That first text Jane read for us seemed a bit harsh, didn’t it? Jesus appears to refuse the pleas of the Canaanite woman to help heal her daughter, saying: It's not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs. The woman says: Yes, but even dogs eat crumbs that fall from their master's table. What on earth is going on in and under those words?
I'm guessing even those of you with favorite animal friends were shocked to hear Jesus refer to this woman as a dog. And I'm afraid it may be worse than you think. Jews in Jesus' day don't seem to have kept dogs as pets; the biblical writers were unfamiliar with the kind of warm relationship that many of us have come to know between dogs and their people. Dogs were generally of the scavenger sort, haunting the streets and dumps; they were considered to be unclean, and 'dog' was apparently used as a term of contempt. The implication, then, is that the people whom Jesus normally heals are 'children' and this Gentile woman and her daughter are 'dogs', subhuman and therefore unworthy of his concern. All of which only leaves us with more questions than answers: Why was Jesus silent to the woman's pleas for help when she begged him to heal her daughter? Why does he then seem to insult her by calling her a dog? Those of us who’ve read and heard lots of stories from the gospels know this does NOT sound like the Jesus we know. The Jesus we know ministered to a Samaritan woman at the well and healed the son of a Roman centurion. So it's hard to know what to make of this text.
As you might imagine, any number of interpretations have been proposed to make sense of the story. For my part, I wonder if Jesus was setting up his audience, seeminglyplaying into the xenophobic or chauvinistic attitudes of his day, seeminglyindicating others had a right to exclude this Gentile woman, but only to give her an opportunity to make a powerful point in her own words. I like to think Jesus had a twinkle in his eye here, teasing his disciples along a little, setting the volleyball up so this Canaanite woman could spike it with her telling reply: “Surely even dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.” Whatever our interpretation, it’s clear she understands what others in the story miss -- that food from God’s table is intended for everyone, even those despised and mistreated by others. In this midst of this strange gospel episode, she proclaims a profound truth about the kingdom of God.
For what isthe kingdom of God supposed to look like? Elsewhere in Matthew's gospel it's likened to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. When those he first invited refused to come, he sent his servants out into the streets to gather everyone they found and bring them in to share the feast. (Matt 22:1-10) The kingdom is also foreshadowed in that other story we read today from Matthew’s gospel, about Jesus taking five loaves and two fish and managing to fill the bellies of well over five thousand people. Jesus didn't check anyone's credentials before he made supper that night; the all-you-can-eat buffet, as a sign of God's kingdom, was free and open to all. Interestingly, Matthew tells a very similar story a chapter later too. Clearly he felt it was important for us to understand the way God’s abundance worked, in feeding these great multitudes of people. And in Luke's gospel we read that in the last days people will come from east and west and from north and south, and will eat together in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:29-30)
The symbolism is rich, isn't it? We're all invited to sit at God's table, to share the bread of life. But in the present kingdom, our table manners could seriously stand some improvement. We argue over who is worthy to pull up a chair. Sometimes our remarks at the dinner table are hurtful to others, or not exactly the kind of thing we’d want Jesus to overhear. Sometimes we forget that all are invited, and are reluctant to share even a few table scraps, even the crumbs that fall from our plates, with those who ask them of us.
Oh, but in the kingdom to come. . . There the laughter of dinner conversation will be pure and kind. There no one will be left out or will go hungry, no one will have to beg for a few table scraps, for everyone will be seated side by side and all served equally. For then we will have learned the true meaning of the kingdom of God, and our host will see to it that our table manners are impeccable.
The earthly kingdom is just a lens, a window through which we can catch a little glimpse of the heavenly kingdom. What we see is the 'now'; we see the 'not yet' only dimly. So naturally our view will be a bit distorted. Here and now we won't always get it right. But isn't it still a glorious vision? All God’s children, men and women, young and old, from every tribe on earth, sitting down together to share a meal. An abundance of food. A banquet like none other we've ever seen.
It’s that vision that excites me when I think about our congregation “Sharing the Bread of Life,” which was our theme at our annual officers’ retreat here at church, and a theme we’re hoping can inform much of what we do together as a church family this year.
Next week we’ll have an opportunity to “Share the Bread of Life” in two quite tangible ways. First, we’ll break bread together around the Lord’s Table when we celebrate communion with our friends from the Hungarian church that shares our facility. Then, after worship, we’ll head downstairs to build sandwiches for our friends at Tent City 5.
And when we say sandwiches, we mean SANDWICHES. I love the way our Operation Nightwatch team thinks, when it comes to food preparation for those they serve once a month downtown. They’re not interested in offering a littlesomething to eat. They’re all about quality and quantity. It’s a feastthey put together each month! We want to do the same with our sandwiches for Tent City 5. This isn’t about crumbs or table scraps. We want to demonstrate, as generously as we can, that there is plenty of bread for all in the abundance of God’s kingdom. We also want to package up a little love with the sandwiches we build, so the kids will draw pictures and write message on the lunch bags they’ll be delivered in; they’ll do that during their Sunday School time next week before returning to join us around the Lord’s Table for communion.
The witness of the Scriptures is clear. God’s kingdom banquet is intended for everyone. There isn’t a person on this planet who isn’t worthy of an invitation to the feast. There isn’t a soul on earth who isn’t welcome around God’s table. And God provides. For our part, we’re simply called to sharethe bread God provides, never hoarding for ourselves, or making anyone feel unworthy of being included. Let’s not put anyone in the position of having to fight for their place at the table the way that Canaanite woman did in the first text we read today.
I hope you can join us as we “Share the Bread of Life” next week, both here in worship and downstairs as we build sandwiches in fellowship hall. And incidentally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the more we share, the more we’ll find we have available to share. For the God overseeing our sandwich operation is the same God who rained down bread from heaven for the children of Israel in the wilderness, the same God to whom we regularly pray for our daily bread, the same God who in Jesus fed a huge crowd with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish – and not only were they fed, there was a whole lot left over!
One of my favorite biblical prayers, from the book of Ephesians, ends with these words: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”
We might startnext week with the relatively simple task of sandwich building, and with our welcome at the Lord’s Table extended to just a few new friends. But there’s no telling where that might lead us. We could end up being blown away by what God is able to accomplish if we continue offering him our willing hearts and hands, and if we keep looking for ways to “Share the Bread of Life” in his name.
Who knows how our generosity and welcome might be multiplied by God. But if today’s gospel texts are any indication, I suspect we’ll find the table’s big enough for everyone, and loaves abound!