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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, August 14, 2011
Apparently, in our thrill at being at the top of the food chain, we’ve underestimated our family dog. Take Chaser, for example. Chaser is a 7-year-old border collie who can distinguish between nouns and verbs. So take heart, all of you who have such a hard time with “Sit!”
[Sharon Jayson] Chaser is a featured player at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting, where her owner and trainer — retired psychology professor John Pilley let Chaser bask in the attention at the first of several weekend demonstrations. Pilley said he and his wife got Chaser when she was 8 weeks old.
Chaser understands that a noun refers to an object, and is correct 95% of the time; she can also accurately react to random pairings of verbs and nouns, such as "fetch the sock.” The study included four experiments that showed how three years of intensive training under controlled conditions allowed Chaser to learn the names of the 1,022 toys piled up in big blue bins at their home. Most are stuffed animals, although some are plastic toys. Each has a distinct name written in marker on the toy, such as Inky (a bright green octopus), Chimp, Circus Bear, Dutch Boy, Sugar and many more.
In the videos, Pilley commanded "Find Sugar" and Chaser would. When Pilley told Chaser to "Paw Lamb," she used her paws to stroke the stuffed toy. When Pilley told Chaser to "Nose Lamb," she used her nose on the stuffed toy. The videos also showed a trick — a new stuffed animal that Chaser had never seen with a name "Darwin" that Chaser had not heard before. When asked to "Find Darwin," Chaser was able, through a process of elimination, to select the correct toy.
So dogs are not to be underestimated. Just look at our Gospel reading for today from Matthew. It’s one of Jesus’ so-called “hard sayings.” It’s hard because he’s being mean. The vignette begins with Jesus taking a little side trip to Tyre and Sidon – “enemy territory.” A Canaanite woman – a despised foreigner to any good Jew – comes crying to Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter.
At first, Jesus is silent. But the woman is undeterred. She begins to beg. And it’s just here that the faithful reader has to gulp several times. Jesus sneers, “It isn’t fair to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Say what??
Given the situation, you’d think the woman would be offended and give him an insult back. She doesn’t. Calmly, she says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” You can almost feel the tension in the air. At last, Jesus relents: “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And he heals her daughter.
What just happened? Jesus had told her that it wasn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. But the word Jesus uses isn’t “dogs.” It is kuna-REE-os, which means, “puppies” – “It isn’t fair to take the children’s bread and toss it to their puppies.”
So what? you say. Most dog whisperers say that feeding “people food” to puppies is deleterious to their health because it upsets their immature digestive systems. Jesus, like other Jews, considered Gentiles to be so far removed from Judaism that they were too immature to either hear or understand the good news of the Kingdom of God.
Nor is this the only time Jesus underestimated a Gentile. Remember the Roman centurion? He, also had asked Jesus to heal someone, but explained to Jesus that Jesus didn’t have to go in person to do it. Just say the word and it shall be so. It’s like the military chain of command – give an order and be assured it will be carried out.
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and he remarked, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel!” Jesus underestimated the Roman soldier, just as he had underestimated the Canaanite woman.
I like to think of this incident as a turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus. To that point, he believed his ministry was to the Jewish people. But – of all people – a Canaanite woman – gave him an insight that was to change all that.
This insight is captured by a Hindu story of a holy man who lived continually in a state of ecstasy. Everyone regarded him as insane. One day, having begged food in the village, he sat by the roadside and began to eat. A dog came up and looked at him, whereby he began to feed that dog: one bite for himself, one bite for the dog. It almost seemed as if they were old friends.
Soon a crowd gathered around the two of them to watch. One of the men jeered at the holy man. He said to the others, “What can you expect from someone so insane that he is not able to distinguish between a human being and a dog?”
The holy man replied, “Why do you laugh? Do you not see Vishnu seated with Vishnu? Vishnu is being fed and Vishnu is doing the feeding. So why do you, a Vishnu, laugh?”
If the Kingdom of God is in the midst of us, then it is in us, also. And, if it is in me, then it is in you as well. And anybody we come across. Jesus saw the faith that was in the Canaanite woman and recognized that he had underestimated the ubiquity of the Kingdom of God.
Well, to come full circle, I also think that we underestimate doggies. Take the case of Buck. The story is that two men were out hunting ducks one afternoon, with the assistance of Buck, the golden retriever. As the hunters were returning to their van to go home, one of them remembered that they had left their hats next to the duck blind. Buck’s master, of course, had taught him to retrieve any object that he pointed to, so rather than go back for the hats, Buck’s master simply sent the dog back to collect them.
The two hats – one a baseball cap and the other, a cowboy hat, were lying next to each other. As the men watched, the dog first picked up the cowboy hat and then tried to pick up the baseball cap. When that didn’t work, he dropped the larger hat and picked up the cap first. But still he couldn’t adjust his grip to hold both at once.
Dropping the cap, he then studied the two objects for a moment. Then he did something startling. Buck picked up the baseball cap and dropped it into the cowboy hat. He then used his front paw to stuff the smaller hat securely into the larger. Finally, he grabbed the larger hat, now serving as a basket for the smaller, and, his tail swinging merrily, brought the two back to the waiting men. The men were amazed. Are you?
There is much danger in underestimating:
In industry, underestimating leads to micromanagement.
In parenthood, underestimating leads to dependency.
In spiritual matters, underestimating leads to leaving other people out.