August 20, 2017
"It is not fair to take children's food and throw it to the dogs."
By “children,” Jesus means his fellow Jews. “Dogs” means everybody else. “Children's food” is laughter for those whose normal diet was tears: eyesight for the blind, wine in casks which had been full of water, and movement in paralyzed arms and legs. Children’s food was happiness for Israel and it had been a long time coming.
So who's hungry? As Jesus rings the dinner bell, children hurry to the table, napkins tied around their necks, forks in the left hand, knives in the right, ready to dive in. Outside, children lined up into the next county waiting for their turn to eat: the blind, the lame, mothers and fathers of dead children.
A dog strays in, having caught the scent. She approaches to investigate, hungry. Her daughter is terribly afflicted. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
It is to our surprise that Jesus at first refuses service. “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs,” he said. Today those would be fighting words. But our gentile ancestor cannot afford the luxury of righteous indignation. She is starving and here is food. She answers the sharp rebuke with a soft rebuttal. “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
With that appeal, she has “made an ally of the conscience of her adversary.” The Lord replies: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish,” and her daughter is healed.
The first part of this story is common as dirt.
I saw the movieDunkirk, which is great.The aerial dogfights are spectacular. (I hope you catch the double meaning.) 400,000 allied troops are pressed hard against the sea, the British army threatened with annihilation, leaving England virtually defenseless. From England, small boats arrive to evacuate the soldiers. British troops line up to board. A French soldier slips into the line, hoping to escape. He knows to keep his mouth shut, lest he be identified. They board a leaky fishing boat. On board, other soldiers grow suspicious of his silence. Maybe he is German! Riled, they are about to kill him. Desperate, he cries out: “Je suis francais!” I am French! He is their ally, but that doesn’t put him out of danger. The leaky boat is overloaded, threatening to sink. They need to offload weight. They grab the Frenchman to throw him overboard. “That isn’t fair, he’s on our side!” a British soldier valiantly objects. That seems stupid to his comrades—like taking food from children and giving it to dogs.
Obviously, the impulse to identify and separate—in short, discriminate—runs strong in human nature. I could be wrong but I suspect it is genetic, which would mean that somewhere in our evolutionary past it raised someone’s chances for survival. If my despising you for being French moves me to toss you off the boat, and with a lighter load I get back safe to England, where after the war I’ll add three children to the baby boom, giving them my genes, then that genetic impulse is that much stronger in the world. That is the blind, morally indifferent logic of evolution.
This is an aside: that logic has been used by some Christians as an argument against belief in evolution, and by some evolutionists against belief in Christ. I believe in both, because both in Christ and in evolution we see blind and sometimes ugly means, a cross, for example, employed in the achievement of purposeful and finally beautiful effects.
Now back to dogs and children.
From our parents perhaps the first moral lesson that we learn is that we must share and wait our turn. We learn to apply it to brothers and sisters, then friends, classmates, teammates, roommates, and other drivers on the streets. Sure, I want two scoops of Jamoca Almond Fudge for myself, but I’ll settle for just one so my little sister Elisabeth can have one too. Santa’s watching.
On a crowded leaky boat, that is a hard truth. And, as hard a pill as it can be for individuals to swallow, it is that much more difficult to translate to groups, societies, and nations. One of the reasons for that is that with groups selfish instinct is reinforced by social pressure. Think of the taboos against snitching. A witness to a crime may feel that he is wrong to report it if it seems that in doing so he will betray his group. That feeling may be fortified by threats of violence, but the feeling is often there even without the threat. We do not rat on children to the dogs.
Our civilization is at its best a thing of beauty, because it has taught us to rise above this protective instinct. Let us now praise famous men of church and state who have inspired us to see and live beyond the good of our own blood.
On the state side, that lesson was enshrined at our founding in the Declaration of Independence. I am reading another biography of Lincoln – Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, by Allen Guelzo. Lincoln believed that in 1776 the Declaration named the principle that defines America: “All men are created equal.” As Lincoln put it: “The theory of our government is universal freedom.” This is Guelzo:
Lincoln read the Declaration as a document that transcended, not only states rights . . . but even national boundaries. The Declaration “set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all and revered by all.” Immigrants who read the Constitution, Lincoln argued, saw only the rules and regulations of a foreign country; but when they read the Declaration, they found principles and ideas that reached over the head of language or section or previous nationality and bound Americans together as Americans, seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “Half our people have come from Europe—German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian,” Lincoln observed in 1858, people who had no personal or ancestral stake in the writing of the Constitution or the rights of states. “But when they look back through that old Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln believed, they find principles that rise above one’s place of birth, whether another country or another state of the union. “They find that those old men say ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and they have a right to claim it as though they were . . . flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration. [i]
In Lincoln’s day, articulate apologists for slavery maintained that this principle applied only to whites. That disagreement led to war, which settled it.
It is demonic to contest that. The Charlottesville torch bearers literally are terrorists. Being feared consoles them. Yes, they are dangerous, but I can remember when their kind ruled the south.
After Martin Luther King’s assassination, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Benton held an ecumenical memorial service. The afternoon before the service, the phone rang at the church. It was the Ku Klux Klan, warning the priest, who had answered the phone, to cancel the service—“or else.” The priest was my great friend the Rev. Richard Milwee. Richard told the caller to come to the church right now, meet him outside and he’d be happy to settle the disagreement man to man. The caller didn’t show, nor did the Klan.
We have come a long, long way since then. This is not 1938, or ’58, nor ’68. When friends and loved ones suggest otherwise, as they sometimes do, they get an argument from me, because I know that I was born in one south and went to high school in another. I loved the change. It had been a long time coming—almost two hundred years since the Declaration—but democracy had come. That arrival leaves us still a long way from the heaven Jesus showed us to be sure, and if we are not wise and strong, both church and state, our society could turn around and march back into a mess, not of our ancestors’ making, but our own.
On the church side, we’ve been exposed to a truth brighter even than the bright thought that all people are created equal. In church, we learn that not only are we that, we are also bearers of God’s image. The imago Dei, “image of God,” is in us. This is seen in our capacities to think and feel, and in our freedom. This is not a truth that we can learn in science class. It takes faith to claim it, just as it takes faith to know we truly are created equal. On both counts, our faith is reasonable and holy. Civilizing.
By the doctrine of the imago Dei, according to John Calvin, in our dealings with other people, regardless of their nation, race, or kin, “the scripture assists us with an excellent rule, when it inculcates, that we must not regard the intrinsic merit of men, but must consider the image of God in them, to which we owe all possible honor and love.” [ii] I see something in you that you may not even know you have: a buried treasure.
Black Christians at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston were being faithful to this teaching the night they welcomed the white stranger Dylann Roof into their Bible study. They were tender to him. With malice aforethought, he repaid their hospitality with murder. That was evil of the highest order. The surviving Emmanuel Christians responded with a faith that for our anxious nation civilized the moment with extraordinary grace. Absent that grace there would have been hell to pay, I think, across the United States.
That was the week we reached out to renew our partnership with Bethel AME in Little Rock. These Christians knew the Lord and we could learn by their example. Little Rock needs our partnership. State needs Church to flourish.
President Lincoln’s views on church and state were nuanced—and in my opinion almost perfect. He was politely respectful to clergy who told him how to lead the nation, which they did in droves, but he trusted his own judgment and conscience more than he did theirs. Preaching is easy and governing is not.
But Lincoln, who was not conspicuously religious, deeply felt that religion’s part in the American experiment was crucial. Religion’s moral training, together with, as Lincoln put it, “the hopes and consolations of the Christian faith,” were needed to elevate and sanctify the conscience of the nation. [iii]
On that score, Lincoln’s views and Thomas Jefferson’s were different. Among Lincoln’s contemporaries, Jefferson’s followers stoutly opposed the barest hint of government support of religious practice, including the appointment of military chaplains.
By contrast, according to Guelzo, Lincoln’s Whig Party “welcomed the injection” of religious morals into public life “and tended to favor any sponsorship of public religion short of outright establishment by tax monies.” Early in the war, Lincoln won congressional consent for his appointment of military chaplains. At first, these chaplain posts were reserved for Christian clergy. Then, late in 1861, a Jewish rabbi named Arnold Fischer beseeched Lincoln to open those offices to Jews. Rabbi Fischer found an ally in the conscience of the president. Lincoln promised he would change the policy and, in July 1862, he did.
That was a mirror image of this morning’s gospel.
[i] Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Kindle edition, loc. 2664)
[ii] Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books (Kindle edition, page 75) Say he is a stranger; yet the Lord has impressed on him a character which out to be familiar to you; for which reason he forbids you to despise your own flesh. Say that he is contemptible and worthless, but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to grace with his own image.
[iii] Guelzo, 4380