What Sort of Dog?

What Sort of Dog?

Twentieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Robert Gay finds that today’s Gospel particularly challenges him as a Dominican.

What we see in this Gospel is an occasion when Jesus seems to be very harsh – uninterested, even hostile to what seems like a perfectly reasonable request from this Canaanite woman. Right away it seems like Jesus is rejecting her because of who she is – a woman belonging to the people who were driven out of the land of Canaan by the people of Israel.

So when we’re thinking about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, according to Jewish thinking, this woman was definitely ‘out’. But all the same, her request is met first with silence, and then with the suggestion that she is a little dog – albeit a domestic dog, or a puppy, as the Greek suggests.

But perhaps we should read the feel of this whole encounter in a gentler way than it comes across at first. It was a common in Jesus’s time, though still more than a little impolite, to refer to the gentiles as dogs. And Jesus uses the term earlier in Matthew’s Gospel in the seventh chapter, where he says that what is holy shouldn’t be given to dogs. But even here it is clear that already the ‘dogs’ aren’t the gentiles, but anyone whose heart is hardened to the message of salvation which Jesus brings, and the significance of that message for the way they live. And the language of that passage suggests these dogs are wild, savage dogs. True, he has come first to the people of Israel – but time and again the examples of people who listen to his message and show faith come from outside that group. Being ‘in’ can also mean being ‘out’.

This Canaanite woman starts as one who is ‘out’ – but right from her greeting ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David’, it is clear that she has recognised Jesus as he actually is. Her heart is open. Her openness is tested by Jesus, and her faith is shown by her insistence. Even when she hears nothing back, she will not give up. So when Jesus refers to her as a puppy, he’s not wrong, because like a dependent house dog she recognises her master, on whom she can depend.

Her disposition means she is a model for how we should be as disciples of Christ. We too must recognise Jesus as the one who brings salvation, who heals us from the sickness of our souls. There may be any number of other ways we might turn to find healing and fullness of life, but ultimately it is only him who can bring those things for us. And it always starts from attending to him, to entering into relationship, with him.

Those of us who are Dominicans have just celebrated the Feast of St. Dominic. And at this time, we naturally turn our minds to his life, and his example. And perhaps more than anything we might wonder if we, as Dominican Friars, are true to his spirit. We live in such a different world from the one in which St Dominic lived. We face a very different political, cultural, social and moral landscape from his – a landscape that never remains the same, but is constantly changing even during our own lifetimes. As individual friars, as communities, provinces, and as a whole Order, it might be difficult for us to discern whether we are his faithful sons – whether we know the landscape of our times, its challenges, and how to respond. Just being Dominican by name is no guarantee of anything, just as being one of the children of Israel was no guarantee of an open heart to Christ’s message.

Perhaps our assessment of our lives like this should start by going back to what was fundamental to St Dominic in his own life. It was his simple, humble desire to spend time with Christ – to listen to him, to share his life with him, and to love him. Everything else that St Dominic became was a response to those moments of intimate relationship.

Our Gospel today reminds us that we , who are proud to have the title ‘Domini canes‘, dogs of the Lord, can end up being one of two kind of dog…. the wild, disobedient, aggressive, dogs who are of no use in the service of the Lord, or the obedient, attentive, gentle house dogs who know their master and love him. It is only by being the right kind of ‘Domini canes’ that we will be fit to preach the Gospel. Only as the right kind of ‘Domini canes‘ can be receptive to what the Lord is asking of us, and be able to have the courage to go ahead as individual friars, as communities, as provinces and as an Order, and do his will.

Readings: Isaiah 56:1,6-7|Romans 11:13-15,29-32|Matthew 15:21-28

Fr Robert Gay is Prior of the Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford, and he is also a lector in moral theology at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.