Grace Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2015, Ordinary 23B
I’m not going to lie to you, folks. This is going to be my least favorite sermon ever. I dare say I may never preach this passage again.
Not that there isn’t going to be something of worth, something for us to learn from this passage. There is healing that happens, and there is a remarkable example of faith that any person should be humbled to see. There is a remarkable opening up of Jesus’s ministry on earth that starts in this passage. In fact, one can argue that this passage is one of the most important turning points in this gospel in which we have invested so much time this year.
Still, there is no way I can make Mark 7:27 sound good.
Can I understand how it could happen? Certainly.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has the senior demon Screwtape make the point to his mentoree that human beings, despite their reputation, can actually be quite patient and endure a great deal of stress and pressure. Rather, the great impatience, the great explosion and emotional eruption most often comes when we humans think the pressure has finally relented only to have some other unexpected imposition appear. For example, an emergency room doctor or nurse might endure a full shift of trauma after trauma, one patient after another, with no release and no break, and successfully hold it together throughout the entire shift. Then, on the way out of the hospital, that same doctor or nurse might explode with seeming rage at being tripped up by a stray dog.
Maybe you’ve known something of that experience.
I don’t necessarily want to say that’s what happens here, but there is something about the setup that makes such a scenario plausible. Remember the recent events Jesus has experienced: the death of John the Baptist; the feeding of five thousand; the incident of the disciples’ panic on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus’s walking on water to save them; another round of healings of multitudes of people; and the spat with the Pharisees from Jerusalem featured in last week’s sermon. That’s a lot to cope with, and we humans might find the stress and pressure a challenge, but we deal with it because we see a light at the end of the tunnel – a break from the stress – and hold out until then. For Jesus, so this line of reasoning goes, maybe this was the point of this escape to the region of the city of Tyre, rounghly in what we would call Lebanon today. Although there were some Jews there, perhaps Jesus thought getting away to this primarily Gentile city might offer some relief. Or so he might have thought, only to have this woman – this Syrophoenician woman, a term that conjures the most ancient enmities of the Hebrew people, somehow get into the house and threw herself at his feet to beg for healing for her daughter.
And, according to this line of reasoning, Jesus snapped, and fired off what was a pretty vile insult at her. To say “let the children be fed first,” as Jesus does initially, is to echo pretty standard Jewish thought of the time about the Messiah and salvation – the Jews would be “fed” first, then the rest of the world. It might seem a little out of step with our post-incarnation theology, but at the time it would make sense.
But to repeat the next line – “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” – is just flat-out ugly. Think of the kind of ugly things a southerner might say about “Yankees” in, say, the 1860s or thereafter, or the kind of slurs whites might have used against blacks in the Civil Rights era.
To understand this, you need to understand that dogs were, in Jewish culture of the time, unclean. A good Jewish family of the time would be horrified at the idea of having a dog in the home at all, much less as “part of the family” as we regard them today. To speak of Gentiles as “dogs” (even in the diminutive form as this Greek word is, something like “puppies” or “doggies” but not exactly) was to call them something about as ugly and impure as possible – perhaps not quite on the level of pigs, but close.
You’ll find all manner of efforts to try to soften the blow in the theological commentary literature. To use such a reference, some will say, should be understood strictly metaphorically, and not as a direct insult to the woman. This is nonsense; members of any minority group aren’t going to care about whether the use of, for example, the n-word or the word used as the name of Washington’s NFL team, is strictly rhetorical, and neither should this woman be expected to understand being called a “dog” differently than if it were uttered at her by any other Jew. Other commentators suggest that this is a “test” of the woman; Jesus is probing to see just what she understands about him or how far she is willing to go to have her daughter healed. This wouldn’t be out of character; Jesus engages in such exchanges with other interlocutors at other places in the gospels. Still, if I’d engaged in a “test” like this during my teaching career, that career would have ended a lot sooner than it did. Furthermore, Mark didn’t really drop us any clues that this was the case; no “to test her, he said…” or “he said, with a chuckle…” or any such thing. Just the bald-faced words.
What we can say, though, is that the Syrophoenician woman’s response is absolutely amazing. She takes the Jewish insult and reframes it for the Gentile setting. Unlike Jews of the time, those in the larger Greco-Roman world were inclined to take in dogs as domestic animals, “members of the family” – something like pets. So while a Jewish family would have been horrified to find a dog in the house at all, a Gentile family might well have a pooch lapping up the crumbs from the table (or being slipped a little more than crumbs by children who don’t care for the meal; maybe you’ve seen that before…). So, from the completely submissive position this world forced upon her, she responds – still calling him “sir” or “Lord” – that the dogs – she, her daughter – could still lap up the crumbs the children left behind, and with this answer apparently blew Jesus’s mind. He sends her home with the word that the demon was gone from her daughter, not because of her faith specifically, but because of her answer.
This woman, it seems, has got ahold of something that others who have encountered Jesus may have missed. He is a powerful healer and exorcist of demons, to be sure; but her dogged – pun intended – persistence suggests that she gets that there is more to this Jesus, something besides just the ability to heal. It isn’t fleshed out, but there is some understanding that not many seem to have grasped, certainly not the disciples at this point.
This woman is a not-distant cousin in some ways of the woman with the blood issue from chapter five. If anything her station in society is not marked by a specific impurity of that first woman, but simply by her identity as a Gentile; she furthermore is seeking healing not for herself but her child. Still, though, the persistence against all odds and all propriety bind these two women in the good news of the gospel, the “kingdom of God come near.”
We also can’t escape the fact that the story takes a distinct turn at this point, a turn through Gentile territory. On his way through the primarily Gentile territory of the Decapolis, or “ten cities,” the crowds bring to him a man who was not only deaf, but also stricken with a speech impediment so that he could not speak language. All they hoped for was that Jesus might “lay his hand on him,” but even with this Gentile Jesus goes far beyond – he takes the man aside, touching both ears and tongue (yes, also spitting), and uttered a word; instantly the man’s ears were opened and his tongue loosed. No hesitation about touching an “unclean” person, no hesitation about old purity laws; just a deliberate and unequivocal act of healing.
Pretty good for crumbs under the table.
It’s been the recurring theme of all this time spent in the gospel of Mark that Jesus’s ministry on earth was the ultimate manifestation of “the kingdom of God come near,” part of Jesus’s own words all the way back in the first chapter, at the beginning of his public ministry. What happens in this moment in Mark’s gospel reminds us just how uncontrollable, how unrestrained this in-breaking of God’s kingdom really is. It cares not one whit, as last week’s encounter reminded us, of how we build human traditions atop divine revelations that come to obscure those divine revelations. It does not respect our self-appointed boundaries. And it dares challenge us for not sharing our bread, or refusing those in the most need even the crumbs that end up under the table.
You can see those in that most dire need, wherever you look. They are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, maybe the very descendants of this Syrophonecian woman, desperate to escape a war the destructiveness of which we cannot imagine. They are living, for now, in Arctic regions of Alaska or Canada, with their homes and lives melting away from them and increasingly washed away under a rising sea. They are in our own city, unable to find a place to live no matter how hard they work at one job, or two, or sometimes more. They are out there, or maybe even in here, whether we can see their need or not. And yes, even when it seems we are reaching out to as many as we can, there are more, desperate, in need of even the crumbs from the table.
And here we are, about to come to a table today. It’s a table that reminds us of a Lord who gathered with his followers around tables large and small, teaching and feeding and healing even when at the end of his physical strength, finally giving them at one last table a gesture of bread and wine to hold in their hearts and minds and souls. When we come to this table, those tables speak to us, remind us of Jesus and bring us to the table with Jesus, not just to share this bread and this cup, but to share the Lord’s presence, all the blessings of the table, with all around us, the ones who need it most, even those desperately searching for the crumbs under the table, for anything from the twelve baskets or seven baskets left over.
Even from a moment that seems inexplicably ugly can come a moment of transformation, a moment of healing, a moment of kingdom-breaking-in that upends our expectations, unsettles our comfort zones, and undoes our human certainties. This is no ordinary table; it’s not our table. The bread isn’t our bread to hoard; the cup isn’t our cup to seal away. Whenever we come to this table, we do so not to escape from the ones desperately in need even of the crumbs from the table; we do so to go right back out to those in need. The words at the table, “the gifts of God for the people of God,” point us to this truth; we can’t keep those gifts to ourselves, no matter how much it upsets our expectations. The gifts of God are for the people of God indeed; all the people of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: “All People That On Earth Do Dwell” (PH 220); “In Christ There Is No East or West” (PH 439), “I Come With Joy” (PH 507); “The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound” (GtG 766)