Room at the Table

OnyxIn a cartoon appearing in The New Yorker, a dog is pictured as a patient lying on a couch. His psychiatrist sits in a nearby chair, carefully recording their conversation with notebook and pen. The dog-patient has reached a crisis point in his relationship with his owners. Sharing his confusion with the psychiatrist, he says, “I do what they tell me, I eat what they give me. How do I know they’re not a cult?”[1]

The dog’s confusion is only natural. When you think about it, it is rather odd that dogs and humans should live together in households. Scientists tell us that dogs are closely related to wolves, which we tend to think of as dangerous predators. They say that the branch of the family tree containing dogs was formed due to an alliance with humans. Dogs contributed help with hunting, herding, and boundary protection in exchange for food and a home.

Humans contributed better nutrition and shelter in exchange for loyal companionship.

We love our dogs. Through the years that I’ve served as your pastor, many of you became acquainted with our family dog Onyx, who died last year, and my daughter Emily’s dog Ruby. I’ve gotten acquainted with some of your pets, too. Perhaps no family pet feels more comfortable around our office than Buster, the large Standard Poodle belonging to Roger & Carole U. When the U.’s stop by the building to do a project or make a delivery, Buster often comes along. Kathy B. keeps milkbone biscuits on hand for Buster. Buster has come to expect the biscuit at church just like you and I might expect a cup a coffee or a donut. If a biscuit doesn’t appear within a minute of entry, then Buster gets a little agitated, runs back and forth, and barks, until, finally, Kathy pulls a milkbone out of the drawer.

The behavior of family pets forms the context for understanding Jesus’ encounter with a stranger, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark chapter seven. The story follows a major confrontation with the Pharisees about spiritual priorities. The Pharisees had attacked Jesus for not requiring his disciples to follow dietary cleansing rituals. Jesus responded with a critique of the Pharisees. He told them that they were concerned with what was trivial, while ignoring what was essential.

In need of refreshment after this religious battle, Jesus withdraws to the region of Tyre. He enters a private home belonging to a friend. Hoping for much needed rest, Mark tells us that “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice.”

A woman interrupts Jesus’ rest. She is a “Syrophoenician,” a Greek-speaking Gentile, whose daughter is suffering from an “unclean spirit.” The woman begs repeatedly for Jesus’ help, and her desperation is evident when we understand the social customs she ignores in making her request. She is a foreigner, a cultural and religious outsider. She – a woman – approaches a man uninvited in a private home. She doesn’t make a simple request of Jesus, but goes on to engage him in theological dialogue.

To contemporary hearers, Jesus’ response is troubling. We look with our contemporary eyes, and expect Jesus to be above cultural expectations about the subservience of women or the inferiority of Gentiles. We expect Jesus to say something kind, rather than say that the woman should get lost since he didn’t come to feed the dogs.

Biblical scholars who have thought a long time about this episode tell us that Jesus is probably just making a point about his mission. He is saying that his priority is ministry to the Jews. Ministry to those outside of the household of Israel will have to wait.

Now comes the amazing twist in the story. For the first and only time in the gospels, Jesus is about to lose an argument. The woman instantly grasps Jesus’ analogy, because, I believe, she is a pet-owner. For years she has taken care of her dogs, just as she has taken care of her children. Her response seems quick and instinctive: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Many times, while reading the gospels, we see the way in which Jesus masterfully uses an image, or analogy, or parable to make a powerful point. Often, those to whom he speaks either don’t understand him, or won’t acknowledge his claim to authority. But, this time, the woman seems both to understand and respect Jesus. So much so that she takes Jesus’ image of a family pet, and the analogy of her position as similar to it, and uses it to her advantage. Drawing from daily experience with her pets, she says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Perhaps the children of Israel deserve your attention and your healing power more than me. But isn’t it just possible that another one of God’s children might get just a little bit? The woman gives back to Jesus as masterfully as she has received.

The woman –a foreigner, a pagan, and a distressed parent – causes Jesus to rethink his position. Despite his weariness, he feels compassion; he sees legitimate need beyond his primary mission. He realizes that after meeting his obligation to the children of Israel, there is still something left for others. In the end, he legitimizes the woman’s faith, heals her daughter, and sends her home satisfied. In doing so, he proves himself to be the son of the father to whom Moses bore witness, when he wrote: For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food ….[2] The encounter of Jesus with the Syrophoenician woman is one of many witnesses in the Bible to God’s saving activity, including more and more people into his caring circle of grace and healing.

Today, as we gather for our monthly communion meal, we remember that God’s nourishment and grace are for all who humbly approach him in faith. As our Presbyterian constitution puts it, In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person.[3] No one needs to go hungry, no one needs to beg under the table. For at the Lord’s Table, there is a place for all who place their trust in Him.

[1] Charles Barsotti, The New Yorker, 16 Nov. 1998.

[2] Deuteronomy 10:17-18

[3] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Part II – Book of Order, F-1.0403.

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~ by JohnH1962 on September 6, 2015.

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