Preached by Alan Jenkins on Sunday 16 August 2020: Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand a short stand-alone scripture reading without getting some idea of the background, the context, and we could do with a bit of help to ‘get it’ and appreciate the message. So, in this morning’s Gospel, for instance, what was Jesus on about when he spoke about the dogs? In the context of the woman’s request for help for her sick daughter it seems insulting, especially when we realise that ‘dog’ could mean a shameless and audacious woman, or a Jewish term of contempt to describe Gentiles, and in nearly every example of the use of the word it would come across as an insult.
But Greek scholars will tell us tell us that the word that Jesus originally used for dog was the diminutive that really described a lap-dog or pet, rather than some wild street dog, and so the way in which Jesus spoke takes the sting out of a narrative that might be otherwise difficult to comprehend. Jesus’s use of everyday expressions with colloquial meanings or definitions, acknowledged the language of the time, by comparing ‘children’ as the Jews, with ‘dogs’ as Gentiles, and this of course in a Gentile territory.
The whole conversation between Jesus and the woman raises a number of implications, with the woman actually daring to stand her ground, an action which earned her the mantle of faith so that her daughter could be healed. And Jesus acknowledged that the children must be fed first, but conceded that there would be food for the pets, for others still to come.
And so it is with the Gospel: Israel, or God’s chosen ones, might have had the first offer of its good news and teaching but Jesus always acknowledged the needs of others. He went out of his way to deal with minorities, to meet with others who did not have acceptance within the contemporary society, he ate with sinners, he touched the unclean, both ritually and medically. In all his ministry, teaching and healing, Jesus made himself available to all, encouraging debate and argument from different traditions and viewpoints.
So this encounter, with its face-value repartee and unexpected language, upholds emotions of gratitude, equality, inclusiveness and opportunism, and teaches us that all can approach Jesus.
That is the underlying theme we can take from this account, – being able to approach Jesus, and the woman in the Gospel story was certainly able to do that, and ready to stand her ground in her conversation with Jesus. Today, approaching Jesus, having a dialogue or conversation with him, is always available through prayer, and this week’s Collect encourages us to have confidence that our prayers will be heard. One version of the Collect reminds us that Jesus taught his disciples to be persistent in prayer, and that is a lesson that we, too, should learn, as we turn to him amid the troubles of our present times.
So the Gospels tell us that prayer provides us with foundation for our ministry of outreach today, – to share that Gospel message with all who would ask for it, all who would even ask for the crumbs.
We have this as our duty as a witnessing community of faith in our neighbourhood, and in the world. We are members of the body of Christ, who are welcoming to others and prepared to share what we have. And our prayer life, our ability to speak to Jesus, is an important preparation for our ongoing mission as heralds for Christ. Amen