dog” in the same way President Trump did. I think Jesus was quoting a folk saying from his culture. There were different kinds of dogs in the ancient world. There were outside dogs that were scavengers, work dogs, or wild dogs and then some people kept littler dogs in their homes. When you called someone a “dog” as a put-down, that referred to the wild dogs, not the smaller house-pet kinds of dogs. Jesus uses the word for pet-dogs here.
So, this saying Jesus quotes is not an insult, but an endearing little proverb that describes describing a common scene: a family is eating at the table, and their little pet dog is laying under the table, awaiting its turn. First the family has its meal, then the dog gets fed. The saying is a way of saying dog should not be allowed to interrupt the family. First things first. Take care of the children, then take care of the dog.
Why did Jesus quote this folk saying? What I think is happening here is that Jesus and his disciples came to this house in Gentile territory for a well-deserved break. He and his friends are tired. They need rest. They need some down-time, some peace and quiet, some space from the crowds, some relief from the demands of those who constantly come for healing and help. In the saying, Jesus and the disciples are the family that is sitting down at the table to enjoy an uninterrupted meal. They are hungry and tired. They need a good meal and some relaxation.
But now comes this woman, interrupting them and asking Jesus to leave the house to help her daughter. She is interrupting their meal, intruding upon their rest. So Jesus gently gives this little saying to suggest that his priority at the moment is to feed his family, and it wouldn’t be right for him to abandon them to take care of her request first. He’s not insulting her. He quotes this familiar saying as a way of requesting her patience and understanding.
Well, in response, this Syrophoenician woman shows herself to be a person of good humor and cleverness. She doesn’t take the saying as an insult, but playfully responds to it. She answers Jesus: “But sir, I don’t want to interrupt your family meal. I was just hoping, like that little dog, to catch a few crumbs falling from the table.”
I like to think that Jesus laughed or at least smiled when she said that. That was a really witty and clever thing to say. He acknowledges that when he says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” He commends her for entering into the spirit of the saying he quoted and for understanding their need for rest. As a result, Jesus doesn’t have to leave the house or his disciples, and the woman receives the blessing she came for.
This story does not portray a rude or insensitive Jesus. It shows a divine yet human Savior who needed to take care of himself and his friends by getting away from the crowds. He affirms our humanity and recognizes our need for rest and refreshment.
It also shows his love for everyone, even this Gentile woman that his fellow Jews rejected. He treated her with respect and dignity and used this little saying to appeal to her rather than to insult her or turn her away.
Finally, it shows that Jesus delights in those who come to him with sincere and creative faith. Like this woman, we may find that the most unlikely people can surprise us with insight, and good humor, and the resilience of their faith.
May God bless us with such faith. Amen.
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Note: I was helped in understanding this text by William Lane’s commentary on The Gospel of Mark in the NICNT commentary series. It is one of the best biblical commentaries ever written, and I highly recommend it.