(A sermon for Pentecost 15B–September 9, 2012–Mark 7:24-37)
After two weeks of political conventions on TV, most of which I will admit I did not watch and only read about online, we can probably all agree that there is a lot about which to disagree. And I will not tell you my politics, and I will not ask you yours. For the purposes of this sermon, I will only say that people with all good intentions can disagree on what is right and what is best or even what is true. Sadly, they can also get very angry with one another and it all goes to heck from there. It’s particularly sad when religion and politics mix and people assume that the people who don’t agree with them are not really faithful to God. A point comes where we are so invested in our own opinions that we cannot hear anything being said by the other side. Our feelings have been so hurt we stop listening.
We close our minds.
There’s been another battle brewing this week, and it has been equally intense for its participants. They do not agree, and their disagreement is so passionate that they accuse each other of having a wrong view, but not of the budget or the war in Afghanistan or the Affordable Care Act. They disagree about their views of Jesus. And the verses we read this morning about Jesus and his interaction with the Syro-Phoenecian woman are the source of the dispute.
It’s not a new argument. But let’s set the scene. If you were here last week, you know Jesus just had an argument with the religious authorities about hand-washing and other rules for cleanliness set down by those authorities. The gospel writer gives us a thumbnail sketch of the problem and then lets us hear what Jesus has to say. He makes a provocative case that the rules used to measure the value and worth of members of the community are not useful in God’s eyes. The cleaning of pots and the washing of hands and the following of the Law cannot make a person right with God, and neglecting to follow them cannot make a person wrong with God. He makes his case to the leaders of the spiritual community: they are the ones out of relationship with God, because of their greed and the way they oppress others.
Still in the same chapter, Jesus travels away from the Jewish areas. Mark’s geography is a bit fanciful. It’s more representative than literal. The important thing to know is that Jesus and his followers move on to Gentile territory.
That’s where we find ourselves in verse 24. We walk through the door with Jesus into a house; he is retreating from the world and seeking privacy. But a woman hears about him, a Syro-Phoenecian woman with a purpose. She approaches him boldly, coming right into the house, but she is respectful, bowing down before him. She is bold because she seeks healing for her daughter, possessed by an evil spirit. She is respectful because she has hope he can make a difference.
He answers her strangely.
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Huh. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food –what is he talking about?—and throw it to the dogs.
If you’re in seminary, as I was the first time I really paid attention to this story, you go and look it up and find out that while scholars agree the children he’s talking about are the children of Israel, God’s chosen people, there is some pretty vigorous disagreement about that dog reference.
After one of the conventions, I read an article that attributed an agenda to a website called factcheck.org. I figured fact checkers were just that: fact checkers. I also trust that when I go to look up a word I’ll find out what it means. But it’s not always so straightforward. It turns out the whole dog thing is … complicated.
First, there’s the idea of dogs in general. There is pretty general, but not universal, agreement, that dogs were not pets in Jewish families. By the rules Jesus grew up with, dogs were not “clean” and they were not “nice” and they were not the rough equivalent of a child you raise the way mine have been. So it’s not fair to take the food intended for the children of Israel – the Jews – and throw it to the unclean dogs. It’s not fair to take what has been sent for the Jews and give it to the Gentiles.
Most scholars I’ve read agree that the word Jesus used was a common slur used by Jews to insult Gentiles. We have such a word ourselves, a perfectly fine word if you’re a dog breeder, but not so nice if directed at another person.
And I don’t know about your view of Jesus, but my heart is committed to a Savior who loved little children and treated women better than the culture required, and it hurts my feelings to hear what he says to her.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he gives her what she asks. She goes home and finds her daughter well and whole.
Do you ever have a moment when you realize the lesson you’re trying to teach someone else is the one you need to learn yourself? I’ll own up to it. It happens to me all the time. And here I think it happens to Jesus. He’s left the place where he knows the rules and has declared them invalid and gone to a place where everything is less familiar and then tried to impose the same rules himself.
The blessings and grace of God are for the children of Israel, not for Gentile – b –dogs like you!
Is he tired? Yes. Seeking peace and respite? Yes. Does he sound human? Yes. Do we like the sound of it?
Yes. Yes, I do.
I like it because it reminds me that our Savior was not only fully God but also fully man, fully divine and fully human. His encounter with a determined mother opened him to a new understanding. He did not come just to change the understanding of one group of people. He came to show God’s love for all people.
That’s my conclusion. It gives me a sense that in Jesus, God had a real experience of being human, of learning some things the hard way and of reaching conclusions much as we do, in the middle of messy human encounters.
Just as disagreeing with one party or the other would make some people call me a bad American, some scholars and pastors and faithful believers would deem me a bad Christian for my interpretation of this story. My view of Jesus is too low, too human. He is God and cannot make a mistake. He is God and does not need to learn a lesson. He is God.
How does that sit with you?
The good news is we can disagree on this and still go to coffee hour and have a cookie together: a whole cookie, not a crumb. I’m not going to tell you you’re a bad Christian if you think I’m wrong. I’m going to be glad you spent time thinking about it and want to talk about it some more, because it interests me. (Just ask Lucy.)
I think what the woman taught Jesus is that even though he was exhausted at that moment, and she had intruded into his space to make one more request when he really wanted a break from all that, there was always enough to go around. Love is not a vanishing resource. Sharing it makes more of it. And because he was not only human, but also divine, he gave her what she asked him to give. He didn’t even need to see her child.
No one saw this happen, but the next healing Mark reports became the subject of much talk. Mind and heart opened, Jesus moves on to the Decapolis, and there he heals a deaf man, putting his fingers in the man’s ears and spitting and touching his tongue. Jesus groans and sighs and tells the man, “Be opened.”
Be opened as she opened me. Be blessed as a strange, demanding woman blessed me.
She blessed him by pushing on him, and she blessed all of us. Because face it. We’re a bunch of Gentiles. Some of us have dogs under the table at home. Some of us have fed dogs right *from* the table. And I would do it again. And it’s all fine because whether we make the dog stay away from the table or let him come right up and have a piece of sandwich, God’s embrace is large enough to include us.
It’s important to remember in this season of argument. Don’t let’s close down on each other. Be opened and hear the Good News! There’s enough of God’s grace and love to go around. Amen.