First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Who Let the Dogs In? (Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Psalm 67; Matthew 15:10-28)

Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is reported to have said: “Woe to you…you strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” This passage is not picked up in the Revised Common Lectionary readings, but it was intended to speak to the kind of community Jesus was seeking to form and Matthew was seeking to build. I say this latter because, as I remind us almost every week, Matthew was remembering Jesus’ words, not just to reproduce them as they were 60 years before he wrote, and just “get them right,” but as a relevant word to his own day and community.

In this passage, Matthew’s Jesus contrasts his teaching and his community with communities that he thought majored on minors, who were caught up in fine points of doctrine, the listing of rules to make sure that only those who kept them were welcome. In short, Matthew’s Jesus contrasts his community with those who think the goal is “just getting the words right.” Again, Jesus said: “Woe to you…for you strain out a gnat (a tiny, albeit unclean, bug) from your wine (or your diet soda), but are willing to gulp down a whole camel” in the name of getting the words right and pure. Just before that, he said, “Woe to you…for you pay your tithes on the mint in your gardens, (implied in Leviticus 27:30), but have neglected the weightier matters of the torah: justice, mercy, and faith” (commanded in the torah again and again). Although he was willing that folk strain gnats and tithe mint, it should not be at the cost of justice, mercy and faith. He implied, however, that most people would rather strain a gnat out of their wine, tithe the herbs in their gardens, and define membership in their community by rule-keeping, rather than simply being open to others and treating them with respect, and even with care, concern, and justice. Throughout history, religious and political folk have chosen to wall themselves off from others on the basis of externals, to make clear what the limits of the community are, who’s in and who’s not, who’s right and who’s wrong. We may even advertise that it’s God’s will to subscribe to our doctrinal and social formulations. And that to belong “with us,” you must do it, “our way,” which is, of course, “God’s way.”

As I say, these pungent words are all reported several chapters after our Gospel text which is a preparation for them. We’ll get to that, and a fascinatingly difficult parable that illustrates the principle from the ministry of Jesus, in a few moments.

First let’s look quickly at the Old Testament Lessons. The poem in Isaiah 56 grew out of a time when there was a great temptation to wall the Hebrew community of faith off from others by concerns about ritual purity and specific beliefs and practices to differentiate true community members from those who just didn’t belong. Indeed, if we’ll just resist the temptation to homogenize the Old Testament into a single voice with a single message, some of what we find might encourage us to such parochialism. Whatever their legitimacy (and that might be a good sermon sometime), this passage charts a different course. It talks of God as the One who is more broad-minded than that, who desires not only to gather the “outcasts” (get that word) of Israel, but others besides. The Psalm text that we read responsively this morning encourages all peoples and nations to praise God, not just the few and the right-minded, and has little or nothing to do with lists of beliefs. Rather this Psalm is one of praise of the creator who has blessed the world. All of it.

With all that as a background, let us look at the Gospel. The passage from Matthew 15 breaks into two distinct parts, verses 10-20 and verses 21-28. In the first piece Jesus taught the principle that it is not what goes into us that defiles us, but what comes forth from us, specifically from our mouths. Jesus had, as most of us know, some struggles with other Jewish teachers (he himself was a Jewish teacher) about the relative places of purity and justice in discipleship. The scriptures emphasize both, but Jesus clearly made purity subservient to a quest for justice in the world, not vice-versa. Jesus said that what goes in, eventually comes out and is eliminated. No problem. What comes out of our mouths, however, comes from our hearts (in Hebrew psychology, the place where the thought, the emotion, and the will were all integrated, in short, the very core of our personalities). What we say shows what’s in our hearts. Jesus (and modern psychology, too, for that matter) would never say sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me. They hurt the most. What comes out of our mouths shows what is at our core. Jesus names things that really defile us that come out of us: harmful intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander. These are all things that the Ten Commandments or the ten commitments say are impossible for covenant partners when dealing with one another. Our psychology wants to make differentiations among things that come out of our mouths and things that come from other places in us. That’s a matter of the ancient point-of-view. What comes out of us – our words and our behaviours – defiles us. We are as we say and do. That’s the first part of the text.

In Jesus’ day, some of the strongest opposition to these ideas would have come from the Pharisees. Even by the time of Matthew, however, the followers of Jesus were in process of separating from the synagogue, and indeed, Matthew’s community apparently struggled with such. The actual Pharisees were not as relevant as opponents even then. Who do you think that Matthew might have had in mind? Certainly, even 100 years after Matthew, the Pharisees were irrelevant. How much good does it do us to continue to scream at a bunch of dead people today? Who is it that majors on minors and strains out gnats and swallows camels now?

The second part of this text from Matthew 15 is one of the most interesting passages in the Gospels if we can read it without the rose coloured glasses that always try to “make Jesus nice.” In Matthew’s story, Jesus who just previously had spoken clearly about what defiles us and what doesn’t, and who, in chapter 10, had sent disciples only to minister to “lost sheep” in Israel, and not the vast world beyond, himself goes out into that world, up northwest from upper Galilee into Phoenicia around Tyre and Sidon. There he meets a Canaanite woman from that place who tells him that her daughter is possessed and she won’t leave him alone about it. She called him “son of David,” which is at least a respectful acknowledgement of his Jewishness, even though she’s far from Jewish herself. And, because she’s not and he’s the son of David, Jesus doesn’t want to talk to her or touch her. She’s unclean. She was a Canaanite (and you don’t have to read very far in the Old Testament to know that Canaanites are not on the inside of the community, and were to be shunned). She was not one to whom he was sent. His disciples (the community he was forming) agreed that he should shun her: “send her away, she keeps shouting at us” (she’s embarrassing us). Jesus, at first, responds with what sounds a little like an excuse off the shelf: (If you call me son of David, you must also recognize that, as such) “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (not to you). But she won’t leave them alone. If shunning doesn’t work, how about being outright offensive? Jesus calls her a name: “It is not fair to take the children’s food (he was sent to Israel) and throw it to the dogs” (Canaanites like her). I know that some interpreters and preachers have, in a desperate attempt to “make Jesus nice” here, have said that he meant the word “dog” in the nicest possible way. The Greek word is a diminutive He meant “my dear little puppy,” or “dear doggie.” Foolishness! The word “dog” was used regularly by rabbis in Jesus’ day to describe those who weren’t fit to be in the community of faith — they didn’t have the credentials, they didn’t believe the right things, they weren’t pure in all the right ways. Jesus seems to be resisting this one who was not “normal” in the view of his own people. Even he had this view of mission. Still the outsider won’t leave Jesus and his disciples alone. She doesn’t say, “I’m not a dog,” but, “Yes, and even dogs deserve to be fed,” why not now? So, in a great reversal, Jesus says, “Great is your faith (you won’t even be off put by shunning and insult), Let it be to you according to your wish.” And her daughter was healed.

Do you wonder how such a story made it into the Gospels (two of them no less) when it is such a minority view of Jesus? These words have embarrassed many exegetes, theologians and preachers who have sought to explain them away.

I think we can understand the story (and I hope not explain it away) by remembering that this story is told by Matthew, not for people in Jesus’ day, but for people near the end of the first century. Most have concluded that Matthew’s Gospel was written for disciples of Jesus who had a Jewish background, but for whom the world was changing. Paul had begun the Gentile mission in the late 40’s and, by now, it was probably the early 90’s of the first century. Things in the church were changing. There was pressure for things in Matthew’s church to change. There were those people out there that wouldn’t leave the church alone. Sometimes it isn’t easy for a community that has based itself in certain values to stretch or modify those values. Communities of faith could shun those people or even devise names for them to put them off, but the people kept coming and wouldn’t leave them alone. What were they to do? Here in this story, we find that it wasn’t even easy for Jesus to change. We often make him less than human you know. The Church at its best has often held that Jesus was much more than human, but not less. But Jesus does change. Jesus opens up the door to a Canaanite, a dog, no less. It flies in the face of what he’d been taught the scriptures said, but he did it. In this story, we get the sense that it was a tentative step. He didn’t embrace the woman, didn’t touch her, but he did address her need by healing her daughter. Is Matthew urging his community to pry open (or even pray open) the door of access to God’s love and let the dogs in? It’s interesting that by the end of Matthew’s Gospel, it’s not just the lost sheep of Israel to whom Jesus’ messengers are sent, but “all nations.” There’s a revolution in the making here in Matthew’s community and, if we look hard enough we can see it working. The good news of Isaiah 56 that God is in the business not of gathering just some outcasts, but all of them, and is opening up a door. And Jesus is walking through that door.

All that may be interesting, but let’s not leave it back in Matthew’s community, which has been dead for centuries. Who are our “Canaanites,” our Gentiles, our unclean ones, our dogs? Through the years, churches have continued to devise ways of shunning them and to invent our own names to call them to hold them at arms’ length. Who are they for us? How do we shun them? What are the names we call them? Think about it.

As we read and ponder these scriptures this morning, let us take them to ourselves. Let us remember that it is God who encourages us to be on a mission of gathering outcasts, not only those who are like us (of whom there are many), but of those who are not. And, in those times when it is difficult to remember these things, when the volume of popular political and, religious rhetoric, crashes in on us, urging us to build barriers around ourselves with laws and rules and doctrines. Let us remember that, at times, Jesus himself found it difficult, but opened the door nonetheless on a pilgrimage that, although it led to the cross, also led to a mission to the whole world. In these times, let us pray for the realization that, in the words of the old hymn, in Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one community of love, throughout the whole wide earth. Jesus let the dogs in.

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.