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Going to the dogs

Rev. Harry Currie

Aug 20, 2023

Genesis 45:1-15, Matthew 15: 10-28

It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog.


      Working like a dog. What does that mean? Most dogs I know don’t work. They are pampered.

      There are dogs who work. There are guide dogs and service dogs and cadaver dogs and sniffer dogs at the airport. There are police dogs and there are cattle dogs and sheep dogs…etc.

      When I was a volunteer chaplain with the RCMP in Yorkton Saskatchewan, I participated in a training exercise one time, and the police dog tracked me. The dog handler asked if I wanted to put on a big padded sleeve so that dog could grab the sleeve and bring me down. I politely declined that part of the training.

      Another time at the airport, a sniffer dog got excited at a lady’s luggage. The customs officer asked if she was bringing food into the country. She said no, but when the border guard opened up the luggage there was half a sandwich that the lady had bought on the plane.

      Moral of the story is eat all your food on the plane if you don’t want to be a smuggler, when you travel internationally.

      But working like a dog. It could mean you are working hard, or maybe it means you are working in a demeaning job.


      Or how about dog-tired. I don’t know. Do dogs get more tired than humans? or when they get tired do they look super-exhausted….?


      Or what about dog-eat-dog world. We know it means cutthroat competition. It means that people can be mean to one another to get what they want.

      But is that what dogs are like? Dogs generally don’t eat other dogs.


      Or sick as a dog. It seems to me that most dogs are healthier than people. It is not fun when dogs get sick,  because they don’t run to the bathroom and be sick in the toilet, they just are sick wherever they are….


But are you noticing a pattern. Idioms about dogs that put dogs in a bad light.


      How about... this world is going to the dogs. That things are substandard, or shoddy or things are deteriorating badly. Supposedly this comes out of China where dogs lived wild outside the city, eating garbage and scavenging. So gone to the dogs, meant the lowest of the low.


      Dogs were used as metaphor for things going bad, and dogs again were seen in a bad light.


Or how about this one… ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 


      What is bad about this one is that not only dogs considered bad, but a particular people are likened to bad dogs….The Canaanites.


      It is one of many strange and interesting sayings of Jesus. It seems on the face of it to be a racial slur.


      This happened when Jesus was on the east side of the sea of Galilee in Gentile country.

      For many years the stories of Jesus, his preaching, healing, miracles and the like, were stories I heard, read and preached, but for most of them did not think of the place where they happened.

      A chapter earlier Jesus feeds the five thousand in Jewish territory on the west side of the Sea of Galilee and 12 baskets of leftovers are taken up. And commentators say that this is representative of the 12 tribes of Israel… and that Jesus is reconstituting the nation of Israel, to use a metaphor from John’s gospel, changing the water of Jewish legalism to the wine of grace.

      But now Jesus has crossed over to Gentile territory, so it is no surprise that a Gentile woman wants a miracle. She wants Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter.


      And the disciples are not very kind at all. Get rid of her, they urge. Send her away.


      Now remember as a Gentile she is considered unclean. As a woman a Jewish man would not speak to her in public.

      And she is a Canaanite. A former enemy of Israel.


And Jesus likens the Canaanites to dogs. Doesn’t sound like Jesus. Like one of my professors of theology used to say. We have to unpack this.


But treating people of other races and cultures like dogs is something many races and cultures have done over the years.

      The Jews considered all Gentiles unclean and would not eat with them.

      Our Old Testament passage today is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them for selling him into slavery.

      He suggests that it was all God’s will. It is a remarkable story of forgiveness, a foreshadowing of Jesus on the cross saying “Father forgive them.”


      But if you go back a couple of chapters in Genesis to where Joseph is still unknown to his brothers, and he invites them to dinner, you will read that the servants served Joseph by himself, the brothers by themselves and the Egyptians by themselves, because the Egyptians would not eat with the Hebrews, because that would be an abomination to the Egyptians.

      The Egyptians treated the Hebrews like dogs. Like lower humans, even like abominations.


      That sadly has not just been Jews and Gentiles, or Egyptians and Hebrews, but that has been a sad history of humans, treating others as dogs, as less than…

      Women, children, Asians, blacks, aboriginals, those with mental or physical disabilities, those of other faiths or religions…, the lgbtq+ community and on and on it goes.


So according to Matthew’s gospel Jesus likens the Canaanite woman and Canaanites to dogs.


But what is also interesting is the term Canaanite.


Interesting choice of words… to call her a Canaanite. At the time of Jesus there is no nation of Canaan anymore. It had been gone well over a thousand years.


      You might remember that the land of Canaan was the land that Joshua invaded. It was the promised land, and the Israelites crossed the Jordan and invaded Canaan and basically wiped out the Canaanites and it back the nation of Israel.

      And according to the bible, the Israelites showed no mercy to the Canaanites.

I quote Deuteronomy 7:1-2

      When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you — and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. (Deut 7:1-2)


      The Israelites wiped out seven Canaanite nations and basically destroyed them. Remember for later, there are seven nations. There was no Canaan left. And yet 1400 years later Jesus calls this woman a Canaanite.


      It is similar to calling a person from Sweden or Norway or Denmark a Viking.

      The Vikings existed a thousand years ago.


      In Mark’s gospel the women is called more acceptably and more accurately, a gentile of Syrophoenician origin.

      So, what did Jesus originally call her? Did Jesus call her a Canaanite or is that Matthew’s editing?


And why is it important? We will get to that, but first the context of the story.


      Well, this story is set in a context. The immediate passage that comes before it is a mini sermon by Jesus about what is clean and unclean.


      There is a Jewish tradition about washing that goes back thousands of years.

      And while washing the hands seems like a very hygienic and clean thing to do especially before meals, the Jewish washing of hands was symbolic and had more to do with inner cleanliness and more to do with separateness and holiness than it did with germs.

      In fact, Doctors really didn’t start washing their hands until the mid 19th century. There was no understanding of germs two thousand years ago.

      The Jewish rituals of handwashing were often done in the morning and before and after meals and washing is a loose term. Water is poured on each hand twice. No soap. Water is poured. Sometimes with a prayer.


      And it was a custom in Jesus’ day that the rich could afford, and so it was probably not something everyone did. The average person wasn’t ceremonially washing their hands. It was something the Pharisees and the devout rich did.


      And when the Pharisees criticized the disciples for not washing their hands Jesus pointed out some of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. He then goes on to say that real cleanliness is about what is in a person’s heart. It is not about the food ones eats and the symbols one performs, it is about the things people say and do from their heart.


      That is the context of the story of the Canaanite Woman. She is a woman and in Jesus’ day not considered as much value as a man. She is a Gentile and therefore she is considered unclean.

      And to top it off the was one of the Canaanites, one of the enemies whom the Jews had been told to destroy and show no mercy. Therefore, her status is as low as a dog’s status, which wasn’t very high. No doggy spas in Jesus’ day.


      And yet, Jesus takes the time to stop, to talk to her, to listen to her, to treat her with kindness, even though the words he says sound very harsh.

      She is called a Canaanite, a derogatory term. The disciples want to tell her to get lost.


And here is the exchange


       Jesus…‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 

       25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 

       Jesus…  ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 

       The woman…  ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 

 Jesus… ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.


      Some think that Jesus was testing the woman for her faith, and said things that weren’t overly appropriate in order to see what her faith really was.


      Some scholars now argue that Jesus was still figuring out his mission and that the woman converted Jesus into a broadening of his mission…They say that Jesus initially was only reaching Jewish people, but that mission broadened, as this woman taught him compassion for others.


      Some think that Jesus was human and made a mistake and was corrected by the Syrophoenician woman, and therefore we need to listen to those of different cultures and faiths and learn from them. Jesus the teacher was taught.


      Personally, I think Jesus knew what his mission was all along, and that it was to all people…


      I think Jesus is hardly ever bested in a debate with others, even by the best lawyers, scribes, pharisees, priests, High priest or Procurator.


      How does this woman seem to best him?

I think it is because Jesus deliberately loses to the woman. Jesus sets himself up to be bested by the one whom society thought was a low as a dog. Jesus loses to her ooon purpose so her status will be raised to that of equal.


      1400 years earlier, the Jews went into Canaanite territory and basically wiped out the Canaanites. The bested them. They won. They showed no mercy.


      And now Jesus comes into Gentile territory and meets a Canaanite and deliberately loses.

      Because that is how Jesus wins. He wins by showing mercy and grace and being loving. He wins be being a servant and being obedient unto death.

      He wins by taking up a cross and losing. Losing his life.


He lets the Canaanite woman win to show that it isn’t really about winning and losing it is about what is in one’s heart and it is about loving.


      You know Jesus fed the five thousand in Jewish territory, there were 12 baskets of left, to represent the 12 tribes and a new constitution of faith for the Jewish people under Jesus. From law to grace.


      Then right after meeting this Canaanite woman, Jesus in Gentile territory feeds four thousand and there are seven baskets left over. Remember there were seven Canaanite tribes. Do those seven baskets of leftovers represent the seven Canaanite tribes that the Jews destroyed?


      Is Jesus doing a new conquest of Canaan. A conquest where you win by losing, where you win by loving, where you win by including, where you win by serving, where you win by taking up a cross, where you win by losing your life for others….

      Where you win not by defeating the enemy but by loving your enemy and realizing that they are your brother and your sister.


      Maybe we need to realize that the people we consider the dogs of this world have a place at the table and that Jesus loves them.


      Maybe we need to think about how we can lose so all people can win.


      I am blown away by the words of Joseph:


And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 

      Could I reach out to those who have hurt me, mistreated me, forced me out of my home, and say:

      Do not be distressed, this was God’s doing.


      And yet my experience has been that the worst things that have happened to me in my life, were also in some ways some of the best things to make me a better husband, a better father, a better minister, a better human.


      My losses mostly ended up with God working out things for good.


      I don’t know about you and your story.

There may have been times you were treated like a dog, and looked down upon.


      There may have been times when you went to the dogs and treated other as less than human.


      Maybe, however you can look at your life and see those people in your life who deliberately lost so that you can win.

      I think of my mother and the sacrifices she made, the losses she took, so that her boys would have a good life.


      I know others sacrificed on my behalf for which I am grateful.


      So, is it possible that instead of treating people like dogs, we could lose so that others could win equality and justice and love and compassion and status and friendship?


      I do want to end the sermon by putting in a good word for dogs, whom I think are often very loving, very non-judgemental, very faithful and very loyal.  I found this quote on the internet.

      A dog is the only thing on earth that will love you more than its own self.


      This year has been a bad year for fires, so I tell again a story I told a few years back about some dogs.


Six years ago in the summer of 2017 when B. C was going through a terrible wildfire season, which seems to be every year lately, a family near 100 Mile House had a sheep ranch, and they were evacuated.

They were evacuated and had to leave a flock of 90 sheep behind.

Two sheepdogs stayed with the flock, and the family didn’t know if they would ever see the flock or dogs again.

The family was gone for twenty days, and when they came back the flock was safe and the two sheep dogs Sophie and Tad were standing guard. Those dogs did not run to safety or abandon the sheep. Those dogs risked their lives for the sheep. Those dogs must have led those sheep all around away from the fires, because all the houses around were burned down. (


      Those dogs are a picture of the good shepherd who is willing to lose, so that we win the love and grace of God.


So, if we going to the dogs, I know what kind of dog I want to be like… like those sheepdogs. Amen.

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