Rev. Teri Peterson
Double Dog Dare
August 17 2008, Ordinary 20A
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
Well, that’s not the Jesus we usually hear about growing up in Sunday School, is it? This is a hard story to hear—our loving, all-compassionate Jesus first ignores a human being in need, and then insults her to her face. The story is just barely redeemed by the fact that Jesus heals the woman’s daughter in the end—but it’s hard to argue that the ends justified the means. I mean, Jesus called this woman, this suffering woman, a dog.
But you know what? There’s not much a mother won’t do for the good of her child. If there’s one thing we know from both nature and our own experience, it’s that you do NOT mess with a mama protecting her cubs. Or perhaps I should say her puppies??! This woman is no exception—she is willing to go to great lengths, to endure insults—even this most vulgar of insults—for the sake of her child. She’s willing to make a scene, to beg, and to be a little sassy if necessary. This is one tenacious woman.
Now, I have to admit that if I had to choose between these two characters right now, I’d side with the woman in a heartbeat. I’m a Cubs fan, so I know about persistence in the face of failure. I tend to be on the side of the underdog, with compassion and righteous anger bubbling just below my surface pretty much all the time. The trouble is, usually I say that that’s what Jesus calls us to do—but here he is being exactly the opposite of how we think he ought to be, playing the role of oppressor rather than liberator, divider rather than gatherer, perpetrator of prejudice and injustice rather than the one breaking down the walls of hostility between us. How is that possible? I mean, isn’t Jesus supposed to be perfect? How could he be so horrible…and so horribly human?
I have heard preachers suggest that Jesus was testing the woman, trying to see if she would persevere even in the face of difficulty, daring her to continue her quest for healing. I’ve heard them suggest that Jesus didn’t mean it when he used this insult, but he was trying to teach his disciples something. I’ve even heard a few people suggest that the word used is more like “doggies”—like a term of endearment for a pet, which is unlikely since pets were largely unheard of and animals tended to be unclean. There are lots of ways to soften this, but the reality is that Jesus was harsh and that his prejudices seem to have gotten the better of him this time, at least at first.
But the woman didn’t give up—she just kept pushing, almost daring Jesus to walk away. What does she have to lose? She’s already lost her dignity, any standing she may have had in the community, and often her daughter. It can’t hurt for her to keep shouting, to run after this man she’s heard about, to kneel at his feet and beg, or even to backtalk the great teacher of Israel. And once he’s insulted her so, she ups the ante—she double dog dares him. “yes…but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.” Well, who can argue with that? I don’t have a dog, but I have two cats who try to eat anything that falls on the floor in my kitchen. She’s not asking for the world, but she is asking this man, this Word of God made flesh, this Bread of Life, to be enough for her daughter. She’s asking Jesus to take a little step out of his comfort zone, a little hop over the boundary line he thinks he has to work within, to have compassion for someone completely and totally Other. And, thankfully, Jesus does it.
I like to imagine Jesus sounding totally amazed in his last sentence here—“woman! great is your faith!?!?!?” As though he’s looked into her eyes, he’s heard her voice, and he’s seen and heard the image of God calling out to him. We talk a lot around here about seeing God in other people, about hearing God’s voice in the people we meet—well, here’s a time when maybe Jesus saw God in someone besides himself. He looked at this woman, he heard her desperation, and he knew God’s call. And when he heard the call, he immediately followed, even outside the bounds, across the walls, over the line.
I often tell people that I think each one of us lives on a platform. We have a platform on which to dance and dance, to sing and play and frolic, to laugh and cry and wonder. We come up to the edge of our platforms sometimes, and we might even peek over the edge now and then, but most of the time we back away from that edge and dance inside the lines, afraid of falling off the edge. Sometimes we might hear things coming from below, but they’re hard to make out and it’s too scary to think about jumping off our platform, because it’s like the edge of our world—if we jump or fall off, we might die. But occasionally something happens—a reading, a movie, an experience, an encounter—and it’s like a voice calling us from somewhere off the edge of our platforms. So we gather up our courage and we dance to the edge and we let ourselves slip a little bit…and we fall off and it’s scary and we’re out of control and we don’t know what to do…and then we find ourselves on another platform, bigger than the one we were on before, and we have so much more room to dance and sing and frolic, so much more room to laugh and cry and wonder. And so we dance around our platform, amazed at how big it is and how many more friends we can fit in our room and how great it is that this big platform is here and how thankful we are that God had another platform for us when we fell off the one way up there. Eventually we get comfortable and sometimes our platform gets crowded, and we have to make a choice. We remember what it was like to fall off the other platform, how scary it was. And we’re feeling like this one doesn’t have room for all our friends or all our vision of how God wants the world to be, and we’re hearing voices from somewhere off the edge again…but do we fall again? What if there’s not a bigger platform to save us, for us to land on down below…what if instead there’s condemnation? So in our fear we keep dancing our limited dance, but eventually the voices are too loud, shouting after us with such desperation, that we come right up to the edge again, close our eyes, reach out, and go, to find that we’ve lost control again, we’re scared and screaming again, and then that there’s another bigger platform with room for more friends and more dancing, so we kick off our shoes and delight in the expanse of God’s vision.
I think, in some ways, what this woman did for Jesus was call him off his platform and onto a bigger one. And when he heard God in her voice, calling him to take a leap, he danced right off the edge and found himself living in the kingdom of God right here on earth. And that little fall off the top table onto the one below was exactly what the woman, and the world, and Jesus, needed. Just a little barefoot dance, just a little courage, just a little leap, just a little crumb of grace, was what we all needed, and when we got it, we were amazed and delighted to find that it was more than enough.
Thanks be to God.