A Dog's Life

Matthew 15:21-28 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession." 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." 25 The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. 26 He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." 27 "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." 28 Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

One day a farmer’s old dog fell into a dry well. He was trapped. No way out. The animal cried piteously for hours while the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, though the farmer sympathized with the dog, he decided that the dog was old and the well dry, and neither was worth the trouble of saving. So the farmer decided to bury the old dog and put him out of his misery.

The farmer began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, when the dog realized what was happening, he whelped and cried horribly. But then it dawned on the mutt that every time a shovelful of dirt landed on its back, he could shake it off and step up. He did this shovelful after shovelful. Shake it off and step up. Shake it off and step up. Shake it off and step up.

It took all day, but the dog, battered, dirty and exhausted, stepped triumphantly over the wall of that well and trotted off. Each shovelful of trouble was really a stepping stone, what he thought would bury him actually benefited him.

She was trapped and desperate. There was no way out. No one to turn to. She felt buried by her daughter’s demon possession. As a parent she felt helpless with her child in trouble. Matthew gives no description of the symptoms, but the woman is at the end of her hope. Jesus is all she has left.

She had heard Jesus was in the area for some teaching and vacationing along the Mediterranean Sea with His disciples. She is in the area of Tyre of Sidon, Canaanite country. The Canaanites were those people who were supposed to have been purged from the land under Joshua. Israelites hated Canaanites and the animosity was mutual in return. The Israelites called the Canaanites “dogs” – filthy, garbage-picking scavengers. We don’t know what the Canaanites called the Israelites. So a respectable Israelite wouldn’t even talk to a Canaanite if one came up to them on the street.

But this Canaanite woman came up to Jesus on the street. Strike one. In that culture, women don’t approach men, much less rabbis. Strike two. She cries out to Him. Strike three. Women are not to address men in public. But Jesus is her last hope. She knows who she is; she knows who Jesus is. She’s a Canaanite; He’s an Israelite. She addresses Him with a Jewish title, “Lord, son of David.” Then she prays the same prayer we often pray, “Lord, have mercy on me.”

What would you have expected Jesus to do? I think all of us would have expected Jesus to heal that woman’s daughter. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry. They didn’t have to wait very long for their healing or food. Jesus reached down to Peter while he was sinking on the Galilean Sea. Peter didn’t have to wait until he was going under for the last time before Jesus pulled him into the boat.

But what was Jesus’ response this time?

Nothing. Silence. It’s like Jesus didn’t even hear her. But apparently she made sure He did hear, because the disciples asked Jesus to send her away and put them out of their misery. She kept at it. She wouldn’t give up. Persistence born of desperation.

She shook off the silence and stepped up.

Jesus finally speaks. But He doesn’t really speak to her directly. He just speaks, reminding her of who she is, and who she isn’t. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Ouch! It doesn’t get much harsher than that, does it? Sorry, I’m not here for you. Sorry, you’ll have to go somewhere else.

She shook it off and stepped up.

Actually, she stepped in front of Jesus, knelt down in deepest humility and worshiped Him, pleading, “Lord, help me!” (A simple Kyrie eleison.)

This time Jesus speaks to her directly, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Double ouch! His silence was bad enough. His harsh statement about His being sent only to the lost sheep of Israel was even worse. But this is distressing. Jesus appears cruel, heartless, uncaring, unsympathetic. He calls her “a dog.”

You know what this woman is going through, when it seems as if your prayers are met only with silence and rejection. We pray and pray and pray. We pray for healing; we pray for faith; we pray for peace; we pray for miracles … and you know what? I’ve buried people we’ve prayed for; the problems of some seem to have gotten worse; and others are still waiting and suffering.

We cry out to our Savior because we cannot handle what’s going on in our life – it’s too much, too heavy, too long.

But so often it seems as if God is not listening. Or even worse, that He doesn’t care.

So what do you do when this happens to you? Do you leave in a huff? Do you find another healer, another religion, another Savior? Do you tell Him off to His face? What do you do when Jesus appears to give you the cold shoulder? When He seems to be turning His gaze from you? When He treats you like a dog?

This story hits hard on our sense of entitlement. We feel entitled to things. We like to think of God as an omnipotent vending machine into whom we plug our nickels and dimes of pious phrases and prudish prayers and out pops blessings on demand. We prefer “name it and claim it” theology with Jesus. We think God owes us just for showing up and trying hard. Martin Luther once commented that we easily say that we are poor, miserable sinners. The words come out of our mouths easily enough. But when someone dares to rebuke us for our sin we get all defensive and self-justifying. “How dare you call me a sinner!” Even when God treats us like the sinners that we are, “How dare you ignore my prayers! How dare you turn your face from me! I’m a child; I’m entitled!”

The Canaanite woman didn’t do any of that. Instead she did something utterly remarkable and unpredictable – something that can only be done out of faith. All she did was … admit who she was. A dog. And from that place of humiliation and disgrace, she found the hidden blessing. “Yes, Lord, I may be a dog, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

She shakes it off and steps up. She finds a “yes” inside of His “no.”

If Jesus was feigning to ignore her before and talk past her earlier, now He looks right at her – Master to dog, Brother to sister, Savior to sinner. The next word that comes from Jesus is praise. He loves it. This is music to His ears. Faith talk. Trust speech. “Woman, you have a great faith!” “O woman,” He says. Before He may have used the horrific term “dog,” but now He entrusts her the honorific title of “Woman!” It’s the same title He gave to His mother.

It took awhile, but the dog, battered, humbled and exhausted, stepped triumphantly over the problems and trotted home to see her healed daughter. Each shovelful of rejection or silence or name-calling was really a stepping stone, what she thought would bury her actually benefited her.

If Peter on the stormy sea had little faith, on the road between Tyre and Sidon this woman had great faith. He sank and she knelt. For you see, great faith is not based on proof. It doesn’t know the outcome; it accepts whatever the Lord says and simply clings to Him. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Great faith is simply faith that clings to Jesus. That trusts that He is good even when He does not seem to be acting good. That trusts that He will answer even in the silence. That trusts even when others think that trust is foolish. And in the end, her faith is vindicated. Jesus answered her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

But some daughters are not healed. Neither are some sons. Prayer isn’t like instant oatmeal. Some get put on hold. Some get left on the burner a little longer until they’re ready. But when God puts you on hold, as Jesus put that poor woman on hold, it doesn’t mean He’s abandoned you. It means that God is putting you through the fire of trials and suffering, preparing a perfect and well-timed blessing. It means that your faith is like aerobics that push and pull and stretch and expand your faith and takes it to its limits so that its limits can expand. It means that God is training you to look up and keep your eyes on God, not on your problems. It means that He is putting your faith on display so the world will understand what faith in Jesus looks like. It looks like a little dog lapping up the crumbs falling from the master’s table. And if that comes as a blow to your precious ego … good! Our ego, that old Adam, that sinful nature inside all of us, needs that. We call it repentance, that change from standing up proud to kneeling in humility before God.

What we think will bury us will actually benefit us.

For this is the Master dieing for all of us dogs. Suffering the rejection of His own people. Enduring the silence of His own Father. Buried under the weight of the world’s sins. Bleeding for those who crucified Him. Forgiving those who hated him. Saving all those who will look up at their beaten, bloodied and crucified God and plead, “Lord, have mercy.”

And He continues to have mercy on us, even though we continue to act like dogs, by returning to the vomit of our sins over and over again (2 Peter 2:2).

Fellow dogs, get down on your knees in humility, crush your ego, raise your eyes to heaven and pray, “Lord, have mercy.” Because He is the merciful One – from manger to cross to God’s right hand.

We beg for help. And God wants to help. Even though our prayers seem to be met with silence, rebuke and rejection. Maybe that is exactly the help you need right now. For the Christian life is not a straight shot to heaven, a fast and smooth super-highway. It’s more like lots of twists and turns, bumps and potholes, and road construction – or in other words, kind of like driving around Racine. And it’s humbling and ego-bruising, that we learn not to rely on ourselves, who we are or who we are not, but cling to Jesus alone. Even if that means waiting or crying out into the silence. Your Lord who died for you is good, even when He doesn’t seem to be acting very good at all.

You see, life in the world is life under the cross. It is only under the cross that you are covered with the blood of Christ. Your sins are washed away in His baptismal waters. You are allowed to eat the crumbs of His body and blood at His divine table. You are granted a peace that is beyond all understanding.

There may be times when God is silent now, but if you wait on Him in faith, you will hear the songs of praise for all eternity around His throne. God may appear distant at times, but know that He has already come close by taking on human flesh and blood in His Son. He may seem harsh or cruel at times, but understand that nothing was as harsh or cruel as what He endured so that you might be saved.

So in the end, I guess you could say that the Christian life is a dog’s life. It will never be a life that is the envy of the world. But you know what? Shake it off and step up. A dog never had it so good! Amen.