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 Pushing the Boundary

Sermon - 9/9/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 7:24-30

Have you ever been shocked by the Gospel?  You should be.  I have often made the case that Galatians 3:28 should be updated for today.  You remember the passage, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.”  Pick the pair of opposites you find the most difficult: Obama or Romney, Frank Sinatra or Frank Zappa, Queen Elizabeth or Queen Latifa, Ashton Eaton or me --and you will begin to get a sense of the original meaning of this text.  At our River Rally several years ago I suggested the pairs “Republican or Democrat, Duck or Beaver, gay or straight.”  Now, none of the youth appeared to take offense with that, not even the Beaver fans present, but one of the adults did.  He wasn’t just a little upset, he was very upset.  And I don’t think it was the first two pairs that got him upset.  As far as he was concerned, I was condoning homosexuality and solely responsible for leading our youth down the road to perdition.  His strong reaction to my claim precisely illustrates my point.  Even if you don’t believe the Gospel is that inclusive, you at least get a sense for how challenging it was to many in the first century.

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 28But she answered him, ‘Sir,even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

This story in Mark presents that kind of challenge.  It has two if not three real shockers.  The first is what one can only call “that woman”, to quote a certain former President once again in the limelight this past week.  Like most women with brief, though significant, roles in the Gospel (i.e. the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the woman who touched Jesus’ robe), this woman is unnamed, but not anonymous.  Women like her are never anonymous--everyone knows who they are.  You know the type: pushy, provocative, demanding.  Much like the mom played by Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, the story of the black, homeless kid who went on to become an All American football player after being adopted into a white, middle class family.  There is a great scene in the movie where the petite Bullock confronts a group of mean looking drug users from her adopted son’s old neighborhood and she makes it clear in no uncertain terms that they dare not mess with her “son” or they will have to deal with her and that is something they do not want to do.  They are like, “yes ma’am”, “whatever you say, ma’am”.

This woman will do anything for her sick child.  She doesn’t care if Jesus is the Son of God, she’s going to get him to do what she wants him to do.  Only she has at least three strikes against her.  First, she is a woman, and likely a single mom too, otherwise she would have been accompanied by her husband.  If she did not have a husband, then her nearest male relative should have accompanied her because it was unthinkable in that time and place for a lone woman to approach a Jewish man.  But this woman is not about to let the absence of a man deter her from an opportunity to help her daughter.  Single women take note:  it is possible to find fulfillment in life without a man.  Married women, don’t get any foolish ideas in your head!  Actually, this woman is a good role model for all, especially for single mothers as we will see.

Second, this woman is a gentile, a pagan in the eyes of the Jews in that day.  According to their norms, good Jews did all they could to avoid contact with Gentiles and hence, good Gentiles respected and honored their traditions.  This woman is not about to let customs hinder her either.

Third, she is uninvited and likely unwelcome in the home where Jesus was, for it was undoubtedly a Jewish home.  Mark makes a point of saying that Jesus is trying to get away from people who want something from him.  He needs a little “R and R” after a busy week feeding the crowds and healing people—it’s hard work being the Messiah!—so he goes somewhere he thinks he won’t be noticed, across the border into Tyre which is modern day Lebanon, north of Galilee. 

It doesn’t work.  His reputation precedes him and this woman, not only a gentile but also multi-racial, interjects herself into the Jewish enclave of Jesus and his disciples.  In Matthew’s version of this story they try to ignore her.  That doesn’t work so Jesus then tries to dismiss her with some rather derogatory words. This is the second shocker.  Surely these are the harshest words ever placed upon the lips of our Lord:  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Did you hear that?  Jesus, in essence, has just called this woman a dog. “Dog” when used in reference to people of another heritage is a well-known insult both then and now.  The Apostle Paul, referring to Judaizers in the church, writes to the church in Philippi, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers…” (Phil. 3:2) 

Speaking of dogs, Judy and I lived for 6 and a half years in Fresno, home of the Fresno State Bulldogs.  So it makes it tough when the old home team comes to town.  Do I root for the Ducks to win, or do I root for the Ducks to annihilate them?  I was torn.  I was a Duck fan long before we moved to Fresno, I even stayed up to 3 a.m. one time when I was able to get a Duck game in Berlin some 30 years ago.  While I have a lot of fun with it, and it is a lot more fun these days, I have to also say that I am ashamed at the way we have ignored the seriousness of injuries to athletes for the sake of our entertainment and so appreciate the recent series by the Register Guard on concussions and the attention this critical issues is finally getting. And those who engage in unsportsmanlike like behavior, seeking to intentionally cause injury whether on the field or off, have no place in sports at any level.

And this is no joke on the lips of Jesus, this is nothing less than a racial slur and therefore disturbing to hear especially coming from him.  I mentioned my favorite line from the Republican convention last week.  My favorite line this week came from neither candidate but from the First Lady when Michelle Obama said, “If a door opens to you to give you a new opportunity, you don’t close the door behind you, you take someone’s hand to pull them along with you.”  Yeah, that’s right. 

When Jesus comes to town this woman sees it as a door that has been opened for her child, only to have Jesus slam the door shut.  That’s not the Jesus we thought we knew.  It is somewhat comforting to learn that my favorite Jesus scholars, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan do not believe Jesus ever uttered these words.  Instead, they see this as justification made by the followers of Jesus as to why Jesus did not go to the Gentiles.  It is just another way of saying that his mission was first to the lost sheep of Israel, which is precisely what Jesus says in Matthew’s version of this story.

Think about it this way.  In the context of the early church, where Jews and Gentiles sat next to each other, worshipped and most importantly, ate side by side, how do you think they responded to this story?  Might the Jewish Christians be a little embarrassed by what Jesus has inferred about their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters?  And how did those Gentile converts to the faith respond? Maybe there were some like some in gay community who have taken the derogatory “queer” and turned it around, saying “We are not ashamed to be called queer, that’s who we are.”  In the context of a mixed racial community, this reference to Gentiles as dogs, I think, could only be read one way—as satire or parody of the stereotypical racial put down, which, by the time Mark was written, had been thoroughly and effectively repudiated by Paul.  You will recall the verse with which I began, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…”

I suspect that instead of being highly offended by this remark from Jesus, the Gentiles of the early church were slightly bemused, especially when they heard the woman’s rejoinder that turns this slight against them on its head.  And this is the third shocker of this story.  The response of this uppity pagan woman, “even the dogs get the crumbs”, is accepted by Jesus as the winning argument of the day. 

Remember how Jesus goes head to head with all of the intellectual leaders of Israel and time after time stumps them? 

“Is it right to pay taxes?” they ask.  “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God which is God’s.” 

Why do your disciples gather food on the Sabbath?  “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” 

How do we know you are not doing the work of the devil?  “A house divided cannot stand.”

Here it is the reverse, Jesus is in effect stumped, intellectually matched by a pagan woman and instead of seeking some face-saving way to avoid admitting he is wrong, he accepts it!  Do you realize how rare that would have been for any male in the first century to acquiesce to a woman, let alone a Jewish male to a pagan woman, let alone the Son of God to this woman?!  Men, take a lesson here from Jesus.  He isn’t “letting” her win, he is giving her the greatest gift he can possibly give, socially speaking, of that time, acknowledging her words as the truth.  He then follows that gift with another, he grants her request, told as almost an afterthought to the story.  Oh, and by the way, the child was also healed, as it that were a minor thing.

Thus this story begins with all kinds of barriers between this woman and Jesus that would seem to make her quest impossible.  Barriers breached at first by the tenacity of this woman and then demolished by Jesus when he accepts her claim as sufficient justification to heal her daughter.  I would suggest to you that the real miracle of this story is not the healing of the woman’s daughter, but the healing of the social divisions which separated Jew from Gentile, man from woman.  This is why this rather troubling story is passed down to us by Mark for it is a witness to the brokenness of the world overcome by the healing of Christ.

Note one last troubling and challenging aspect of this story.  Mark makes no claim for the faith of the woman.  That omission must have bothered some for in Matthew’s later telling of this tale, Jesus says to her what we expect to hear:  “Great is your faith.”  And we assume it is because of her faith that her daughter is healed.  But is it?  Or is it not her sheer tenacity that saves her daughter?  That she won’t give up until she gets what she wants, what her child needs?  Like the story Jesus tells of the woman who won’t give the judge any peace until he grants her petition, so too in this story it is the determination of this woman which wins the heart of Jesus.

Here is an important lesson for us.  Faith alone does not always give us what we seek.  You may have faith you’ll find a job, but unless you make it your job to find one, your faith will likely go unrewarded.  You may have faith that your marriage will succeed, but unless you work to make it so, it likely will not.  You may have faith that the church will grow, but unless we work as hard as the farmer growing his or her crops, it is not going to happen.  You may have faith that God will make you well, but you do well to also have faith in your doctor.  You may have faith that your brother and sister will be there for you in your time of need, but if you are not there in their time of need, don’t hold your breath.

No, this woman isn’t a model of faith to emulate, she is a model of tenacity, courage and determination to emulate.  She is a strong woman in a society that wanted women to be dependent, a help mate, not independent people who could stand up for themselves to declare the rights they deserved.  She isn’t a model of faith, she is the model for Rosa Parks who dared to sit in the front of the bus reserved for whites only.  She is the model for coal miners who first dared to organize to protect their rights as workers.  She is the model for moms who go to battle for their kids when they are bullied by classmates.    She is a model for men and women in uniform who happen to be gay and who say they will not return to the closet after decades of fighting for the right to be honest, open and proud to serve as they are in our military.  She is a model for the Occupiers who dare to question why thousands have been forced out of their homes by foreclosures when those most responsible for the housing crisis receive million dollar bonuses.  She is a model for those young adults brought to this country as children without proper documentation, educated in our schools who know no other place, who want to go to college, serve in our military and now are finally able to work legally so they too can earn a decent wage and support a family.  “Even the dogs,” says this woman, “get the crumbs under the table.” And may we, inspired by her example, build such a society where no one is left with the crumbs and all are welcome at our table. 

I have faith that good will triumph, that life will win over death, that love is stronger than hate, that civil rights are to be shared by all, that God knows no prejudice, and I will do everything in my power to make it so.  This is what “that woman” can teach us.  I give thanks to God that Jesus had the strength and wisdom to learn from her and pray that we do as well.


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