My Savior was a dog like me – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15 – August 20, 2023

Preacher: Rev. Phil Schmidt

The Gospel Matthew 15: 21-28    

“My Savior was a dog like me”

In the year 1979 a movie was produced with the title: “Jesus”. It was based on the gospel of Luke and stuck closely to the Biblical text. For the role of Jesus 900 candidates were screen tested. A handsome British Shakespearean actor by the name of Brian Deacon was chosen. This movie has been used as a missionary tool by the so-called “Jesus Film Project”, which distributes the movie for free world-wide. By the end of 2018, it had been translated into 1,724 languages and viewed 375 million times. According to the Guinness Book of World Records it is the “Most Translated Film” in history. The leaders of the Jesus Film Project hope that this movie will make Jesus accessible and understandable to all sorts of people all over the world, presenting Jesus in such a way that viewers will feel attracted to him. I have used this movie in religious instruction, hoping that it would help initiate discussion among young people, so I have seen this movie several times.

The Jesus of this movie is a good-looking person. He is likable, dignified, friendly, compassionate, wise, gentle, unflappable and obviously incorruptible. He never “loses his cool”; he is always in control of every situation. He is serious-minded, but not stiff. He is deep and other-worldly. This is not the type of person who would do something frivolous, like lie on a couch, eating popcorn and watching a football game on TV, nor would he spend an evening playing a card game with his buddies. Being the Son of God is obviously a full-time job.

Every viewer of this movie will find something in this Jesus which he or she can admire and relate to. And that is the problem with Jesus-movies: they convey a Jesus, upon whom we can project whatever we happen to value and admire. Just about every Jesus movie could be summed up by saying: Isn’t he just a wonderful person! In movies Jesus is presented as the ultimate superstar!

A theologian by the name of Robert Short addressed this situation:

The nominal Christian pays homage to something about Jesus, rather than worshiping the man himself. For this reason, nominal Christians will extol the moral teachings of Jesus, the faith of Jesus, the personality of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus, the world view of Jesus, the self-understanding of Jesus, etc. None of these worships Jesus as the Christ, but only something about him, something peripheral to the actual flesh-and-blood man. This is why when the almighty God came into the world in Jesus, he came as the lowest of the low, as weakness itself, as a complete and utter nothing, in order that men would be forced into the crucial decision about him alone and would not be able to worship anything about him.

Along this line, Isaiah had a vision of a suffering servant, whom Christianity has identified with Jesus:

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

This description of the suffering servant was fulfilled by Jesus on the cross. Correspondingly, the apostle Paul did not proclaim what a wonderful person Jesus was, but resolved to limit his preaching to “Christ crucified”, whom he referred to as “low and despised in the world”.

We now have a context to look at today’s gospel reading. As we heard in the reading:

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all.

That Jesus should ignore a person crying out for help, does not fit into his Hollywood image. How could Jesus refuse to even acknowledge this desperate woman? How could he give her the silent treatment?  At this moment, Jesus is a nothing: he has nothing to say, nothing to offer, there is nothing attractive about him.

Jesus’ disciples were so unnerved by the sounds that this woman was making, that they said to him, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” This translation is too mild. She was not merely shouting, she was screaming or screeching. The Greek word which Matthew uses is “kradzo”, which is derived from the rasping, croaking sound that a Raven makes. This word is also used in the Bible to describe the braying of a donkey. In other words, it describes a type of screaming which sounds inhuman.

When Jesus finally breaks his silence, he sounds like a bureaucrat: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. This is like calling up a city administrator and hearing: “You’ve got the wrong office; I am not responsible for your problem.”

The Canaanite woman did not let this administrative attitude discourage her. She prostrated herself before Jesus, throwing herself on the ground face downwards. This body language proclaims:  I am completely at your mercy. I am utterly dependent upon your grace. Without you I am nothing.  She then repeated her prayer, “Lord help me.”

The response of Jesus to this pleading might be one of the most bizarre moments in the Bible. Jesus said: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” At this moment, Jesus appeared to be not only cold-hearted; he sounded like a chauvinist, insulting a foreign woman by comparing her to a dog.

Dogs in the Biblical world were wild scavengers. They roamed in packs, hunting for scraps of food. They lived on the garbage which was dumped outside of city walls. In the New Testament “dogs” is a synonym for evildoers, for sorcerers, for the sexually immoral, for murderers and idolaters. There is possibly no greater insult at the time of Jesus than to be called a dog.

However, there are two types of dogs in the Bible. The word for a grown-up “dog” occurs 34 times. A second word for dog occurs only in one situation: namely in this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite.  The word which Jesus used refers to small dogs or puppies, which could be house pets. Jesus seems to be testing this woman, seeing how she would respond to this imagery of a house pet, sitting below a table, waiting for scraps of food to fall. The Canaanite woman responded to this image by saying: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Jesus praised this woman for her great faith and healed her daughter.  The readiness of this woman to let herself be compared to a dog is a sign that she understood and accepted her utter dependence upon the grace of God. 

This Canaanite woman represents all of us. We are all in the same position as this woman. Before God we are all like puppies, in the sense that we are completely dependent. We have no claim to anything which God has to offer. We have to wait like begging dogs for handouts of grace. Accordingly, at one time in the early church it was customary to lick the communion bread like a dog: There is a quote from the year 337 regarding this Eucharistic practice: “When they receive His body…they lick it with their tongues, as a dog would lick his owner”.

However, Jesus himself was like this Canaanite woman.  According to Matthew, the last sound which Jesus made in his earthly life as he died on the cross was transcribed with the Greek word “kradzo”, the same inhuman screeching which this Canaanite woman made when she asked Jesus to have mercy on her. In his final moment, Jesus was like all of us: completely dependent upon scraps of grace which fall from God’s table.

And that is why the gospels do not attempt to describe the personality or the appearance of Jesus. Was he good looking? Did he have a pleasant smile? Was his voice deep or high-pitched? Did he trim his beard? Did he have any athletic abilities? Did he ever wear stylish clothing? Did he ever feel bored or cranky? What was his favorite food? Aside from private prayer on high mountain tops, what did he do to relax?  

If you are an actor who is playing the role of Jesus, the gospels offer you nothing. Whatever an actor might portrait in a Jesus movie, it can never be based upon the Bible, but is a reflection of what contemporary society admires and values. For this reason, the Danish theologian and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard wrote:

If I had only one word to say, and if the power were given me to say that single word, that single phrase in such a fashion that it would remain fixed and unforgettable – my choice is made; I know what I would say: “Our Lord Jesus Christ was nothing, oh, remember this, Christendom.”

When God became man in Jesus, he assumed our nothingness. An early Christian hymn, recorded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians says of Jesus:

“He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Along the same line, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about God’s incarnation in Jesus:

God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.

The Canaanite woman experienced this nothingness of Jesus. He offered her no kindness or sympathy. He made it clear to her that she had no claims on him or on God. With his role playing, Jesus conveyed to her the message, “Picture yourself as a small dog sitting below the table of a family to which you do not belong. You have no right to be there and you should therefore expect nothing.”

But this imagery of a dog waiting for handouts to which it is not entitled is the role which Jesus assumed on our behalf. An Afro-American woman in a small church on Chicago’s West Side is quoted as saying: “I thank my God that my Savior was a dog like me. He was nothing and I’m nothing and that’s how we got together.”

As Christians, we receive scraps of grace when we celebrate the Eucharist. The communion host and the sip of wine are the crumbs which fall from the table for us. They unite us to Jesus in his nothingness, as revealed on the cross. But these crumbs of grace bind us to the glory of the resurrected Christ. In the nothingness of Jesus, we have everything, today and in eternity. As Paul wrote: “Everything belongs to you…whether the world, or life and death, or the present and the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” (1. Cor. 3: 21 – 23 (NLT)