September 9, 2012
Gathering Sunday/Christian Education Sunday
It didn’t take long for the dogs in our family to figure out the best place to sit underneath the table at mealtimes. What I mean by that is that it didn’t take long for our first dog, Boris, or our dog, Belinda, to realize that there was at least one person in the family who dropped a certain amount of crumbs during any meal. And those crumbs were fair game for a dog that moved quickly. My mom used to joke that when we would all gather at their house for an extended family meal, any dog they owned would always sit underneath the youngest grandchild’s chair. And when a grandchild wasn’t in the vicinity, the dog would sit under Grampa’s chair.
When my kids were babies, one of the many tricks they learned as they first ventured into the world of finger foods was that if they just casually held out a piece of food there would be a dog ready to eat it. So they’d feed themselves, and then feed the dog. Feed themselves. Feed the dog.
I’m so used to having a dog clean up the crumbs that spill during a mealtime, that I don’t know what to do when we eat somewhere there is no dog. Our dogs have always cleaned up the crumbs.
This is great when it’s a literal dog eating the literal crumbs that fall from a table. But it doesn’t sound so nice when this is turned into a metaphor and applied to a human being. It definitely doesn’t sound nice when it comes from Jesus. It’s as if the Superhero suddenly turned into the evil villain; Batman into the Joker or Spiderman into Green Goblin.
This isn’t what we expect when it comes to Jesus at all. Jesus is supposed to be the compassionate savior. But as Matt Skinner, professor at Luther Seminary wrote, it seems that “Jesus gets caught with his compassion down.” This is even more jarring in light of what Jesus said in the passages we read last week, the ones immediately preceding this story. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and the scribes on the issue of defilement. It is what comes out of a person, Jesus told them, what comes from their hearts that defiles.
Now we come to this story about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, and if you’ve been paying attention, you may be wondering as to the workings of Jesus’ heart when it comes to his response to this woman’s need.
Jesus has made his way to the region of Tyre. He had hoped to find a quiet, secluded place to stay there where no one could find him, but as Mark writes, “he could not escape notice.”
A woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Jesus and came to him, bowing down at his feet. She was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. When she bowed down before Jesus, she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Jesus’ answer to her is harsh. It’s downright rude. It is completely unlike the merciful, compassionate responses to broken, hurting people we’ve come to expect.
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Dogs? Jesus insults her and her daughter. Why should she be considered a dog? Because she’s a Gentile? Certainly in other passages of scripture we see Jesus being tough when the situation demands it. He didn’t hesitate to call certain groups of Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers” or physically drive out the money changers from the temple, but it’s easy to reconcile that because they always seemed to have it coming. But this woman? What was her fault, other than the happenstance of her birth and ethnicity? She came only for the healing of her child.
Yet where this response of Jesus might have stopped me in my tracks – I would have most likely left Jesus in tears – the woman is undeterred. And she comes back with a sharp reply of her own.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
You’d think that this kind of response might make Jesus angry, even more determined not to heal her daughter. Instead her words to Jesus bring about the result she had hoped and prayed for. Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
The woman didn’t ask anything else. She doesn’t speak again. She hears Jesus’ healing words, then goes home and finds her daughter lying on the bed, demon gone.
But we are still left with the question of “why?” Why did Jesus talk to the woman in this way? Why did he initially refuse to do anything for her?
One interpretation has been that this was a test. Jesus was testing this woman’s faith. As Skinner puts it, some interpreters want us to hear Jesus speaking these words with a twinkle in his eye. But that’s out of character as well. In no other passage is a person who comes to Jesus for healing tested like this. And if this were a test, why did the woman have to endure being insulted as well as tested?
Another way of looking at Jesus’ response to the woman is that Jesus wanted to be a living example to his disciples of how words can defile. I’ve approached this passage with this kind of argument before. Perhaps Jesus thought that if he parroted their cultural bias against Gentiles to this Gentile woman, then they would realize how wrong that kind of prejudice really was. The problem with this line of thinking is that as far as we can tell, Jesus was alone. Maybe the disciples were nearby, but they’re not mentioned.
Jesus went to Tyre hoping to be unnoticed. A fellow clergy person wrote in The Christian Century about how this illustrates that Jesus, like all of us needed downtime, but he couldn’t get it and his response was a grumpy consequence to his mental and physical exhaustion. He responded in a very tired, very human way.
I think that last interpretation has some merit. This is Mark’s Jesus after all. And Mark’s Jesus is very human. In his hometown he was powerless to do anything. Here he gives a cutting response to a woman in great need. Maybe his words reflected his own cultural bias. Mark’s Jesus is very human, and we reformed Christians claim that. We claim that Jesus was both human and divine. And it’s all great until Jesus acts human. Then that puts what we say we believe right back in our face and forces us to deal with what it means for the Son of God, the Messiah to be human. Maybe the human Jesus was wrong?
Now I’m not trying to let the human Jesus off the hook here, or merely gloss over what his humanity in this passage means, but it seems to me that the person who really needs to be lifted up in this part of the story is the woman.
Jew or Gentile, she was a woman in a patriarchal society. Let that sink in for a moment. She was a woman in a patriarchal society, yet she has both the gall and the daring to argue with a man; not just any man, but a man who was reputed to be a great teacher, a great healer. Some were even claiming he was the messiah the Jews were waiting for. But this great man told her no. He told her wait. It wasn’t the Gentile’s time yet. But she was not going to be put off. She was desperate because the life of her child was at stake. Wait for what?
So she argued. She persisted. In just one sentence, she demanded that Jesus be who he claimed to be. She didn’t need a lot. She knew that just a crumb of grace would be sufficient. She demanded that Jesus be who he claimed to be.
Heal my daughter! Even if I am a dog waiting for a crumb at the children’s table, you can do this. You can heal my daughter. I will not be put off. I will not wait. Heal. My. Daughter.
And Jesus does. She wins her argument. Jesus changes his mind. Maybe he even changes his heart. Her daughter is healed. Her faith was strong. It was strong enough that she didn’t ask for proof of the healing or for reassurance that all would be well. She heard Jesus’ words that the demon had left her daughter and she went home to the truth.
Jesus changed his mind. This is not unprecedented however. In Genesis, Jacob wrestles with the angel all night, refusing to be bested and refusing to let the angel go until he received a blessing. This is only one of several stories where God changes God’s mind.
But the divine mind is changed because the person demanding the change believed that God would do what God promised. The person in the argument with God trusted that God was faithful and that he or she was included in the consequences of that faithfulness. That’s what this woman did. She persisted in her faith. She willingly argued with Jesus. She trusted that Jesus would do what he said he came to do. She trusted in the abundance that had been promised. She trusted that, somehow, she was included in the consequences of that promised abundance. As I said before, she didn’t require a whole lot, just a crumb. But she trusted that that crumb would be there. Yes, her persistence was driven by her desperation. But when is it not? When I have gone toe-to-toe with God – and yes, I have argued with God on more than occasion – it wasn’t out of some philosophical need to have a discussion. It’s because I was scared and desperate and anxious. I argued with God because I have faith that God’s keeps God’s promises. I persisted because I believed that God would make good on God’s word.
Maybe that’s the real lesson – and the real good news – for us today. We have to be persistent in our belief that God makes good. We have named this day Gathering Sunday, and designated time in our service to recommit ourselves to God, to Christ and to our discipleship. We recommit ourselves to our persistent, persevering faith that God’s abundant kingdom is right here in our midst and that we share in the inheritance of that kingdom. This is a powerful story to hear then on this day when so many churches celebrate the starting of Christian Education programs and the renewal that comes at this time of year. We persist in faith because God makes good. And no matter how unlikely it may seem God’s abundance will be here for all of us, in our lives, in this congregation, in this church building, in the larger community. And we believe that in the long run, God’s abundance will be more than just crumbs. Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”