There's a cartoon on our refrigerator, the one frame kind, with a picture of a dog, a man and a woman. The dog is sitting behind the man who is addressing the woman. The dog looks dejected and there's a tear on its face. The man is saying to the woman, "he'd just appreciate it if you'd stop referring to him as 'the dog'." That man and woman could be my husband and I; whenever I mention Redbone as 'the dog' Don looks at me in exaggerated alarm and says "the dog?" He prefers to call Redbone 'the pup.' It's nicer.
This Sunday's lectionary (assigned scripture readings) gives us a troubling story from Matthew 15. A Canaanite woman - a non-Jew, someone who is not 'one of us' - calls out to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter. First he ignores her completely. Then when his disciples complain about her nagging, Jesus turns to the woman and tells her he can't help her because she's not an Israelite. His mission, he says, is only to the people of Israel. She replies, simply, "Lord, help me." Jesus' next answer is disturbing. He says "it isn't fair to throw the children's food to the dogs." But she persists, saying "yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the master's table." Finally, Jesus speaks to her as a person, calling her 'woman' and commenting on her strong faith, and he grants her wish.
The resolution of the encounter, however, does not remove the earlier offense. "The dogs," Jesus said to her. Some biblical scholars have argued that the word Jesus used really means 'little dogs' or 'puppies.' I suppose that's 'nicer,' but calling someone a 'little dog' is still insulting. Why does Jesus say that? We think of Jesus as always being in the right, as always showing compassion for hurting people and this is so very unkind, so wrong. I want to explain it away, make some excuse for Jesus but I cannot. The story troubles me, gets under my skin, makes me uncomfortable. Name-calling is so ugly.
Name-calling is ugly, but we do it. There are derogatory names for all races, classes and types of people and we know plenty of them. "Spic, wetback, blimp, chink, faggot" - hurtful, degrading terms all of them. We hear them and sometimes we use them, aloud or muttered under our breath - "idiot, doofus, reetard, scumbag, loser." Why do we say these things? Those of us who are Christian wear the name of Christ. When we call someone "faggot" or "reetard" or "#*!%-head" it's as if Jesus is speaking that way. Those words wound, anger, and shame people; they say that the other is not worth our concern, our help, our consideration. Who are we to make such judgments?
In Matthew 15 it appears that the Canaanite woman broke through Jesus' prejudice and established herself as a human being in his sight. Undettered by Jesus' initial judgment, she asserted her claim on Jesus' concern and grace. And Jesus changed his mind, reversed his position and extended mercy to her. Even a Canaanite woman is worthy of God's love and care. Even a foreigner is acceptable in God's kingdom. She is not a 'dog' but a woman, a child of God.
This story remains troubling, but it may be especially so because we know ourselves to be guilty of what we see Jesus do. We're uncomfortable because the episode shows us ourselves. We brush people off with a label. We dehumanize others with slurs and unkind remarks. Will we, though, can we - like Jesus - change our minds and come to see all people as beloved by God? If a Canaanite woman is acceptable, who is unacceptable to God by virtue of their class or ethnicity or status? Anyone? This scripture says that all who call on the Lord, all who seek God's help, receive God's characteristic loving-kindness. No one is left out for being too fat or too poor or too foreign or too dark-skinned or too simple. All are welcome in God's house. And that's good to know - for us, and for our neighbors.