Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Junk-yard dog.” The first time he ever called her that, I bristled. Wish I could tell you it was said in private, out of ear-shot, but it wasn’t. It was his term of affection for her, said often to her face. I’d been coaching kids’ soccer for all of three weeks, eight year olds, and her mom had struggled to consistently get her to practices and games. So my assistant, a dear man and veteran coach, but living in a place where such ignorant terms of endearment (or not) were still somewhat culturally accepted, had offered to give her rides to practices and games.
She was from the “wrong” side of town, he told me. He worried about her, he told me, and wanted different for her. He ached for our team to be a shiny spot in her life, where she didn’t have to think about home. His daughters were the same age; I watched his huge dad-heart at work over this little girl and I knew for certain he cared. But his name for her most of the season long still grated on me each time I heard it – just the same way Jesus’ words in the gospel text this week grate on me.
Jesus and his boys, prior to our pericope in Matthew, have been traveling around Galilee among the lost sheep of the house of Israel, doing all sorts of wonders and exchanging words with the Pharisees. The lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, the hungry eat, and demons are cast out to take up residence elsewhere. Jesus seems to be taking Galilee by storm, crowds billowing behind him like dust. But lest some think it’s for the purpose of celebrity and admiration, rest assured that in all of this, Jesus is clear that his actions and words are consonant with the call to repentance and ushering in of a new reality cried by John the Baptist early in the story: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (3:2) Jesus moves in hope of a response.
But the people don’t repent, and in 11:20, “he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.” He goes on to call out those cities by name, and in 11:21 says “if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
And when the Pharisees later ask for a sign, all he offers them is the sign of Jonah. “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (12:41). The message is clear: the kingdom is coming, and the Gentiles in their posture of repentance are poised to receive it and enter it, but the chosen people of God are not.
Cut to our passage for this week. After Jesus teaches about what truly defiles a person, Peter asks for explanation, and an exasperated Jesus replies, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see?” After making it plain, spelling out the crude digestive implications along with his meaning, Jesus, who thus far has insisted that he was only sent for Israel, takes the disciples and journeys to Tyre and Sidon, a short stint into Gentile territory that is puzzling. Considering that Matthew quotes him earlier as saying Tyre and Sidon would repent, one wonders if the lack of repentance in Israel and the disciples’ inability to understand had begun to make Jesus weary; perhaps he went just to be in a place with a less hardened spirit about it, a place with a possibility of receiving his message.
They arrive in Gentile territory, and immediately Jesus is accosted by a Canaanite woman who knows who he is in detail (“Lord, Son of David”), crying out for help for her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus is silent, the disciples are annoyed, and when they ask him to do something about her, he reiterates what he’s been saying all along: he’s been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Had they heard nothing he’d said? But this Gentile woman, she’s unrelenting, kneeling at his feet, “Lord, help me.” And then he replies: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the little dogs.”
Junk-yard dog. There it is. Wrong side of the tracks, scavenger, audacious, not one of us. And like someone accustomed to such nomenclature and made wise through how the world has been for her, this woman is ready with the reply that saves her face, and ultimately her daughter: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She may be a “dog,” an other-than-he-is, but she still eats. She still hungers, still has need of mercy, and still believes he has something to offer her. Perhaps he can’t resist, her faith overwhelming him. Breaking with his own rules and lavish in his praise of her faith, he heals her daughter instantly, foreshadowing the opening of the new kingdom and people of God to the Gentiles.
Despite my attempts at seeing this text and the others for this week objectively, it’s been hard to without letting the recent struggles in the world act as a backdrop, specifically the crisis at America’s borders with the influx of children who “aren’t us,” supposed junk-yard children (but in reality they are no such thing). And if we dive into the other readings besides the gospel, such as the Romans text where Paul reaches to pull together two diverse and often hostile communities who share a common Lord and common church, the atrocities in Gaza come to mind – this battle over land, entitlement, and ultimately who belongs (and who doesn’t).
So much of the news lately has been about “othering” and power. Witnessing from a privileged distance the bloodshed and destruction of dear people perhaps moves me to cry with the Psalmist as a prayer, a longing ache, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” followed by, “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.” But if that’s our only response as the church, we fail.
Perhaps, if I were better attuned to the depravity lurking within myself, my cry would be what Jesus in the gospel of Matthew is longing to hear most: a cry of repentance. For in this story, I am not Jesus, nor the disciples; I am not the woman, nor her daughter, easy as it would be to identify with one of them.
No, rather perhaps I am a part of the character who is absent from the telling – those chosen like the house of Israel and the Pharisees, those within the boundaries of blessing, those un-repenting, those benefiting from the goods of the new kingdom but somehow still grasping to the reality of the old. For while atrocities rage in Gaza and on the borders, are there not places at much less a distance, places here in my own midst, where I have blissfully ignored how I have othered? Places the old kingdom still reigns in me?
What grips me about our gospel this week isn’t so much what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, but rather what he does for her. This woman, accustomed to the ways of the old kingdom, dares to ask for crumbs; he, harbinger of the new and coming kingdom, gives her everything. He feeds her with the healing and wholeness she so desperately needs. What are we doing with the bread given us? Withholding it? Giving it in crumbs? Or like the two feedings of thousands of people prior to this week’s gospel text in Matthew, breaking it in abundance, distributing it lavishly, expecting leftovers as evidence of the Spirit’s work among us? It’s not the bread we take in, but the bread we put out that has the power to defile or bless us.
It’s difficult to know how the church, dispersed in local bodies as we are, might be faithful in the face of the unspeakable brought home to us every day with the news and so in contrast to the inbreaking kingdom we long for desperately, but we must be. Like the despair of the disciples faced with thousands in need, our most natural response is, “where will we get so much bread?” And in response to Jesus, perhaps we must begin, like they did, with what we have, and with the faith to, like the woman in the gospel, find our knees and the words to say, “Lord, help me.”
May we together as the church, in response to the goods of the kingdom of heaven given to us, kneel our hearts and lives in confession and repentance of where we are complicit in the violence and othering of old kingdom politics. May we acknowledge that all we have is gift, goodness we could not be worthy to receive, and yet receive it. And may we in our bread and wine, our bodied and blooded life for the world, break the tiers of “at the table” and “under the table” and cease to other, but instead gather. May we not offer only crumbs of a kingdom, but offer everything in faithfulness to the Christ who gave us everything.