Sunday, September 9, 2018

"Welcome Table." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Mark 7:24-37



"Even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." - Mark 7:24-37

"Welcome Table"

Mark 7:24-37; Proverbs 22:1-2, 9-9, 22-23; Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10, 14-17


Let’s be honest. This passage is difficult. Disturbing.
            Can you the desperate, pleading look in this woman’s eyes? The yearning in her voice? Her desperation--that she would cross over barriers, seeking healing for her sick daughter?  She literally throws herself down at Jesus’ feet.  She risks her dignity…and risks being shamed—to enter a home where she isn’t wanted, to throw herself down in front of Jesus, who didn’t want to see her.
            And how does Jesus respond?  Not in the way we might have hoped.  This woman is literally begging for help for her daughter, and Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
            If Jesus' words trouble you, you're in good company.  Biblical scholars have struggled with this saying for centuries, but especially, I think, over the past few decades.
            In the parallel story in Matthew, Jesus doesn't even answer the woman.   When the disciples urge Jesus to send her away, Jesus says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."[1] 
`           It sounds like Jesus is dismissing and insulting this woman.  Now, a few commentators have tried to soften the effect. In their interpretation, Jesus was talking about feeding cute little puppies.  But that wouldn’t really be an accurate translation.
            One interpretation softens the story by saying Jesus isn’t really insulting the woman. He’s just testing her. She passes the test, and her daughter is healed.
            I think this story is troubling for a number of reasons.  It seems that Mark wants to be sure we know who this woman is.  He tells us, “the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by descent.”  In other words, she’s not Jewish.
            Contrast how Jesus responds to this un-named Gentile woman with the named male, Jewish leader earlier in Mark.  Jesus went with Jairus and healed his daughter.  No problem. 
            But now Jesus is in Tyre, which is Gentile territory, when he says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 
            I think Mark wants to make sure what a big deal it is when Jesus ultimately performs the miraculous healing. 
            So, what do we do with this story? 
            Some scholars believe that Jesus had a long-range evangelistic plan to go to the Jews first, and then later to the Gentiles.  In their thinking, Jesus isn't so much saying no--   as he’s saying, "First things first.  One thing at a time."
            But the language Jesus used!    "Dogs?"   From what I've read, it's a racist, derogatory term commonly used at the time by some Jews who wanted to put down gentiles.  A lot of people in that culture in Jesus' time thought this Gentile woman has no business being in the company of any Jew-- much less the Messiah. So, some scholars believe Jesus was giving voice to the traditional beliefs of the time as a test of the woman's faith, while some believe he was voicing those narrow beliefs to let her make the point that needed to be made.
           Jesus has been challenging a lot of the traditional religious beliefs and breaking through a lot of the barriers that separated people.

            Some scholars believe that this desperate, emboldened woman changed Jesus' mind about his mission and who he was called to save. I lean toward that understanding myself, as I remember the context.   In Mark’s narrative, this story is sandwiched in between the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand.  Is the bread of life that Jesus offers intended only for the children of Israel?  Or is there enough for everyone? 
            I know there are people who are troubled by the idea that Jesus would change his mind. I think we need to keep chewing on this for now.  Like Jacob at the River Jabbok—we need to keep wrestling with it until we receive a blessing. 
            Consider this: Maybe Jesus hasn’t quite fully realized the implications of his kingdom at this point. The religious tradition of his time was concerned with dichotomies of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy, who’s inside God’s salvation plan and who’s out.
            Maybe at this point, he really believes he has come for the Israelites--until he has this encounter with this Syrophoenician woman who tests him, stretches his imagination and reminds him that God’s kingdom includes all people-- Jews and Gentiles and Samaritans-- everyone.
            Could it be that God’s kingdom is so big, so gracious and wildly inclusive that it even takes Jesus a little while to really comprehend it?
            In any case, this woman doesn't back down.  I love the way one of my colleagues puts it:  "Dog indeed!  She keeps right on nipping at Jesus' heels."[2]   The woman dares to take his metaphor and turn it back on him.  Even on these terms, there still should be something from him-- some scrap of grace-- for someone like her, someone who comes to him in faith.   The woman seems to trust in the abundance Jesus keeps teaching about.  She seems to be challenging him to judge her by what's in her heart. 
            Where the religious establishment and their traditions could only see an outsider-- Jesus sees the woman's heart of faith, and her persistence, and he heals her child.  From this point on, Jesus continues to expand the circle of God's mercy to include those others consider outsiders.  He welcomes all who put their faith in him.  So, when you look at the big-picture story, it does look like Jesus changes his mind and his plan.
            That's good news for us.     We are all welcome.   We are all included in the circle of God’s mercy.   When Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, it meant his church would be open to the world.  In response, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be open to those whom some people see as outsiders, outcasts, and sinners.  We are called to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.  
            So, what does all this mean for us today?      
            The Syrophoenician woman and the friends of the deaf and mute man refused to believe that God’s mercy and healing are limited to insiders and people like us.  They believed that Jesus could immediately meet their needs.  They embodied a faith that trusts in God’s goodness and abundance—a faith that pushes past legalism and exclusivity. 
            When we allow our ears and our hearts to be open—the Syrophoenician woman can teach us that, in God’s abundant economy, there is enough for everybody.  There is enough--if we reach out and share.
            As Jill Duffield points out, the lectionary texts for this Sunday are Christianity 101 or perhaps basic instructions for being a decent human being. Taken all together, Jill suggests a list of ten basics:
  1. God created everyone. Every. Single. Person. We have that in common no matter our other myriad differences.
  2. Integrity is more valuable than material wealth in the eyes of God. Therefore, always choose a good name over great riches. (Um, that might be a timely word, friends.)
  3. The Lord pleads the case of the poor. Ergo, so should we.
  4. Generosity is a blessing all around, for the giver and the receiver.
  5. Don’t exploit the poor. (There are too many examples to list how the poor are exploited: title loans, cash bail, prison labor, subprime loans, higher prices on groceries in food deserts. The list is very, very long. Do a little digging into the policies and systems in your community, pick a few and hold them up in contrast to Christianity 101 this week.)
  6. A person’s value does not equate to their monetary net worth. A person is valuable because, well, see number one on this list. God does not care how much or how little is in your bank account. See number two on this list.
  7. Love your neighbor as yourself. Really. Not in theory, but in daily, tangible practice. See number 5 for more information.
  8. Faith is visible to all. How we live reflects our deepest beliefs, revealing what and who we truly value. (Please don’t go to lunch after worship, clearly having been to church, and treat the server badly and leave a meagerly tip. Please, just don’t.)
  9. When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, at the very least treat him with dignity, respect and kindness, even if you cannot do for him what he hopes you can do.
  10. When someone comes to you in pain and suffering, do what you can do to alleviate her pain and suffering, no matter who she is, where she comes from or how that pain and suffering came to be.[3]
            The story about the Syrophoenician woman is a turning point in the gospel, as Jesus re-defines who is acceptable in God’s eyes. The healing in the gospels turns out to include stories about healing of divisions in our communities and society. Strangers are welcomed. Outsiders become part of the family of God. God’s law is the law of love-- the love in our hearts and the hospitality and compassion we live in our lives.
            My friends, this is GOOD NEWS!  So, like the people in the gospel story, may we be astounded and say, “He has done everything well!”
            As followers of Jesus, may we embody God’s abundant compassion, so that people will look at us. May they be astounded with us, and say, “They do everything well!
            So be it!   Amen!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
September 9, 2018





[1] Matthew 15:21-28.
[2] Heidi Husted, “When the Gospel Goes to the Dogs,” in Christian Century (Aug. 16, 2000)  https://www.christiancentury.org/article//when-gospel-goes-dogs

[3]  Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary.”   https://pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary/