Speaker: Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
“GONE TO THE DOGS”
Pentecost 16 B
September 9, 2018
Christ Lutheran Church
Rev. Dr. Steven E. Albertin
I remember some years ago driving through an old neighborhood where I used to live in St. Louis. It had changed. When I lived there, the modest homes were neat and clean. The lawns were trimmed and manicured. The neighbors smiled and greeted one another. Now the homes were crumbling. The lawns were infested with weeds. There were only a few people on the street. There were no smiles or greetings. They simple stared at me as if I was some unwanted intruder. I felt like the neighborhood had “gone to the dogs.”
I still remember seeing him at the class reunion. He was unrecognizable. Grossly overweight with disheveled hair and wrinkled clothing, I wondered what had happened to someone I thought was one of the brightest guys in the class. His life had “gone to the dogs.”
He sat in my office staring at the floor. He had just told me about his ugly marital break-up. “Pastor, I can’t believe what has happened. I had everything, but now . . . my life has ‘gone to the dogs.’”
“Gone to the dogs.” It is what we say when someone’s life has fallen apart.
The phrase probably originated in ancient China where dogs were not cute pets but disgusting creatures kept outside the walls of cities. There the dogs roamed living off the rubbish tossed over the walls by its residents. Likewise, social outcasts and criminals were expelled from cities and like the dogs had to scavenge the rubbish for food. It was said that for such people their lives had “gone to the dogs.”
That is why Jesus’ behavior in today’s Gospel is so disturbing. We prefer to think of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, full of love and compassion for everyone. Then we see how Jesus treats this Syrophoenecian woman whose life had literally . . . . “gone to the dogs.” Instead of treating her with sympathy and compassion, Jesus insults her.
Jesus had been living at an exhausting pace. He had been moving from town to town preaching, teaching, healing the sick and even raising the dead. Crowds had been following him as if he was some sort celebrity. Finally, Jesus has to get away from it all. He leaves Jewish territory to “hide” in the non-Jewish, gentile region of Tyre. Maybe there no one would know him. Maybe there he could hide in anonymity. However, even in this “foreign” territory he could not escape his reputation.
This unnamed gentile woman literally accosts Jesus. She was desperate. Her life had “gone to the dogs.” She has no hope and little future. There is no mention of a husband or family. She is alone . . . but for a daughter who is sick, very sick, so sick that her life was no longer even hers. Mark says that she was possessed by an unclean spirit, a demon.
Nevertheless, she had heard about Jesus and that he was different. He welcomed outsiders. He was a friend of those who had little worth and even less social standing. Therefore, she dares to believe that Jesus can help her and begs Jesus to cast the unclean spirit out of her daughter.
Jesus responds with words that will never be memorized by children in Sunday School. With disgust and disdain, Jesus says to this upstart foreigner, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to . . . the dogs.” Remember, in Jesus’ world, dogs were not cuddly pets. Dogs were disgusting scavengers with which no decent person would ever want to associate. These are not words of sensitivity and compassion. This is an insult and put-down. Jesus reminded her that she was nobody, a gentile, a Syrophoenecian, who had no place at the table or inside the city of God’s people. She did not belong. She was just another dog.
Why Jesus would treat her like this? Was Jesus just testing the strength of her faith? Was Jesus still unsure of the scope of his mission? Should he should include gentiles who were not Jews and had not been invited to the table? Did God use this woman help Jesus “grow” his understanding of his mission and who could be included? Was this an example of Jesus struggling with his own humanity, seeking to come to terms with just how wide and how inclusive God’s kingdom could be?
It could be any or all of these. Whatever the case, this woman stands for all of us who have ever felt that our lives have “gone to the dogs.” When our lives are falling apart, when the one we promised to love “for better or for worse, in sickness and health, until death do us part suddenly” says “I am leaving you,” when we get that cell phone call at 3 a.m. (no good news ever comes at that time of the night), when we are told that we no longer have the job that we thought was our dream job, when we are left out and uninvited to the party to which everyone else is going except us, when we feel that no one understands us and our pain, . . . we are there with the Syrophoenecian woman, desperately begging for help.
When Jesus insulted her, it must have been like a wrenching punch to the gut. Here, the very one whom she trusted, has rejected here. Jesus seems cold, indifferent, and even hostile. She could have given up. She could have begun to doubt and question herself. Maybe she really was unworthy and undeserving. Maybe there was some deep, dark sin in her past of which Jesus knew, of which she had conveniently forgotten and of which she should be ashamed? Maybe she was no better than a dog.
We have all been there with her. We have all been haunted by the same doubts and fears when our life was going south. We cannot be sure that we do not deserve this fate. Maybe our life has gone to the dogs for a good reason . . . . and we have been too proud and too self-satisfied to realize it . . . . until the roof falls in and the life we had so carefully planned crumbles. This unnamed woman stands for all of us. When the love of our life is possessed by a demon, some kind of evil or some sickness out of our control, all we can do is beg. All we can do is cry for help.
That is what the Syrophoenecian woman does. She will not give up. Tenaciously she clings to the hope that she had glimpsed in Jesus. Her response to Jesus’ insult is an amazing expression of faith. She does not dispute her helpless status. She knows that her life has gone to the dogs and she has no leg to stand on. Nevertheless, she believes, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that Jesus will be merciful to her.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Maybe she had heard that Jesus miraculously multiplied a few fish and loaves of bread, fed a crowd of over 5000 and there were still 12 baskets of crumbs leftover, more than enough to feed even those who were no better than dogs. Maybe she had heard of Jesus raising from the dead the daughter of Jairus or Jesus driving an unclean spirit out of that poor naked person in the region of the Gerasenes or that woman who had been bleeding for ten years, who just touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed. Whatever the case, the promise of Jesus and the hope he represented, had touched her heart. She believed; even in the face of Jesus own criticism, that even dogs, even a loser and sinner like her, had a place at Jesus’ table.
Jesus would not let such faith go to waste. It is precisely for such people that he has come. His whole life was about loving such losers in the name of God. Jesus came to give his life for the dogs.
This woman sounds a lot like Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. She sounds a lot like Moses arguing with God over the fate of the Israelites after God was about to give up on them after God had delivered them from bondage in Egypt. She sounds like King David pleading for mercy in Psalm 51 after Nathan had confronted him with his sin with Bathsheba. She sounds like us coming here on a Sunday morning, confessing our sin and daring to believe that God will forgive us. Repeatedly, God’s people have dared to believe in God’s merciful heart even in the face of God’s own anger. Like so many before her, the faith of this woman would not be disappointed. Jesus heals her daughter and frees her from the grip of the unclean spirit.
Jesus continued to defy social expectation and religious convention by eating and drinking with sinners and outcasts . . . . all the way to the cross. There Jesus’ life reaches its dramatic climax. There on the cross even Jesus’ life “goes to the dogs.” There even he acknowledges that he is no better than a dog, dying outside the city walls at the place of the skull, Golgotha in a garbage dump, where the dogs scavenge. That is what love does. Loves goes all the way . . . even to death on a cross.
The marvel in all of this is that such love is at the heart of what God was always doing through Jesus. Therefore, on the “third day” God raised Jesus from the dead. God’s love did not run out of gas. There will be plenty of crumbs left over, even more than 12 baskets full, enough to feed the world and even those whose lives have “gone to the dogs.”
Do you feel that your life as “gone to the dogs?” Do you feel forgotten and ignored, betrayed and humiliated? Do you feel desperate, hopeless and disappointed by what you thought you could count on? It is just for people like you and me, for all of us whose lives have “gone to the dogs,” that Jesus has something to say: You are always welcome at my table.”