My pastor’s sermon last Sunday was entitled “Do Dogs Go to Heaven?” I was really looking forward to hearing the message, but I received a request to preach at another church on the other side of the Cascade Mountain range, and I couldn’t be there to learn the answer to the question.
I wanted to hear his sermon for several reasons. First, orthodox Lutherans are not given to faddish subject matter for their sermons, so I was eager to see his approach. Second, this is a question that pastors are asked surprisingly often, so I enjoy hearing others respond to the question, especially when they appeal to the Bible in doing so.
A third reason is because I love dogs. All dogs. Even “bad” ones, who are only aggressive or ill-behaved because the humans they’ve had the misfortune of encountering in this world have done poorly by them.
I’ve had many dogs as members of my family through the years, and they were treasures, even though I took them for granted in my youth.
Nor am I going to discuss the important place of dogs in the life of C.S. Lewis, since I have written about that before, as well.
The Upshot of the Sermon
When we were leaving church the previous Sunday, our pastor was discussing his impending pronouncement on the subject of animal redemption. I laughed and offered a comment that proved a little disconcerting to him.
I told him that not long ago I read a passage in Martin Luther’s writings where he said just that. Luther, the preeminent figure in the Reformation, suggested the possibility that animals just might be resurrected by God. It became obvious that wasn’t where he was going with his homily, and in looking at the Gospel text for the message I realized why.
The fifteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel includes this grace-filled story about Jesus’ mercy.
And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:22-28).
The Jews of Jesus’ day sometimes referred to Gentiles as “dogs.” In this passage he is not insulting her, but (1) clarifying the priority of his ministry to fulfill the promise to the house of Israel and (2) to invite her to press the issue, just as she does.
The Luther quotations to which I referred were:
“Be thou comforted, little dog. Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.”
“The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”
I doubt he incorporated either into his sermon.
Dogs in Ministry
Recently I read an excerpt from an interesting new book entitled The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, A Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul.
It reinforced something that all of us who love dogs already know—they possess a profound ability to sense and minister to our emotional needs.
You can read the excerpt in Christianity Today here, although they have retitled it for the online edition. I prefer the title that appeared in the print edition, “God’s Canine Counselors.” I’ll close here with a brief excerpt from the excerpt.
A child sits down on the floor next to a dog and reads aloud from a book. There is something magical about it. After lying next to Pepper, a slightly overweight border collie, and reading him a book, seven-year-old Jessicah, who has always hated reading, says to the volunteer, “[He] loves when I tell him stories. I think he likes stories about turtles best, and so do I. He’s the coolest dog in the whole world.”
I can vividly imagine what it would be like to be the child in that situation. To read to a dog whose big eyes took me in with simple pleasure, who laid her head on my lap with absolute ease to listen to my voice, would have made for an entirely different experience.
The dog would have exuded patience, unconditional acceptance, and peace. The words I botched terribly [as a child] would have captivated the dog every bit as much as the ones read perfectly. In that one-on-one relationship, the anxiety, self-doubt, and panic I used to feel about not being able to do something would have faded.
Thank you, Lord, for creating dogs.