September 5, 2021      

“We’re All Dawgs”

(James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-30)

(James) My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor.  Is it not the rich who oppress you?  Is it not they who drag you into court?  Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

(Mark) From there (that is, Jesus’ house near the lake) he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice, and a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.  She begged Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.  He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon was gone.        

We had a visit with Laura-Lea and her family and with our granddogs in Dallas while on our little driving vacation a couple of weeks ago.  The dogs, Stanley and Harvey are treasured members of their family, beloved by all, even Mama Lea and Papa Rick.  And then there is Dylan and Kate’s dog, Peaches Bacon, who lives just down the street here.  She’s treated a little more like a dog, but still is popular with everybody.  So, though we do not have pets at this time in our lives, it is interesting for me to observe the different ways that people treat their pets. 

I remember way back some 25 years ago when the kids and I had rescued a beautiful little dysfunctional beagle.  Lucy was her name, and she was driving me nuts because she would not do her business while I had her out on the leash, but the minute we came in and I turned my back, guess what?  I was sharing my frustration one Wednesday morning in Bible Study.  Afterwards Ed Burda took me aside and said, “Now, Lea.  I’m a dog lover, but you have to remember, this is a dog.  It’s not a human.  It’s a dog.”  Somehow that freed me up to not take it all so seriously. 

This all leads me to this morning’s Mark lesson, believe it or not.  So, let’s approach it in the way that Ed would suggest were he here: with a twinkle in our eyes.  I have been speaking about dogs, and, coincidently, so is Jesus.  In the Palestine of Jesus’ time, dogs had absolutely no status.  They were, well…dogs.  It wasn’t like the Egypt of the Pharoahs whose dogs were sacred or like for us today when dogs are often characterized as our best friends.

            As you heard in the reading, this story in the Gospel of Mark has an interesting take on dogs.  So, to remind you, here’s what happened: The Syrophoenician woman—she was a Gentile, someone who was not part of the religious club, meaning she was not a Jew—she came to Jesus, and she bowed down before him.  She begged Jesus to cast out the demon from her poor little daughter. 

Now, you may have been a little shocked by Jesus’ response to the woman’s plea.  He said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Yikes!  This is not really something we want to hear from our Lord and Savior’s lips.  It doesn’t really fit with our usual understanding of Jesus, you know, the guy who walks with us and talks with us and tells us we are his own. 

            I’m talking about our Jesus, who sits and eats with sinners.  Jesus, who gives the Samaritan woman living water.  Jesus, whose parable of the Good Samaritan points out that it was the outsider who understood how to love our neighbor.  Our hero, though, seems to be saying that the woman’s daughter doesn’t deserve to get cared for.

            Well, I don’t know what to say about Jesus’ response, other than to notice this: Jesus’ challenge to the woman elicited an absolute determination from that mother to somehow connect with Jesus so that she could get help for her daughter.  That was her absolute priority.  Jesus’ challenge to her required her to justify her appeal to him on the basis of the distinction between children and dogs. 

            …So…bear with me here.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we really do live in a world where status is a big issue.  People are measured by wealth, class, beauty, color, brains, and athletic ability, to name just a few ways.  You know that this goes on all the time.  We get sorted out by status whether it’s fair or not.  And we sort people out that way too! 

On the other hand, we DO have an expectation that we are going to receive what we’ve worked for.  We expect justice, and we will protest loudly if we’re not treated in what we perceive to be a fair manner.  Though fair treatment is what we should expect in 21st century America, we are learning more and more that it is mostly the privileged class, the moneyed white people, who have mostly received that fairness.

            All this said, this discussion of justice and fairness breaks down when we try to transfer this transactional understanding of relationships directly into how it is with God and us.  How does God view us?  How does God treat us?  How does God decide who’s in or out of God’s care?  When we ask these questions, we begin to let our humanness take over.  We get competitive.  We begin to talk like we know who’s within God’s love and who isn’t. 

Further, it puts us in the untenable position of attempting to do the impossible, that is, attempting to qualify for God’s love through our works and behavior.  We start to fool ourselves into thinking that we can actually do something to deserve God’s love. 

            Well, the Syrophoenician woman understood the folly of this kind of thinking quite well.  Her brilliant answer to Jesus showed that, in that moment, she was completely depending upon God’s grace.  Her response to Jesus’ comment about dogs was this: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  This indicated that she was free of any illusions she may have had about her status because of the overwhelming fact of her need.  She was certain that in Jesus there was help for her daughter who had nothing going for her but her desperate need. 

Truly, the only thing that qualified the mother and the daughter for the help they were seeking was the profound need of this child to be free of the demon possession.  The Syrophoenician woman’s confession of need opened her life to the help Jesus offered and established a relationship to him which transcended all barriers.

The categories that have been used (that is, children and dogs) to illustrate this all-important lesson only heighten the fact that in the Jesus House there are no distinctions.  It’s not set up so that only the big pieces are for the children and the measly crumbs are for dogs.  No….

The bread is for everyone, and the thing is, maybe the most important lesson here is, we…are all dogs.  We are all walking around under the table needing, wanting God’s love, totally undeserving, yet still existing only by being recipients of God’s grace, by the grace of God. 

There is no first place in the Jesus House.  There is no front of the Kingdom of God bus.  There is no top tier in the Kingdom pay scale.  The truth is, the reality of our relationship with God is that we are all in need of God’s love and forgiveness, and we are all objects of God’s care….  We are all dogs in need….

            This whole conversation should remind us of the reading from the Book of James because it demands that we examine our own minds and behaviors.  James confronts us with this, “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand way over there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made a distinction?’”  Further on, James says, “If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

            Don’t forget this, folks.  James says, rightly, “We are not to show partiality.  Because, why??  “We are all dogs.”  We are all on the same level, we are all sinners, we are all in need of God’s forgiveness, all in need of grace.  God shows no partiality, nor should we.

            I’m reminded of the hymn, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.  All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them (us) all.”  We are all creatures, we are God-made, and still in need of God’s guidance and discipline and surely God’s forgiveness and grace.  Once we understand this, that we cannot do anything to deserve God’s grace, we will be more inclined to come closer to God, closer to Jesus, so that we can be present for all the ways that God’s love is revealed—even in a conversation about dogs….