September 6, 2015
WWJD. Do any of you remember the meaning of that combination of letters? WWJD – what would Jesus do? When I was serving as a solo pastor for the first time, this phrase went – to use contemporary parlance – viral. It was stamped onto multi-colored, rubber bracelets and these bracelets were everywhere. They were handed out to youth groups and Sunday school classes. I believe that youth were the initial target audiences for this campaign, but I saw plenty of older people wearing them as well.
The idea behind this was simple. When you were facend with a confusing situation, a challenging circumstance or an ethical or moral test, you were to stop and ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” I think the hope was that the person asking this question would think carefully before acting, and even more than that, allow faith to guide them rather than cultural pressure.
It was a great idea. I don’t dispute that one iota. I am sure there were a lot of people, young and old, who found this simple reminder a blessing in how they handled tough situations. But as with every kind of campaign, there were criticisms as well. One of the critiques was that every ethical situation we encounter today is not spelled out in scripture. So asking what Jesus would do was simply a guessing game rather than a way to put faith in action. Supporters of the campaign would agree with this, but their answer was that Jesus’ response to the circumstances he faced was grounded in God’s love, mercy, justice, etc. Even though someone might face a situation Jesus never encountered, he or she could still find guidance in Jesus’ person, in his being God’s Son. Other critics said that the real question to be asked was not, “what would Jesus do,” but “what would Jesus have you do.” WWJHYD. That many letters gets a little cumbersome though. WWJD was easier to remember and easier, perhaps, to put into action.
As far as I know though, a motto that was never suggested was, “WWJS – what would Jesus say.” When we come to the passage we have before us today, that is a good thing. Because what Jesus said was harsh, rude, and insulting.
When this woman of Syrophoenician origin, this Gentile, came to Jesus, knelt before him, and begged for him to heal her daughter, he didn’t remark on her faith or empathize with her need. Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
What would Jesus say?
These words are not easily sugarcoated or explained away. Centuries of theologians have tried. Some apologists claimed that Jesus said this with a wink and crossed fingers. He didn’t mean these words; he just wanted the woman to show her faith. Others have pontificated that Jesus said this so the disciples would have an example of how patriarchal and wrong their culture and society was. This was an example of what not to do. These explanations may sound good and plausible, but there is no indication in the text that either of these explanations are true.
We read immediately that Jesus went into the house in Tyre looking to be alone. He did not want to be noticed. So how were the disciples supposed to understand his teachings if they did not witness this teachable moment?
Perhaps in John’s gospel, Jesus might have said this with a wink and a nod, as a test of the woman’s faithfulness. But this is Mark’s gospel. Mark’s gospel reveals the most human Jesus. Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. We love to celebrate Jesus’ humanity, until he actually sounds human. Truth be told, his humanity in this situation makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like it. Where is the good shepherd? Where is the friend of little children? Where is the savior who seeks out the lost and the lonely?
This woman, who by accident of birth was a Gentile, came to Jesus with desperate need. And Jesus compared her to a dog. Referring to a person or a people as dogs was a scathing insult. To be a called a dog in this way was to be called ravenous and scavenging. This dog of the Gentiles wanted to scavenge from the children of Israel.
But the woman, who whether she was a Gentile or a Jew would have had a lowly place in society because she was a woman, turned Jesus’ words around and threw them back at him.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
These were bold and daring words. Perhaps her desperation to save her daughter gave her moxie she might not have had otherwise, but in this moment she was filled with it. She refused to slink away. She needed help. She knew Jesus could give that help. She would not let his words deter her purpose.
No longer was she a ravenous, scavenging hound. She was a loyal dog, a family pet. She was the puppy who lies underneath the table, ready to lap up what the children drop. Maybe she wasn’t one of the children, but she was still a member of the family. And all she wanted was a crumb.
This very human Jesus realized and accepted the truth in her words. He didn’t bluster or try to shore up his dignity at being bested by this woman. He changed his mind. He relented and healed her daughter.
What would Jesus say? What would Jesus do?
In claiming the name Christian, we say to the world that we strive to be like Jesus. Here’s the problem, I think when it comes to this human Jesus and his initial response to this woman – this outsider and other – we are. We are like Jesus. I know that this is a highly condemning statement for me to make. Please know that I condemn myself first. I know that when people come to me seeking help, seeking a crumb, a morsel of kindness, I too often say I can’t. I can’t for no other reason than I have to do for my own first. My own are the ones who count. Yet who really counts? There are millions of people in the world today seeking just a crumb. Just a crumb. According to the research I did, there are approximately 19.5 million people in the world with refugee status. This is the highest number of refugees since World War II. This number has skyrocketed in just the last five years. 19.5 million. That number should send us to our knees. What are these people looking for but a crumb? They are not seeking to be refugees or choosing this as a way of life. They are fleeing homelands that are no longer home. They are trying to save their families, their children.
I cannot imagine any of us not seeing or hearing about the little Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach this week. He and his family were trying to get to Greece from Turkey, trying to find shelter and asylum … somewhere. They just wanted a crumb.
I think as Christians, we have to stop asking, “Who counts?” I know that our resources are limited. I know that we can only do so much for so many, and the needs of people all around us are overwhelming. But that Gentile woman would not let Jesus send her away. She persisted in her plea because she counted too. Her daughter counted. When we are faced with such great and desperate need, the answer to the question, “Who counts?” is all of us. Every person. Every child of God. Those of us who are lucky enough to have homes where we have some modicum of safety count. And those of us who are fleeing homes that are no longer safe count. We all count. So how will we answer that need? What can we do to help? How can we be the voice for those who are voiceless?
There are millions of people looking for a crumb. Perhaps our congregation is like Queen Esther. When faced with the destruction of her people and having the ability to help, her cousin encouraged her by saying that maybe God had brought her into her role as queen for “such a time as this.” As we shed the demands of a building, we have the opportunity to reach out to others like never before. Maybe we were brought to this moment, to this place, for such a time as this? Maybe this is our moment to remind the world that all of God’s children count. I know that the need out there is bigger than us, but we can do what Jesus did. We can acknowledge where we go wrong, offer our help, contribute to the healing of our brothers and sisters around the world, and give all that we can. Even if all we can give seems nothing more than a crumb. Because we know the answer to the question, “Who counts?”
Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”