Shuck and Jive

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Scraps for Dogs--A Sermon

Here is the sermon for today. We played some good tunes that folks had requested for "Music to Live By."

Any Major Dude, Steely Dan
Old Friends, Mary McCaslin
All This Joy, John Denver

Scraps for the Dogs
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 6, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 5:21-28

From there he got up and went away to the regions of Tyre.

Whenever he visited a house he wanted no one to know, but he could not escape notice. Instead, suddenly a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him, and came and fell down at this feet. The woman was a Greek, by race a Phoenician from Syria. And she started asking him to drive the demon out of her daughter.

He responded to her like this:
“Let the children be fed first,
since it isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs!”

But as a rejoinder she says to him,
“Sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat scraps dropped by children!”

Then he said to her, “For that retort, be on your way, the demon has come out of your daughter.”

She returned home and found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 35. Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28.

Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won't be there no more
Any major dude will tell you
--Steely Dan

This story has been a bit of an embarrassment for the church.

Jesus, I mean really!? We have written songs about you.
Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Well, except for those children you call dogs.

In my first church a woman was very upset with me after I preached on this text. How could I accuse Jesus of being prejudiced? He’s Jesus. He is a major dude. He’s the man, the Son of God. He didn’t call this woman a dog!

Well, according to this text, yes he did.

Maybe he means it affectionately. We like our dogs. They are our pets. They are like children to us. I don't think that is the case here. Jesus is reported to have said to her:
“It is not right to take food out of the children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs!”
That definitely would be an insult.

Most commenters on this text come to Jesus’s rescue as any good press secretary would.
“Of course, Jesus didn’t mean to call this woman and her daughter, ‘dogs’”. That is just a figure of speech. He was just using a phrase that other prejudiced people use to make a point. What Jesus was doing was testing her faith. See?”
The Jesus Seminar had a struggle with this story too. 57% voted red or pink that this story had an historical core, largely because it was an embarrassing story. It is not likely that early Christian evangelists would invent it. The Jesus Seminar thought that Jesus probably did have a conversation with a Gentile woman and that they did exchange witticisms. The idea of an actual demon leaving her child would be in the realm of legend. Yet in this pre-modern society steeped in supernaturalism, demons were believed to be the cause of many ailments. Jesus likely was considered to be an exorcist and a healer. The story as a whole was regarded by the Fellows as pink but the specific details couldn’t get more than a gray rating.

The interesting part of this story to me is that Jesus had his mind changed by his encounter with another human being. I think this is a story of the humanity of another shattering our prejudice. The church has had a theological problem because it assumes that Jesus was perfect in every way. So he couldn’t possibly be prejudiced since that is a bad thing. So we have to make an excuse or explain this obvious behavior away.

But what if we don’t?

What if we don’t let Jesus off the hook?

What if we allow that Jesus was a human being and that he had inconsistencies, warts, clay feet, and blind spots like all of us do?

What if we allow him to be prejudiced as all human beings are?

Personally, I think it makes him much more interesting.

It also allows the story to speak to us in a different way.

The thing about prejudice is that no one has the corner on the market. We all have prejudice towards people to some degree. We all prejudge based on our assumptions about others. Prejudice is the flip side of taxonomy. It is helpful in life to categorize, to make sense of our world. We put things and people in categories and classes. We name and we label.

We do this for the purpose of survival. Those who are not kin or not a member of our tribe are potentially dangerous. There are times when, for the survival of the tribe, that boundaries need to be reinforced building upon the edifice of prejudice.

Legends, fables, pseudo-science, and jokes, are created to reinforce these barriers of prejudice. We need to justify our views and our actions toward these "others". These people are inferior. They don’t deserve the same treatment that we give to our own kind.

Usually it comes down to justifying who gets access to the limited goods that are available as illustrated by Jesus's comment:
“Let the children be fed first, since it isn’t good to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs!”
Access to marriage, to employment, insurance, ordination, all of these things that are contentious within civil and ecclesiastical circles have to do with goods and power. That is why prejudice is such an important and widely used tool in the hands of those with power. It provides a rationale for not sharing with the other.

If you are in a position of power, you want to keep the prejudice stirred up. Especially in times of perceived scarcity, we can see the powerful using prejudice to pit one group against another.

When the Tennessee legislature is in session, I never lack for sermon illustrations. The Tennessee legislature is a comedian’s and a preacher’s best friend. I said the same about the Montana legislature when I lived there. It isn’t a West/South thing. Folks is folks all over.

Here is the illustration for today. A legislator from Murfreesboro thinks it will be important for Tennessee to make the practice of Sharia Law illegal.

The Sharia Law is religious literature and law that has developed over the centuries and is interpreted and applied to life by those who practice the Muslim faith. It is similar to the Torah and the Talmud for Jews. It is similar to the Gospel and the Creeds for Christians.

Obviously, civil laws trump religious codes. So if you are going to sell your daughter as a slave according to the instructions of Deuteronomy, a book Presbyterians regard as “Word of God”, you might meet resistance from local law enforcement. The point is you don't need a civil law to make following Deuteronomy illegal. The same is true for Sharia Law.

Nevertheless, according to today’s Johnson City Press:
A bill introduced in the state Senate by Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, would punish organizations that follow Sharia as Class B felons, subject to a fine and a prison term of up to 15 years.
Apparently the concern is that unless we do this before you can shake a stick all Tennesseans will turn into Muslims. All these little Baptist churches will suddenly become The Free Will Church of Muhammad. The message on the church signboards will say things like:
The Qur’an is the Only Book God Ever Wrote.
Allahu Akbar.
Now I am showing my own prejudice aren’t I?

The legislator wants us to be concerned.
There is a big danger in Tennessee.
The Muslims are going to take over.

The Johnson City Press talked with Taneem Aziz and reported on that conversation in today’s paper. Taneem is the president of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee. They have a prayer center in Johnson City. Taneem patiently explained what Sharia Law is as well as the dangerous practices he participates in such as praying, being generous, and honoring parents.

Taneem nailed it though. When asked what this bill in the legislature is all about he said it is “politics as usual”. He said:
“It’s politicians getting ready for 2012….They’re looking at ways to ... well, I call it the politics of fear.”
The politics of fear.
The politics of prejudice.

How do we deal with that fear?
How do we deal with prejudice?

The story of Jesus and the Phoenician woman is a story of how that is done. The important figure here is this woman. Her reply is a classic lesson in non-violent creative confrontation.

She refuses to be snubbed.
She rejects the dehumanization.
She doesn’t bow her head and slink away.
Also, she refuses to return insult for insult.

She knows that the power relationship is in Jesus’s favor, so
  • rather than take that power imbalance head-on,
  • rather than raise her voice in righteous indignation,
  • rather than call Jesus names as he called her names,
she uses her wits.

She disarms Jesus. She doesn’t act in an expected way. If she responded in an angry way or returned his insult with another insult, Jesus could have dismissed her by saying,
“See, these angry dogs are all the same.”
She pretends, for the sake of argument, to agree with his assessment that the “dogs” shouldn’t take the children’s food. And she adds,
…but even the dogs get the scraps from the children’s table.
What can Jesus do to that?
He has been taken off balance.
Jesus knows this woman doesn’t think of herself as a dog.
He knows that she is not accepting his characterization for herself.
She demonstrates to Jesus that she has a brain.
She has forced Jesus to recognize her humanity.
She shows herself to be capable and cool.

Prejudice loses its power when we recognize the humanity of the other, or if we are a victim of prejudice, when we show our humanity to the other.

Suddenly there is recognition. I can imagine Jesus saying to himself:
She and I have much more in common than I thought.
She is one of my own, too.
I want to say one more thing.

I want to talk about the demon.

After the woman creatively and non-violently confronted Jesus, Jesus responded:
“For that retort, be on your way, the demon has come out of your daughter.”
I have to think that Jesus was impressed. Impressed enough to change his mind and to recognize that something powerful had just happened in that exchange.

The story concludes:
She returned home and found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
Demons in the gospels function on a number of different levels. The least interesting level is that they are supernatural beings. They are more interesting in these stories as symbols of social dis-ease. They are symbols of oppression, injustice, and inequality. I am thinking of the demon called Legion that left the man and went into the pigs earlier in Mark’s Gospel. That is an obvious reference to the occupation of the land by the Roman military.

In this morning’s case, the demon that afflicts this woman's daughter is the demon of prejudice and enmity between the two ethnic groups that Jesus and the woman represent. If these people are going to form any common resistance, they are going to need to move beyond their tribalism. They are going to need to throw away these old narratives and come up with some new ones. They will need to recognize and appreciate each other as human beings, not as dogs. When they do, the demon vanishes.

That is the story I take home. The demons of racism, homophobia, sexism, religious intolerance, and all forms of prejudice will leave us, “in the morning, it won’t be there no more”, when we, like the woman, stand up, use our wits, and show our true colors.

Now as far as Jesus is concerned,
he is still my hero.

It isn’t because he was perfect.
It is because he could change.


  1. Nice work. This exegesis is powerful, and bound to anger some.
    I have loved this story for the reasons you detail. It shows Jesus as human, it shows him having insight about himself and growing as a result. It is a story of Jesus that makes him not only, as you say, more interesting, but it also makes him more accessible, more familiar and more like us. This view of Jesus deepens his message and it adds contour and diminsion to his life. Yes, it your interpretation is at odds with the Jesus born perfected, but it is rich with his humanity.

  2. Thanks David! Years ago I used to think that a "human" Jesus was flat and I needed the "divine" Jesus. Not so much now.

  3. Gotta say, I think I like "Redneck Jesus" a little bit more than "Republican Jesus". I don't think that the Republican version of Jesus would have capitulated to this women's plea for Universal Health Care, do you?

  4. "This story has been a bit of an embarrassment for the church..."
    An interesting thing that was pointed out at the JSOR I attended last weekend was (if I understood it right) that what we know today as Christian Orthodoxy was what the ascendant Christian group under the Roman Empire (Constantine etc) agreed it was. In other words, the same Roman empire that killed Jesus because of his real or imagined threat to empire, is what convened the councils to work out what acceptable doctrine was. Potential conflict of interest there? So is there a teeny weeny possibility that the words of the historical Jesus and what the Church has decided Jesus is, are not 100% identical? Maybe in this passage the historical Jesus makes it through even though it contrasts with later idealizations?(although not being a NT scholar I can't pass a judgement on this).

  5. I think you are right, Michael. I think that is why this (admittedly difficult, uneven, and uncertain) search for the historical Jesus beneath the texts is so important. There is a living, breathing guy under there. The best we get is a glimpse of a glimpse, but just doing that activity is exposing Kryptonite to the Superman Jesus of Empire.

  6. At some point someone will ask, Is the object of our faith the historical Jesus, or "Jesus the theological construct", since the two are probably not exactly identical? It seems that most churches have settled on the latter (and the details of the construct differ by denomination).

  7. I do get asked that quite a bit. Personally, I don't think any of the Jesuses are objects of faith. Pointers maybe.