Good Dog | Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus calls a woman a dog. It’s a twice told story, found in both Matthew 15 and Mark 7. Mark’s Gospel was written first, meaning that the account in Matthew is based on the story in Mark.
Most of us build on what somebody else has done. Matthew built on Mark. Mark, according to tradition, built on what Peter recounted—his memories, the stories he told. Peter, of course, built on what he had seen and heard and touched, to use the language of the New Testament letter of 1 John.
The woman in this story, the woman who comes to Jesus and asks for his help, is an outsider. Jesus and his followers are Jewish—she is not. Jesus and his followers live in mostly Jewish towns—she does not. She is a foreigner to them, an outsider. Nevertheless, she comes on purpose to find this Jesus, this Jewish man who is surrounded by people who look down on Gentiles like her. She is ready to humiliate herself at his feet, if need be, to get his help for her daughter.
Anyone with children can understand. She is desperate. Imagine your child with an illness, one that the usual doctors are not able to treat. Which of us would not beg the help of some famous doctor, if we had faith or hope that she could help?
This foreigner is also very much like another woman from another story, a much older tale from 1 Kings 17—a woman with a sick child pleads for help from Elijah. (The Old Testament echo is all the more interesting when we think of the Gospel symbolism of John the Baptist as Elijah reborn, this time pointing to the coming messiah.)
When this foreign woman finds Jesus, she doesn’t get a warm reception. First, Jesus ignores her, which his followers expected him to do—who is this foreign woman who is expecting to meet Jesus, after all? Then he calls her a dog. It’s not a friendly pet name, not a term of endearment. It’s an insult.
Now everybody is uncomfortable.
Jesus is making a point, of course—but to whom? Who is being taught—the woman, or the people around him who truly have a low opinion of this foreigner? After all, why should this foreigner receive the benefits promised to the chosen people?
The woman herself takes no offense; if she does, she hides her feelings well. Maybe she is used to it. Maybe she expected it. That is not unusual with people who regularly meet with prejudice, racism, bigotry.
Whatever her reasons, she doesn’t bristle at being called a dog. Instead she waits for crumbs from the table. In fact, she anticipates her position, begging for scraps of mercy. I think that she knows what Jesus is doing, that she looks in his eyes and knows that he is addressing the racism and bigotry he sees in the eyes of his own followers.
And dogs are some of the finest people I know. Perhaps this woman feels the same way.
We would do well to emulate most of the dogs we meet. Think of their qualities—devoted, loyal, with reasonable expectations, a reasonable degree of obedience, taking comfort and joy in the simplest things. If we were more like our dogs, we would be better people. That’s true of most animals, come to think about it.
What about cats and squirrels, you say? Well, nobody is perfect.