Children and Dogs

Adam Gopnik wrote a delightful article about a little girl and a dog. Until not very long ago, Adam and his wife didn’t like dogs, but their daughter did – and that was all it took:

A year ago, my wife and I bought a dog for our ten-year-old daughter, Olivia. We had tried to fob her off with fish, which died, and with a singing blue parakeet, which she named Skyler, but a Havanese puppy was what she wanted, and all she wanted. With the diligence of a renegade candidate pushing for a political post, she set about organizing a campaign: quietly mustering pro-dog friends as a pressure group; introducing persuasive literature (…); demonstrating reliability with bird care.

(…) Shrewd enough to know that she would never get us out of the city to an approved breeder, she quietly decided that she could live with a Manhattan pet-store “puppy mill” dog if she could check its eyes for signs of illness and its temperament for symptoms of sweetness. Finally, she backed us into a nice pet store on Lexington Avenue and showed us a tiny bundle of caramel-colored fur with a comical black mask. “That’s my dog,” she said simply.

We know what a persistent child can do to a parent. Not only did Olivia get her dog whom she named, with her daddy’s help, “Butterscotch” – after seven pages of stories and deep reflection her dad admitted, “How does anyone live without a dog? I can’t imagine.” [1]

We know what a persistent child can do to a parent. We also know what having a sick child can do to a parent: it makes you desperate.[2] It makes you say horrible things to the receptionist who won’t give you an appointment until after Labor Day. It makes you very rude to doctors who run test after test for hours and then tell you their diagnosis in two minutes. It makes you scream at the insurance company representative who tells you that your plan does not cover the treatments your child needs. It makes you stay up all night doing research on the web, finding out where the best clinics are, the best doctors, the best therapists, the most promising programs. And after you’ve exhausted all options, would you consider a trip to Mexico or India or anywhere else on God’s green earth? Of course you would. You will do anything it takes to make your child well.

Sometime a couple of weeks ago I saw the picture of a mother in Somalia. She had walked for days under the blazing sun, carrying a starving baby on her back, another one on her hip, and holding a third child by the hand. When she gets to the camp where relief agencies are distributing food, will she find mercy? What will they tell her? Will it be too late for one of her children, or perhaps for two, or, God have mercy, all three of them? Can you imagine anybody telling her that she and her children didn’t qualify for this particular food program?

I thought about children and dogs these last few days, about parents and persistence, and about the limits of mercy. And I was curious about how much we spend on our dogs. According to the current National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Association, basic annual expenses for dog owners in the U.S. include:

$407 Surgical Vet Visits
$248 Routine Vet Visits
$254 Food
$274 Kennel Boarding
$95 Vitamins
$78 Travel Expenses
$73 Grooming
$70 Food Treats
$43 Toys

That adds up to over $1,500 a year for the Gopnik household and for each of the 46.3 million households in the U.S. that own at least one dog.[3]

Many of us, I suspect, wouldn’t hesitate to treat our dogs as canine members of the family. This was very different in the world in which Jesus grew up. In first-century Jewish communities, dogs weren’t pets, but semi-wild animals that roamed the streets scavenging for food, and they were not allowed in a Jewish house. It wasn’t a matter of hygiene, but of ritual purity. You had to be careful about the things you ate and with whom you ate, the clothes you wore, and even what you touched: every part of life was to reflect the holiness of God. Dogs being scavengers and rather indiscriminate about what they ate, were considered impure. They had to stay outside. Ritual purity was about boundaries, clear boundaries between holy and unholy. How to draw that line and where was an ongoing debate, and Jesus taught that our attention shouldn’t be on the things that touch us or that we allow to enter our bodies. Instead we should pay attention to the attitudes and commitments that determine what we say and do.

When Jesus crossed the border into the region of Tyre and Sidon, he entered foreign territory: language, custom, religion, food – everything there was to Jewish eyes like an advertisement for unholy living, which is why many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would have avoided going there. The scene quickly becomes almost unbearably offensive, when a woman from that region approaches Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” It wasn’t proper for a woman to approach a man who didn’t belong to her family for help. It was unthinkable for a Jewish man to be approached by a Gentile woman, let alone when demons were involved. And Matthew adds a dose of ancient prejudice to the already potent mix by calling her a Canaanite.[4] Canaan hadn’t been on the map for generations, but the name still served as a quick label for people who got in the way of the holy purposes of Israel’s God.

This Canaanite woman wouldn’t stop shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” We don’t know why Jesus crossed the border, but we know why she did; we know what having a sick child can do to a parent. The barriers of custom, language, ethnicity and religion were high between her and the man from Nazareth, but her love for her child gave her wings. Her love for her child was stronger than anything that stood between them. Shouting without any restraint she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

To the disciples the whole scene was just too embarrassing, and they urged him to put an end to it. “Send her away,” they said.

“Lord, have mercy,” she shouted.

“Send her away,” they said.

“Lord, have mercy.”

The little scene reflects a large debate: if holiness is not defined by external boundaries, what are the limits of Jesus’ ministry? How wide is the circle of God’s mercy that has the life of Jesus as its defining center? Wide enough for one like her?

We may not like it, because this doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know, but he said,

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Let her shout – she doesn’t belong to the flock I was sent to tend. But the woman was determined. She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” We notice that she isn’t arguing, she is praying. The Jesus we know would reach out and, taking her hand, would tell her to get up and go home and that her daughter was well. Instead he said, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

How wide is the circle of God’s mercy that has the life of Christ as its defining center? Which voices will prevail, the woman pleading, “Lord, help me?” or the voices of those already in the house, already at the table, who are telling Jesus, “Send her away”? This is a hard story because it is a difficult debate, and in the language we use, our attitudes and commitments spill from our hearts and over our lips. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Don’t you wish this had been said by one of the disciples rather than Jesus? It does sound like something we might say when we try to keep outsiders out: we insult them.

Many have wrestled with this story, trying to reconcile the Jesus they thought they knew with the Jesus who practically called this woman a bitch. Some have suggested that he didn’t really mean it, that he was merely testing the woman’s resolve. Others have suggested that Jesus wasn’t testing the woman’s faith but the disciples’, that he was just waiting for one of them to stand with her and say, “Lord, have mercy.” But there’s nothing in the story to suggest that this was a test.

I am intrigued by the fact that Jesus talked about bread. Throwing the bread to the dogs would be wrong, he told the woman, since it was the children’s bread. But the woman was not only courageous and persistent, she was also quick and attentive. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” What she asked of him didn’t take away anything from the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Crumbs of mercy would be plenty to save her child. He had just fed 5,000 people with a lunch that looked like nothing to his disciples, and when all had finished eating and all were full and satisfied, there were twelve baskets of broken pieces left. She had been paying attention; she knew in her heart that what she needed was his to give, and that there was enough for all, even the dogs under the table.

“Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus answered her. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. And now the debate was over.

Almost immediately following this hard story about children and dogs, there is another bread story: Jesus was with a crowd again, curing the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others, and they were amazed and praised the God of Israel. Why does Matthew emphasize that they were praising the God of Israel? Because they were a bunch of Canaanites and other suspect Gentiles.

Now Jesus said to the disciples, “I have compassion for the crowd (…) and I do not want to send them away hungry.” No more sending away of those who hunger for the bread of salvation. He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Of this bread, there is more than enough for all of us. There is no reason to keep anybody away or under the table out of fear that there might only be just enough mercy for us but not for them. Every child of God has a seat at the table.

I love this hard story about children and dogs, nestled between a bread miracle for Israel and a bread miracle for the Gentile world. In that unnamed Canaanite mother’s persistence I now recognize the relentless nature of God’s own faithfulness. Her love helps me see that the two bread miracles belong together, that they are not a story with an odd repetition, but rather courses of one and the same meal: the bread of God’s compassion for all.

We know what a persistent child can do to a parent. We also know what a persistent mother can do for her children. Thanks be to God.


[1] Adam Gopnik, Dog Story, The New Yorker, August 8, 2011, p. 47, 53

[2] With thanks to Anna Carter Florence, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. 19, No. 5, August-September 2008, p. 30

[3] All data from

[4] In Mark 7:24 she is identified as Syrophoenician