Some days, I think that my cat Turbo secretly wishes to be a dog. He does things that are at times very odd for a cat – like wanting to have his belly rubbed or playing fetch. He also is very good about communicating to us when he is ready to play because he walks into the room with a toy firmly in his mouth and meows… Mraow!
The thing is, our lovely, adorable, little Turbo never wants to play when WE are ready to play. It’s always in the middle of writing a sermon or in the middle of a really intense part of a movie that he shows up ready to go. And he doesn’t make it easy for us either. You see, Turbo likes to stand just outside of the reach of our arms – about four feet away from wherever we are sitting and he drops his toy and looks at us. It’s like he’s saying… “Come and Get it!” Get up and come over here. Drop whatever you are doing and pay attention to me!
Sometimes, I think that its rather annoying. Sometimes I really just wish that he would go away and find someone or something else to play with. Because I have other more important things to focus on. But he stands there near me, with that cute little mraow! And pretty soon, I can’t help but give in.
How many of you have pets in your family? Whether they are big or they are small, whether they live outside or inside, pets are in 63% of American households. I was curious to find out a little more about all of these pets and found estimates from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association that Americans own approximately 73 million dogs, 90 million cats, 139 million freshwater fish, 9 million saltwater fish, 16 million birds, 18 million small animals and 11 million reptiles.
That’s a lot of animals!
The thing about pets is that they have this amazing ability to make us better people. According to a pet therapist, “Love is the most important medicine and pets are one of nature’s best sources of affection. Pets relax and calm. They take the human mind off loneliness, grief, pain, and fear. They cause laughter and offer a sense of security and protection. They encourage exercise and broaden the circle of one’s acquaintances.” (http://www.sniksnak.com/therapy.html)
This morning, we hear a very different sort of story from Matthew about a how a woman who was callously called a dog – widened the circle of God’s love for Jesus, for the disciples, for the church itself, all in a conversation about table scraps.
And so as I thought about those two things together: about how much I love my cat and how sometimes he really pushes me to the limits and challenges me to move beyond what I am doing, about how he helps me to love more – and about how much that woman was hated and yet how she pushed the boundaries of the gospel and helped Jesus to love better – I got to thinking about table scraps and ever-widening circles. Table scraps and ever widening circles.
First of all, a little background on this passage of scripture. Jesus is walking around with his disciples way out on the border lands of Israel – out by Tyre and Sidon. Now, this would have been like venturing into Iowa State territory for these disciples…. If they were Hawkeye fans that is. People talk funny out there, people look different (okay, well not all that different), but there is definitely some long held animosity between the people of Israel and the people “over there.”
Before they realize it, this woman comes up to them…. And not just any woman, some crazy, foolish Canaanite woman, who starts yelling and begging and pleading with them to heal her demon-possessed daughter. I can just see the disciples now… are you sure that your daughter needs the help… because you are kind of freaking us out!
And then Jesus – the one who is always supposed to have the answers and who models to us how to treat others – surprisingly just ignores the woman. Doesn’t even bother to give her the time of day.
Now, if I were a disciple, and I saw Jesus ignoring someone – I’m not quite sure what I would have thought. It probably seemed like an affirmation of their worst thoughts and assumptions about this woman. It probably seemed like they were way too good to stop and pay attention to this persistent, annoying woman who was starting to make a scene. And so one of the worked up the courage to tug on Jesus sleeve and said… “Let’s figure out some way to ditch this lady… she’s getting on our nerves!”
Now, in most of our scriptures about Jesus, here is the point where Jesus would very firmly put the disciples in their place – take care of the woman’s concern – no matter who she was – and they would be on their way. Hopefully with the disciples having learned a very important lesson. Whenever I read this passage from Matthew, I am ready and waiting and longing for Jesus to give those hooligans a talking to.
But he doesn’t. We don’t know what is going on inside of his head, but he says something very strange to our ears – even today. Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” I was sent only to the Jews – that is my mission, that is my focus, that is what I am going to do.
And this woman, this Caananite, certainly wasn’t a Jew. In the gospel of Mark she is called a Syro-Phoenecian woman, but whatever way you look at it, she was definitely not included in the bunch Jesus had in mind. If you remember all the way back to Moses and the promised land, all the way back to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob… the Israelites were promised the land of the Caananites – the land of these people – to live in, to have as their inheritance from God.
Probably the best way that I can communicate to you the kind of racism, hatred and animosity that existed between these people is to think back about a hundred years to the way that Native Americans were treated in our country. Although they lived here long before Europeans ever set foot on the continent, those who came believed that this land of America was our promised land. It was a gift from God and a place where we could grow and live and love. But what came as a result of that was the demonization of a whole group of people – who were seen as nothing more than mongrels and barbarians and dogs to the white culture.
So imagine that kind of history between them, with those kinds of walls dividing this Canaanite woman and Jesus and his disciples, not to mention the fact that he is a man and she is a woman…. knowing that she is not included and not welcomed – this woman drops to her knees in an act of worship and begs Jesus… Lord, Help me.
Scott Hoezee, a biblical scholar wrote in his reflection this week that Jesus’ “ministry is a kind of extended heavenly feeding. (In the previous chapter Jesus fed bread to 5,000 people. Immediately following this morning’s story he will do something similar feeding bread to 4,000 people. Jesus is the bread of life.) And so, this woman is asking for a place at the table, but Jesus, chillingly, relegates her to the floor of life. ‘It’s not right to toss perfectly good bread meant to feed the children to the dogs.’ Jesus calls her a dog. It’s a kind of slur, an epithet, and the disciples no doubt approved.” (Scott Hoezee http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php)
Jesus has just denied this woman what she wants, what she longs for. He has not only done that, but he has insulted her in front of all of these other people.
But what I love about this woman is that she never backs down. She is quick and witty, she rolls with the punches that are thrown at her and she boldly speaks back. “Okay, so you want to call me a dog? Fine. You say that as a dog I don’t deserve the food off of the table. Fine. But you know what? Even dogs get the leftovers from the table. Even dogs get the crumbs that fall under the children’s feet. Even dogs deserve that… so, c’mon! throw me a bone here Jesus!”
Table scraps and ever-widening circles.
Edwin Markham once wrote a quick little poem called Outwitted that describes for me what is going on here. It goes:
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
We drew a circle that took him in… table scraps and ever widening circles.
We don’t know why Jesus initially excluded her, except that he felt like he had a mission to preach the Kingdom of God to the Israelites. So in a sense, he had drawn a line – a boundary – he had placed a limit on what he was willing or able or felt called to do. He had drawn a circle that shut her out.
But then this woman had the wit and the courage and daring to flip his statements on him and to draw the circle big enough so that she was not only included, but that others could be included as well.
In our Roundtable Pulpit discussion this week, we talked a lot about the table scraps – the crumbs from the gospel feast that are leftover or fall to the floor. Jesus is of course talking about himself, and his ministry and his calling to find and feed and care for the children of Israel. But even as he does so, as he goes out into the world teaching and preaching, there will be others around who will benefit also. They might have been eavesdropping as Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Maybe they were the neighbors of someone who was healed. Perhaps they saw the multiplication of the loaves and fishes – were on the outskirts of the crowd as the food was passed around. In any case, there were numerous people who were not of the Jewish faith and heritage, who were receiving the gospel. Whether or not Jesus was talking directly to them.
We don’t know if Jesus knew this all along and he was just acting out the kind of transformation he wanted his disciples to embody, or if Jesus really did learn and grow as a result of his conversation with this woman.
What we DO know is that after she had drawn the circle bigger – by having the courage to say that even she, a “dog though she may be”, had the right to eat the table scraps – Jesus had nothing but praise and willingness in his heart toward her.
“Woman! You have GREAT FAITH!” He cried out. Like she had won a prize at the fair he made sure that everyone around him – Jew and Gentile alike – knew that this woman, this Canaanite, this nobody who he had but moments ago unkindly called a “dog” – was not only faithful, but that her plea for help would be answered. Immediately, we are told, her daughter was healed.
Here is the talking to I was waiting for! Here is the moment when this woman and Jesus partner up to stretch all of our hearts open just a little bit farther. And as they do so, they challenge all of us to think about who we are ministering to out in the world.
You see, it’s easy to get caught up in a mission. It’s easy to get caught up in one defined goal. But if we aren’t careful, we allow that one thing to so define our work in the world that we have in fact drawn a circle. We have built a wall and we have imprisoned the gospel. Because, although we may think we know exactly who should be included in our ministry, we have to remain open to whomever God sends our way. Because as Taylor says, God [is busy] rubbing out the lines we have drawn around ourselves and calling us into the limitless country of his love.
Dan Nelson writes that “Even Jesus, who presumably has diving authorization for his limits” – you know, that whole “I was sent…” thing – Even, Jesus “allows those limits to be stretched by another’s necessity. In other words, the rule here is that there is no rule, only a creative tension between our finite capacities and the world’s infinite need.” (http://sio.midco.net/danelson9/yeara/proper15a.htm)
Our finite capacities and the world’s infinite need.
Jesus as fully God never stopped being aware of this woman’s need and he never stopped loving her. But Jesus as the person who was also fully human was very aware of his limitations – of the demands on his time and energy. And maybe in this situation he had some of his priorities mixed up, but the love and the mercy were always there.
That’s the message that we get from our Romans text this morning. Paul is here writing about whether or not the love of God changes – if people can ever fall out of their standing with God – if we can ever be rejected. And his message is simple: NO. You see, as many times as we turn our back upon God’s grace and mercy, God never turns God’s back upon us. God is always there, waiting to take us back in and longing for each one of us to turn to him.
In the Old Testament, Israel was chosen, not because they were the only ones that God loved, but because they were to be a beacon to the nations – they were charged with the task of making God’s name known throughout the world. God’s vision and God’s love was always universal in scope – but that love began in just one corner of the world with one group of people.
As Paul writes Romans, he is living in a world in which his own people – those lost children of Israel that Jesus kept talking about – have rejected Jesus as their savior. They are like ungrateful children who take the bread that has been graciously set on the table and throw it on the floor.
And ironically – Paul says – their disobedience, has allowed all of us to gather up the crumbs and has allowed all of us to enter into a life with God.
The Message translation of the Bible has this wonderful way of sharing that message with us and it reads:
There was a time not so long ago when you were on the outs with God. But then the Jews slammed the door on him and things opened up for you. Now they are on the outs. But with the door held wide open for you, they have a way back in. In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in.
God makes sure that we all expedrience what it means to be on the outside, so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in. The reality is, all of us have disobeyed. All of us have turned our backs on God at one point in our lives or another. All of us are as unworthy as the disciples thought that Canaanite woman was to receive God’s grace.
And yet it is offered anyways.
And it keeps being offered in ways that stretch us and stretch our hearts and stretch the gospel around the world. In our final hymn today, we will sing in the second verse the following words:
Wider grows the kingdom, reign of love and light;
for it we must labor, till our faith is sight.
Prophets have proclaimed it, martyrs testified,
poets sung its glory, heroes for it died.
Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits at the call divine.
Forward through the ages, that love of God has gone. Forward through the ages there have been people both shut out and pulled into that glorious kingdom by our actions and by our words.
We are finite and there are limits to what we can do – but never should we put boundaries around the gospel. Never should we try to determine who is and who isn’t worthy. Because our boundaries will never be able to contain the vastness of God’s love and mercy.