Dogs and the Kingdom of God

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I don’t know about you, but I tend to think that the more challenging or difficult a passage, the more likely it is to lead to a great sermon. Which means, of course, that there should be a lot of great sermons heard across the country this coming Sunday, as this week’s Gospel reading is a doozey! 🙂

What makes it hard, of course, is that Jesus comes off as down right rude, if not worse. I mean, I understand that he’s fled to Tyre for some R&R, and Lord knows (literally and figuratively!) that he deserves it. So I can only imagine how incredibly frustrating, even disappointing, it was to discover that his fame had spread even as far as this distant beach resort and to have his vacation so completely spoiled by yet one more supplicant. Okay, I get that.

But, really, did he have to call her a “dog”? I mean, goodness, but which one of us, if one of our children was possessed by a demon and we suddenly heard that a miracle worker from distant parts had ventured unexpectedly into our neighborhood, wouldn’t also go ask this favor? Jesus has never been anywhere near Tyre before, and he’s not likely to come this way again, and so this woman does what any desperate parent would do. She runs, and she prostrates herself in an act of at least respect if not downright worship, and she begs, fervently, for the restoration and healing of her beloved little girl. And in return all she gets is, not just a rebuke, but an insult; actually, a mean, ugly slur.

Now, I know there’s a way of softening this scene, of recasting the whole passage in fact. It’s a feat of hermeneutical gymnastics that many of us — including myself — have resorted to upon occasion, and it requires two moves. First, Jesus doesn’t call her a dog, but rather a puppy. He’s being affectionate, not insolent. You know, like “sorry little puppy, but it’s just not your time yet.” While a fairly dubious piece of linguistic work to begin with, this interpretation, as far as I can tell, doesn’t really solve the problem. Whether “puppy” or “dog,” it’s still a pretty obnoxious thing to call a desperate mom who’s come seeking your help.

The second twist in the traditional reading of this difficult passage is to say it’s all a test, kind of like Job. Except that, unlike in Job, nowhere does the passage indicate it’s a test and, in fact, it would be the singular example of this kind of move in Mark. And, honestly, why does this desperate woman, who’s already demonstrated her great faith by coming to Jesus alone, bowing at his feet, and beseeching him for healing (demonstrating her belief that Jesus can, in fact, heal her daughter), need to be tested, let alone in such a demeaning way?

I think this more traditional interpretation appeals to us because on the surface, at least, it preserves the picture of Jesus we hold in our hearts — perfect in compassion, foreknowledge, courage, and love. Yet this is Mark’s Gospel we’re talking about, not John’s, and so maybe, just maybe Jesus hasn’t fully lived into his messianic consciousness. Actually, that’s just a fancy of way of saying that maybe even Jesus doesn’t quite realize just how expansive God’s kingdom is yet. Maybe this desperate woman pushes him, stretches his vision of God’s grace, makes clear to him in an unexpected and initially unwelcome way that there is room in God’s kingdom for all, for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, insider and outsider, even dogs like her and her daughter.

If so, then I think we should give thanks for this desperate mother and her fierce parental love, for in it we see as clearly as anywhere in the Gospel the character of God’s tenacious commitment and God’s similarly fierce love for all of God’s children.

But there’s also one more thing this reading of the passage does: it makes us aware of the unexpected blessing and insight a stranger might bring to us. Most of our churches are, when you get down to it, pretty homogeneous. And while that’s perhaps understandable it can also be limiting, as we tend to bring the same perspectives, share the same experiences, and hold common assumptions about God, the world, and our faith. But every once in a while someone who is totally different from us might stumble upon our assembly to join us for worship or service, and then suddenly the question becomes how we will welcome this one. Will strangers feel welcome or, well, strange? Will they sense people eager to make a place for them or feel the need to fit in and conform to the way things are?

Let’s face it: Hospitality, for most of us, means being patient and polite while we wait for newcomers to become more like us. But can we understand hospitality as a willingness to be open to the distinct gifts and perspectives of someone who is different? Can we even imagine that hospitality is an openness to receiving people who are different from us as gifts of God given to change and stretch us? Combine this particular aspect of the passage with the letter from James and you might find a pretty powerful sermon to preach on the Sunday that is for many of us the opening of a new program year in our congregation.

However you may read and preach this passage, Working Preacher, know that I am grateful for your fierce faith and determination to proclaim the good news of God’s desperate and indefatigable love for us and all the world. It’s welcome, even crucial news for a world starved for love. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you!

Yours in Christ,

PS: Have you signed up for the 2012 Celebration of Biblical Preaching? Held right here at Luther Seminary October 1-3, 2012, it will, I think, be our best Celebration to date. Rolf Jacobson will introduce us to the power of the narrative lectionary, while Michael Curry, Barbara Lundblad, David Bartlett, and Lauren Winner will delight, inspire, and challenge us with fabulous lectures and worship. And if all that isn’t enough, there will be a number of stimulating and helpful workshops (including, I’ll make bold to say, one I’ll be doing on preaching about money — just in time for Stewardship season). Click here to find out more and register!