Nothing here for the dogs…

syrophoenician-womana sermon preached on Mark 7:24-30

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hat in heaven’s name is going on in this section of the Gospel according to Mark?  A woman with a deep and pressing need – her daughter is afflicted with a spiritual evil – comes to Jesus with that need and asks for help.  Yet he appears to just blow her off.

She’s a gentile, a foreigner, and he says to her, “Let the children be fed first; it is not right to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”  I beg your pardon?  Has Jesus just called this woman a dog, based entirely on her ethnic identity?  He’s willing to take care of the needs of the people of Israel – figuratively “the children” – but rejects this gentile woman as a dog?

It is all the more perplexing for us when we’ve just read from the Book of Proverbs that distinctions between poor and rich are not to be made:

  • “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.” (22:2)
  • “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” (22:9)

And biblically, “the poor” is synonymous with those in need; for the most vulnerable and marginalized.

Add to that the fact that the passage in Mark which immediately precedes tonight’s reading about the encounter between the gentile woman and Jesus is all about the hypocrisy of legalism and the way in which the Pharisees had turned faith in God into a system of exclusion, and you really have to wonder what is going on here.

But watch.  Watch and listen, as this feisty woman rises to the occasion, like a mother bear doing whatever it might take to protect her cub.  “Lord,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

Now I imagine that at this point there was a moment of deep and tense silence.  Can you hear the disciples take a collective deep breath, as they wait to see how Jesus responds?  She talked back to him, and pushed him using the very image he’d just used to dismiss her? This is a woman, and a gentile woman at that.  There is no social precedent for such presumption.

Typical of how Mark tells his stories, the answer is spare and simple:  “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”  Matthew includes an additional line in his account:  “Woman, great is your faith!”  But not Mark.  He focuses the camera on the woman’s willingness to speak and to challenge: “For saying that, you may go.”  It is done.

Now, there is a tradition of interpretation that says that Jesus had just been testing her faith all along.  It isn’t that he was dismissive of her, or that he was even derogatory in his choice of language; “dog.”  He knew all along what it would take to press her to “do the right thing,” and to come through with such devotion to her daughter. 

But I’m not so sure that is wasn’t actually the other way around.  According to the biblical scholar N.T. Wright, all along “Jesus has placed a time-bomb beside those Jewish institutions that stressed ethnic separateness; he is now confronted with the need to explode it, sooner than expected.”  In this, Jesus is confronted by a gentile woman, fiercely protective of her afflicted daughter, and willing to do whatever it was going to take to see the child healed.  Her stubborn love becomes the thing that brings to Jesus’ awareness his need to set off that time-bomb that he planted right at the outset of his ministry. 

Jesus is Son of God; he is “God with us” or God incarnate.  But make no mistake: Jesus is fully human.  He gets tired and hungry and frustrated and even angry.  Yes, he does stand in a prophetic tradition that envisioned a future time when the gentiles would share in the blessings of the kingdom.  But what we see here is how a gentile woman’s challenge jolts him into an awareness – a surprising awareness – that it was happening already. 

Again from N.T. Wright:  “No more privilege for the ‘children’; all can be healed, all must hear, and soon.”

I take great comfort in this reading of things, in seeing Jesus as being pressed to a new level of kingdom consciousness by this woman, this outsider.  It means that the world is not some great chessboard manipulated by God, with all of us being bumped around like pawns.  This woman’s loyalty to her daughter and her snap decision to challenge Jesus have a real impact on the unfolding of the redemption of the world.  She is no pawn on a cosmic chessboard.  She is at this moment more like a skilled chess player, whose unexpected move changes the shape of the whole game. 

It is a key attestation to the biblical truth that says our choices and our freedom are taken very seriously by God.  Yes, we are limited, and yes we see only partially, “as through a glass darkly” as Paul says, but that does not mean that we are nothing.  Our choices to love, to give, to forgive, to speak out, to act, all matter in the way in which our God has chosen to bring the world – to bring us – to completion and redemption. 

So love, give, forgive, speak, act, live, even challenge, in the knowledge that in sometimes hidden ways we matter.  In a tradition that remembers Abraham arguing with God, Jacob wrestling with God, Moses cajoling God, Job contending with God, and a gentile woman challenging God-with-us, our struggles and doubts and complaints to God might just be a part of the inbreaking reign of God in this oh-so-broken human world.  Ask those questions and struggle with those choices, in the full knowledge that this too is an act of faith.   Amen.

Jamie Howison

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