TEXTS: Mark 7:24-37
Today’s gospel lesson contains one of the most contentious statements for Jesus found in the entire Bible. Did Jesus really allude to someone as a dog?! Let’s take a wider look at this passage from Mark.
Last week we talked about a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees who had come from Jerusalem to Galilee to use their superior knowledge of the law to discredit him. According to Mark, the Pharisees were largely unsuccessful, as, in the end, Jesus does a pretty good job of shaming them instead. If this confrontation were an event staged by a high school debate squad, we would say that Jesus won the debate hands down. I’m sure though that any member of a high school debate team would also tell you that this style of intense debate can be draining – mentally, emotionally and even physically.
Jesus most certainly needed a break. But Jesus was a rock star in Galilee, or at least the early first century equivalent of a rock star. And just like rock stars of this age, he was having a really tough time escaping the hordes of adoring fans that seemed to follow him everywhere. He is nearly crushed everywhere he went, and when he tried to escape via boat across the sea of Galilee somehow the crowds were able to anticipate his moves and were there it seemed in even greater numbers when he reaches destination than the place he had left. Jesus needed to get away to a place where he was not well known, a place where he could rest up “incognito”, unrecognized.
So he left the country or at least the predominantly Jewish district of Galilee, and headed north toward a couple of independent city-states on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea known as Tyre and Sidon, in what is now southern Lebanon. This would be the equivalent of you or me taking a vacation to Jamaica or Nova Scotia, Canada or Cancun, Mexico; not that far away physically but a very different place politically, ethnically and culturally.
Ah, but Jesus has miscalculated! He underestimated the spread of his fame. If we look all the way back to the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Mark tells us that people heard what Jesus was doing and that they came in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea. From beyond the Jordan and from the region of Tyre and Sidon. So his little get-away is interrupted once more by someone begging for his help. This time it is, we are told, a Syrophoenician woman. We can easily parse out the descriptive terms – with the first part meaning from Syria and the second part meaning that she is Phoenician. Phoenicians were an ethnic group that probably originated along coast Lebanon or Assyria back then who became great seafarers and thus spread throughout coastal areas of the Mediterranean even as far as Gibraltar and into the Atlantic. Simply put, this woman was not Jewish, not Galilean. She was a citizen of Tyre, a city-state recognized by Rome but independent, and a Pagan most likely adhering to the worship of the Greek pantheon of gods, if she worshiped any gods at all.
Now the gospels all seem to indicate very strongly that Jesus originally understood his ministry and the message of his ministry to be to the children of Abraham, the people of Israel; to Jews only. And he makes that point to the woman in about as blunt a manner as we could imagine. “Let the children be fed first. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yes it seems pretty clear that Jesus used an allusion that was clearly meant to be dismissing, even denigrating. But whether the woman was just naturally witty or extremely intelligent or whether her desperation guided her into the leadership of God’s Holy Spirit, she came right back at Jesus with a profound retort, “Yes, but even the dogs under table eat children’s crumbs!” She was basically saying that there should be enough for her daughter as well; that the grace of God and the powers of this Jewish rabbi should be able extend to those who were not first invited to sit at table. And this again from a woman who was most certainly not Jewish, a woman who did not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She was saying that the abundance of God should be so great that even the crumbs, the waste of the chosen should be enough for those who are not chosen.
Do you grasp the profound nature of that claim? Obviously Jesus did, for not only was the woman’s daughter found to be rid of her disabling demon, but Jesus himself seems to hit a turning point in the scope of his ministry; for as we will see in coming weeks as we continue to move steadily through the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins to heal and to preach and to perform miraculous works for others who are decidedly not Jewish. Suddenly the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes much more universal. Even in this confrontation with the woman of Tyre, Jesus’ response to her was decidedly different from his words to many whom he healed. Jesus usually said to the one healed, “Your faith has made you well.” This time Jesus instead said, “For saying that the demon has left your daughter.” Jesus did not praise the faith of the woman as he does so often with others, but praises rather the poignancy, the universal truth of her response.
Friends, when I look at the world today, I see a world in which people are constantly crossing borders and pushing boundaries. They are overrunning bastions both physical and cultural that others put up in defense (which usually means in fear). They are crossing political boundaries drawn across physical landscapes that say “this is Galilee and that is Tyre or the Decapolis”, “this is Israel and that is Palestine”, “this is the US and that is Mexico”. Sometimes those boundaries amount to nothing more than a line on a representative map. They cannot be seen in the reality of the land itself. Sometimes a boundary is marked by a fence or a wall or even fortifications. Yet, as we have seen throughout history, no matter what you erect, no fence or wall is impenetrable; there will always be movement across that boundary.
Sometimes borders and boundaries are created by a legal system which proclaims certain acts, certain lifestyles, and even certain people acceptable under the law or not acceptable. Denigration might actually come as part of a legal code, as when our country first considered people of a certain ethnicity as less than human or as not human at all, and therefore without any legal rights or recourse at all. Later we magnanimously declared them to be 3/5 of a human legally. Sometimes boundaries exist in the minds of those who would create them, drawing distinctions and therefore borders because of physical appearance or economic status, political affiliation or sexual orientation or even one’s taste in food or art or music or such. These borders, these boundaries, are just as real as border walls. They can have just as powerful an impact upon individuals and possibly even more so. And whether we like it or not, they are over time just as permeable as any other boundary.
Question for us as I see it, based upon the not so subtle shift that we see in today’s gospel lesson, is this, “How abundant is God’s grace?” And sitting right beside that question is one quite similar to it, “How abundant is our understanding of God’s grace and our offering of God’s grace in our lives?” Have we simply replaced the words “the lost sheep of Israel” with ”the lost sheep of Jesus”? Have we replaced the Jews that Jesus sought with Christian people, or even more profanely with people of our particular nation, people of our particular race or ethnicity, with people of our economic class or even of our particular congregation?
When someone comes to us who is beset by a demon or who is handicapped by a physical impediment or who is simply troubled and in need of the love and grace and support of God, do we in our response first go through our mental checklist to make sure that the one beset is, in whatever way, “like us” and not crossing a boundary to seek us out? Do we check mentally to be sure that we are not throwing the children’s bread to the dogs?
Friends, I would propose to you today what might be a rather radical idea. I propose to you that God’s grace is infinitely abundant. I propose that even the crumbs are enough for wholeness for all. Let us then examine our own walls, our fortifications, our borders and boundaries carefully. I hope that there will always be people wisdom at hand who will constantly challenge us so that even crumbs from the table are not lost. Amen.