My wife and I shot each other a look that conveyed both astonishment and humor. After throwing some of her supper onto the floor, my daughter, still young enough to sit in a high chair, had just exclaimed, “Don’t worry! Elbow will get it.” Elbow is our dog, and he had a habit of “eat[ing] the children’s crumbs” when they fell from the table. Apparently, our daughter had picked up on the fact that her parents didn’t mind so much when the family pet helped keep the kitchen clean.
Nowadays, Elbow has some competition. Our son has taken our daughter’s place in the high chair, and, like all infant/toddlers, he occasionally scatters some of his food onto the floor. But now there’s a 3-year-old sister to scavenge alongside the dog—though her tastes are somewhat more discriminate than those of her four-legged rival. Although she might pass on a mushy piece of banana, if a sizable chunk of grilled cheese makes it to the floor and neither parent is paying close attention, there’s a reasonable chance that either daughter or pet will scoop it up and eat it.
Cast-offs. Leftovers. Second chances. This morning’s gospel story from Mark (7:24-37) describes God’s grace as those crumbs that fall under the master’s table. The image suggests that even when God’s love isn’t fully received by its target, there’s enough there to spill over, producing unintended consequences. In other words, God’s grace is so big that even those who never expected to receive a gift of love can be recipients of God’s blessing.
I find it distracting, however, that Jesus frames this description of grace in shocking language that equates the Gentile woman and her ailing daughter with dogs. I don’t really know why he does that, except to challenge society’s understanding of race and class. Perhaps in Jesus’ mind, God’s love (as expressed in his earthly ministry) really was reserved for a Jewish-only audience. Some argue that Jesus was only highlighting a racial disparity that he intended to overthrow. Or maybe he was just tired and cranky—“he entered a house, and would not have any one know it”—and spoke a little too harshly to the desperate woman. I must confess that I don’t know why Jesus did what he did.
But I can see that her response to his harshness reveals something surprising—for her, for the onlookers, for me, and maybe even for Jesus. God’s love, no matter whom we think is its object, is bigger than we expect. It filters down. It spills over. It makes a mess—like crumbs that collect under a table. God’s love isn’t a valentine stuffed in an envelope with a specific addressee written on the outside. God’s love is an all-you-can-eat buffet. If I think of myself as elite, I find it offensive that everyone gets to partake. But if I’m famished and wasn’t sure if I was invited to the party, the banquet is almost more than I can handle.