This gospel story (Mark 7:24-37) feels like we have a solid encounter with “cranky Jesus.”Cranky Jesus shows up other places — in the 11th chapter of Mark, Jesus curses a fig tree so that it withers and dies, because it doesn’t have any figs when he’s hungry and tired. Even though it isn’t the season for figs. And then he drives sellers out of the temple, knocking over chairs and tables and being generally angry
But THIS gospel story. Yes, Jesus is tired and trying to escape to a far away place so he can rest. But a woman whose daughter is ill — possessed by a spirit, comes to Jesus begging for his help. And it seems pretty clear that because she is a Gentile, not Jewish, Jesus refers to her as a dog — unclean scavengers. A clear rejection and insult. And don’t lose sight of the power dynamic at play — this is not an interaction between equals — Jesus is a famous teacher, and male in a society where being male means pretty much having all the power. Nothing in this story would make us believe that the woman who comes to Jesus has any wealth or privilege** – she is a mother ready to do whatever it takes to help her ailing daughter.
So what is up with Jesus? It is very tempting to try to let Jesus off the hook. I mean, come on, he’s been casting out demons all over the country. He recently fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And after that amazing meal, he gets into a fight with the Pharisees over his disciples not washing their hands before they eat. Jesus is tired. He’s a little burned out and needs a break. Maybe he’s also in need of some healing. Working in the hospital, I’ve seen this. I’ve been there. And, you know, Jesus is a good person. He’s not really a racist. He didn’t mean that.
Nope. That does not excuse those words. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
This story challenges us. It challenges our image of Jesus as flawless. But my friends, I don’t believe Jesus needed to be flawless. We believe Jesus is both human and divine. And both of the categories make Jesus capable of growth. Think about what we know of God, and the number of times God does a new thing, shifts in perspective.
–In Genesis, after the flood, when God declares that God will never again destroy the earth with a flood.
–When Abraham barters with God, convincing God that for the sake of just ten people, it would be worth saving the town of Sodom.
–According to the prophet Isaiah (43:19), God says Behold, I am doing a new thing.
–In the book of Revelation, God makes a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem — (21:5) See, I am making all things new.
We talk about God never changing — what does not change is God’s mercy. God’s deep, abiding, saving love for us all. This is constant. This we trust completely.
And Jesus we know as both human and divine.
–Who grows in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Who is able to be moved.
–One who weeps at the death of Lazarus.
–Who has compassion for a weeping widow whose only son has died (Luke 7:13).
–Who like a mother hen longs to “gather her brood under her wings.” (Luke 13:34).
I believe one of the most powerful things about this story for us to hear is the witness of this unnamed Syro-Phoenician woman. This Gentile mother, who reminds me of so many parents I have known at the hospital, who would rather be the one suffering than their child, who will do literally whatever it takes to save their beloved children. Who know a very deep suffering. I have sat with this woman, wept with this woman, hoped with this woman. And there are times that I have seen this woman judged, shamed, put down, ignored. This experience, where the great healer rejects and puts down this pleading mother — it happens in our world, when the people with power, with the ability to help, instead reject and cause harm.
But THIS mother. She knows that Jesus is the one that can help her, and she has nothing to lose. You know, it wasn’t until I began working at the hospital as a chaplain that it really hit me just how many times Jesus literally heals. What a huge part of Jesus’ ministry that was. There’s a lot of talk about casting out demons in the gospels, and we don’t really know exactly what that meant, but think about the demons we know. Mental illness. Addiction. Cancer. Chronic pain. Trauma. Violence. Suffering. So many demons.
This woman knows that Jesus is the one that can help. Some parents I’ve known would have walked on eggshells around Jesus, not daring to say anything that might offend him. Other parents I’ve known would have erupted. Days of exhaustion, fear and suffering with your child, followed by this insult sometimes lead to anger, violence, verbal and physical.
But THIS woman … she remains calm. She does not back down, because she knows that Jesus is the one with the power to help her daughter. And even though Jesus has just suggested she is no better than a dog, she responds with this — “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Pastor LaDonna Sanders Nkosi says that “If it is true that Jesus came first for the children of Israel and then after that for the rest, the woman demonstrates that perseverance and protest can bring about a new paradigm. Syrophoenician or not, this woman’s daughter is healed, delivered, and set free.”
This woman had nothing lose. The survival of her daughter was at stake, and so she spoke boldly, humbly, telling the truth. And through her words, she changes things. She brings healing.
And immediately Jesus’ ears are opened. He speaks plainly and her daughter is healed.
I was reading a reflection on this story by Professor Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches at the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Cameroon. She notes that her students are particularly bothered by this text, in part because in Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and in their community, they have heard Muslims use this story to tell people that Christian faith is not really for Africans.
Rev. Dr. Johnson reminds them that it’s easy to take one verse out of context, but that when you read to the end of the story, Jesus praises the woman’s faith, her daughter is healed, and in the end we are ALL included in the gift of salvation, no matter what our nationality, ethnicity or social status.
But then she says this.
“…then I realize that it’s easy for me to say that, coming from a place of privilege as a white American. I sense that my students are not convinced that it is enough to have crumbs from the table. Materially speaking, that is pretty much all that they have ever had. They don’t want to be told that they should be satisfied with spiritual crumbs as well.
“For those of us who are used to having a place at the table, perhaps we need to be reminded that none of us has any right or privilege whatsoever to claim with God. We all come as beggars to the table, and it is solely by God’s grace that we are fed. Perhaps we also need to be reminded that God’s table is immeasurably larger than we can imagine.”
“(And) for those who identify more easily with the Syrophoenician woman begging for crumbs, it must be said that Jesus does not leave any of us in a state of beggarliness. He seats us at the table and claims us as God’s beloved children — children from every tribe and language and nation. Even crumbs from the table would be enough for our healing and salvation. But Jesus has given more than enough. He sets an abundant, life-giving feast for all.”
Jesus has given beyond what we need. Like this Gentile woman, we know that Jesus is the one that can heal us, save us, give us abundant life. Like this Gentile woman, we have nothing to lose.
But we forget that.
We get attached to things that don’t save us. Maybe we are attached to our work, how that names and identifies us. Or attached to the things that make us comfortable — maybe more clothes or belongings or food than we possibly need. We get attached to the comfort in the way we worship, the way we do things here, familiar hymns, words, people. We expect people to join us in the way we do things.
My friends, those are not the things that actually give us life or save us. We must look to Jesus for that. It is Jesus’ life — his teaching, healing, boundary crossing for the sake of the good news — his life, his death and his resurrection, that save us, that include us in a promise of everlasting abundant life.
And as people who follow Jesus, that gives us a clear path to follow. In Isaiah we are reminded that this path with God opens the eyes of the blind, unstops the ears of the deaf, that the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy, waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
James warns us about dishonoring the poor. He reminds us that we shall love our neighbor as ourself, that we must show mercy, and that if our neighbor lacks food or clothing, but all we do is say “peace be with you and good luck,” not helping with our neighbor’s bodily needs, this is not true faith.
What are the barriers that keep us from doing justice, from walking with and caring for the poor and vulnerable people who are our neighbors, in our midst? What keeps us from truly making all people welcome? Where do our ears need to be opened and our tongues released?
Because friends, there’s one more story here.
After healing the daughter of this bold, truth-telling Gentile woman, Jesus continues in Gentile territory, in the region of Decapolis. A man who is deaf with a speech impediment is brought to him. Jesus takes the man away from the crowds, puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits and touches the man’s tongue, and says “Ephphatha, Be opened.”
And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
Just as Jesus’ ears were opened, just as this man who was deaf had his ears opened, just as their tongues were released and they spoke plainly, may it be so with us. May we follow Jesus in a path of truth telling. Of welcome. Of willingness to be transformed and healed. May our ears be opened, our tongues be released and may we speak plainly, words of justice and mercy.
Ephphatha. Be opened. Let it be so. Amen.
I preached this sermon at Lutheran Church of Hope, Anchorage, Alaska, on Sept. 9, 2018 (Proper 18b, for you lectionary nerds).
Notes: **Nothing in the commentaries I read suggested the Syro-Phoenician had any wealth, power or privilege. However, since I wrote this sermon, I’ve read two amazing sermons that suggest that being from Tyre, the Syro-Phoenician woman may actually have been wealthy … I commend these sermons by Rev. Asher O’Callaghan and Vicar Matta Ghaly, CSJC.