The Dogs Under The Table

Heritage Presbyterian Church

August 16, 2020
11th Sunday After Pentecost/20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture – Matthew 15:21-28

 There are many, many sides to Jesus Christ – healer, teacher, preacher, savior – just to name a few.  However, this particular reading from the Scriptures shows us a side of Jesus that is most troubling – Jesus putting someone down?  Sarcastic Jesus?  Careless Jesus?  Mean and tacky Jesus?  

What is going on here?

It is open to interpretation.  But it is important to examine it in the full context of the story of Jesus Christ.  

If we seize upon this story, put one lens on it, and decide that is THE interpretation that works for all time, we ignore part of the beauty of the Bible itself.  I sort of enjoy the fact that our human thinking cannot always put the Son of God into our neat, accurate theological box.

But still…this story is troubling, to say the least.  So it bears some close examination and discussion.

First of all, could Jesus have been putting the woman down?  If so, that certainly doesn’t fit Jesus’ pattern of behavior when he encountered other women.  Remember the woman at the well?  The one who had been married five different times?  Jesus didn’t condemn her…he just talked with her about it.  Remember the women who came in and poured expensive perfume over his head, washed his feet with her tears, and then dried them with her hair?  The Apostles were aghast…but Jesus defended her.  Remember the woman who was caught in the act of adultery?  The Jews wanted to stone her, but Jesus embarrassed those who would condemn her by telling them that the one without sin got to throw the first stone.  Finally, remember the bleeding woman who had just about given up on life – until Jesus passed by and she reached out and touched the tassel on the end of his cloak – and was healed.  When Jesus met her, he told her to go in peace…he did not condemn her even though in that culture, just by the woman touching Jesus, he became unclean.  

No…Jesus’ behavior was not to put women down EVER.

Was Jesus being racist against her because she was not a Jew?  She was a Syro-Phoenician woman, a Canaanite woman – certainly not one of the chosen people.  But Jesus talked with Roman soldiers – remember the centurion who asked that his slave be healed?  Jesus hung out with some pretty trashy people… “tax collectors and sinners”…we all know that!  People like Matthew, who wrote the Gospel we read from today.  Or Zacchaeus, the short little tax collector who hosted Jesus and promised to pay back any money he collected unfairly.  Jesus healed the lepers – the most feared section of the population.  Jesus even had a terrorist as a member of his inner circle – Simon the Zealot.  Remember that Zealots believed in the violent overthrow of the hated Romans, and they were not above attacking a lone Roman soldier if they could catch him in an alley or a dark corner alone.

Perhaps Jesus was just setting up his own Apostles by playing with their prejudice – they believed that the call of God was exclusive; only certain people would receive it.  But that belief turned into something else: the belief that the chosen people were the only ones who deserved to even be called.  They were chosen…everyone else was a “dog under the table” trying to catch the scraps that were supposed to be just for the children of Israel.  Perhaps Jesus was telling them what the future would resemble: all would be welcome at his table but he first had to change the hearts and minds of his own Apostles.

In the minds of the Apostles, exactly who was welcome at the table?  Jews…that’s all.  

Yet under Roman occupation, many of those same Jews were beginning to fall away from following God faithfully.  For many of them, it was easier – and maybe even more fun – to follow the pagan way of doing things.  Just do whatever you want.

Many of these same Jews rejected Jesus but tried not to reject God.  They wanted to stay in the old ways and just worship the way they had been taught – no changes, no inclusion, no love of others, no nothing.  Nope…all “others” were excluded and that often even included righteous Gentiles.  

And folks…that would include us Presbyterians!

Really?  Jesus the loving, tender Son of God would put someone down?  It doesn’t really fit, does it?  I may not be able to fully explain exactly what Jesus was doing, but I hope I can at least poke some holes in the “Jesus-Is-Mean” theory.

Because if Jesus was being tacky, or sarcastic, or mean, then his model of behavior gives us all an example to be the same to those that we might call dogs under our own table.  Throughout our history, which groups have been treated like dogs in America?  Think about how we have treated the Irish, Chinese, Native Americans, Catholics, Germans, Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics.  Would any of those groups look at this story of Jesus and think He was being putting someone down and excluding them?  How about gay people or transgender people or Muslims?  Many of them have received brutal treatment in our society – and sometimes their poor treatment is actually justified by some who claim to confess Jesus is Lord!  

Many of them, as a result of being treated like dogs, HATE Christians and Christian churches!  I am not asking you to consider changing what you believe – I am asking how are we treating these groups?  It is one thing to have your own thoughts and beliefs; it is quite another to treat people as dogs under the table who do not even deserve to be treated the same as others.

I maintain that when we try to love ALL people…ALL groups, we grow in our own faith.  If it is difficult, then we grow as we struggle.   In my own life, I have seen individual people who have shaped my beliefs about who is truly welcome at the table.

When I was in high school, I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  This area is ground zero for the so-called Bible Belt of America.  For the first time in my life, I experienced prejudice.  I found that many of my Christian classmates rejected me as a Christian –  because my family and I were Catholic.  I was new to the school and didn’t know a soul.  I met a group of people who were extremely kind and friendly.  They invited me to sit with them at lunch.  This was a wonderful thing for a lonely high school kid who was already pretty miserable just for being the new kid.  However, when they began talking about matters of faith and they asked me which church I attended, I was told that I was doomed to the fiery pit because I was Catholic.  That was it.  No further discussion.  No understanding.  I was a dog under the table and that was it.  I was forced to leave that group and seek friendship elsewhere.  It also didn’t take long before I found that high schools always have groups that don’t fit anywhere else.  These groups were as charitable to me as any I have ever experienced.  They made me feel welcome.  They made me feel that I belonged.  And they were not the Bible-toting Christians that I had already experienced; instead, they were believers that worked their faith in practical, every day ways.

The second individual that showed me who should be accepted at the table was the custodian of my elementary school.  He was the first black man that I ever personally knew.  I attended an all white school in Austin back in the 1960’s.  “Separate but equal” may have been struck down by the Supreme Court in 1954, but that news hadn’t made its way to Austin, Texas yet.  So one of the only black people I ever encountered in my childhood was our custodian, Mr. Lawrence.  He was the coolest guy.  He was gentle and kind, and he took care of us.  I don’t remember any of the kids in our school saying anything unkind about Mr. Lawrence.  I suspect that if anyone did, one of us would have said something about it.  We loved him.  We went out of our way to pick up the classroom at the end of each day so that he didn’t have to do any unnecessary work.  When someone broke in and severely vandalized the classroom next door to our room, Mr. Lawrence had to work three whole days to clean it – and I remember that most of the guys in my class wanted to go and help him because we felt really bad.  

The only time I ever saw the smile leave his face was when he saw the mess in that room.  But it quickly returned when he discovered that we all wanted to help him.  He thanked us for the offer, but he told us it was too dangerous.  He said he didn’t want any of us to get hurt just trying to help him.  He was a good man, a truly righteous man, and someone who showed me what living your faith was all about.  

By the way, I saw him twelve years later.  I was a substitute teacher in an elementary school in Austin before I got my first teaching job.  When I passed by the cafeteria – a cafeteria that looked a lot more like the United Nations than the cafeteria of my white youth – there he was, talking with the students, and doing just as he had done in my youth.  When I approached him, and called his name, he looked at me and said, “you’re Mrs. Plunkett’s son!”  It was a joyful reunion and one that I will always cherish.  I am certain the children standing there were wondering why the sub for the day was hugging their Mr. Lawrence.

The last example I will share is one that is on-going in my life.  I met a young lady that I will call simply Z.  Z was an incredible student at the school where I worked.  Everyone loved her and everyone wanted her in their group – their lunch table, their work or study group, or just their group of friends.  She was a terrific kid.  The fact that she was a practicing, devout Muslim was not really an issue…until September 11th.  After that date, her world changed for the worse.  Kids began taunting her and pulling at her scarf that covered her hair.  Teachers began having a “problem” with Z.  Her own family faced prejudice that I cannot even imagine – her mother could not go to the grocery story alone anymore without her white, Anglo neighbor or her husband going with her.  Z found herself facing so much hassle in the cafeteria that she went to the librarian and asked if she could begin eating in the library.  Fortunately, the librarian was a righteous Christian woman who saw and understood the whole situation and cheerfully encouraged her to come in “anytime.”  At first, Z ate alone.  Soon, one or two kids joined her.  After about a week, there were 10 girls who ate with her.  This same group of girls became her protectors in the classroom, on the playground, in the halls, and in the bathrooms.  Z stuck it out and excelled.

Christians are called to be better than the rest of the world, to love more, to be examples, to be inclusive of everyone – the way that Jesus would: without conditions, without hesitation, without sarcasm, and without worrying about who is welcome at the table and who is under it waiting for scraps.

The song says “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  We’d better make sure – or perhaps God may treat us as no better than dogs under His table.