*Sermon preached on 09 Sep 2018, at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA. I do think that much of what we are wrestling with in our society, so often described along perhaps uncomfortable political lines, is where this text calls us to to perceive who and what the Table of the Lord really encompasses. In so many ways, this nameless woman is like so many whose voices in our society have not been heard. I encourage you to ponder it in the context of now, for the Word is ever relevant and prophetic. Like any sermon, I raise questions with the hope you will seek answers.
Gospel of Mark 7:24-37 (New Revised Standard Version)
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
At the start of my first tour in the Navy, our little family lived out in Shonan Takatori, a community sandwiched between the cities of Yokosuka and Yokohama, Japan, about 10-15 minutes from our naval base at Yokosuka.
It took a bit of getting used to, all the cultural differences. It was safe enough to leave the keys in the car, with a license plate starting with the English letter of Y identifying us as Ginjing… foreigners. It was safe enough to leave the house unlocked and have no worries. Well, except for one thing…
Julie stepped out of the bathroom one morning only to be greeted by a gentleman standing inside our house. You see, just inside the door is the genkan, the small entry area in Japanese homes that’s a step lower than the floor of the home. Tiled, it’s where the shoes come off, a barrier against dirt so as to not damage the tatami mats that cover the house floor.
That was the day we discovered that that little area is considered part of the sidewalk, open to anyone – delivery people, neighbors, complete strangers, unless one locks the door.
Yeah, Julie really liked that! Not.
This memory struck me as I read the words from the Gospel, of what it’s like for when someone intrudes themselves into our space, into the sanctity our home.
We don’t generally embrace intrusions.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
Yet in the text this morning from Mark – it’s an intrusion that’s in play, one that’s both social and theological, and it comes on the heels of the previous chapter when Jesus made clear with regards purity before God – it’s the content of a person’s character which is of interest to God. So the intrusion Jesus experienced will have something to say to us about the authentic boundaries of heaven – not merely the boundaries we might construct.
It’s not clear, given Mark’s typically sparse words, why Jesus was in what we now would call southern Lebanon… if it was just a break from the crowds or a transitional point that nodded to the expansion to whom Jesus Christ brings good news.
We do know Jesus was in a home, across the border from the Judean north country, apparently attempting to keep a low profile, all in vain. His name and his healing works in that pre-channel news and social media era, had still apparently spread like the proverbial wildfire, even into non-Jewish areas.
We do know that Mark doesn’t say a word about the homeowner him or herself, only that Jesus is there, probably at table with his disciples, eating and chatting. Then, this Syrophoenician woman comes right on in. She didn’t stop at the entrance. She is bold in action and word.
We do know that in the path of Christ that was unfolding – a sequence of events that would eventually culminate in the crucifixion, resurrection, and the sending forth of the disciples into all the nations – Jesus dealing with the dividing line of nations or of tribes that defined people in the sight of God, wasn’t yet on the agenda. It didn’t matter.
We do know that in the reading of the Gospels, Jesus’s encounters with women were consistently defined by those who would not be pushed away… or shushed by others… but who were embraced by his compassion and honored for their faith. It had never mattered as to their social standing as women, but now it was moving outside the Chosen People.
We do know that even though she was a Syrophoenician, due to Tyre’s proximity to Judea, a major port, she would have had exposure to Jewish customs. It’s also fair to say, she would know she had no given authority to approach Jesus. A Phoenician, a Gentile, a pagan, a woman, and with a daughter having an unclean spirit – let’s face it, she would likely have known that she had none of the religious, moral, and cultural credentials expected of those approaching a devout Jewish male, much less a rabbi and one of such renown.
We do know that she was a nobody in a sense. Nothing is said about her social standing, other than she was a single mother. We don’t even know her name, only that she entered a home without an invite, fell down and began to beg Jesus to heal her daughter. She doesn’t stop with a single plea, as the present tense of the verb “Beg” conveys an ongoing action. She has no quit in her.
We do know that she is a mother on a mission. Saying “No” won’t cause her to walk away. It’s as if she is the embodiment of a parable Jesus used to speak of the “need to pray always and not to lose heart,” for in Luke 18 he told the tale of how
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
It sure seems a bit familiar as we wrestle with today’s text from Mark, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s why Jesus’ response can seem so stunning. These days Twitter would have been aflame upon hearing such words, 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.”
As one author notes, “On the surface, this appears to be an insult. We are a canine-loving society, but in New Testament times most dogs were scavengers – wild, dirty, uncouth in every way. Their society was not canine-loving, and to call someone a dog was a terrible insult. In Jesus’ day the Jews often called the Gentiles dogs because they were ‘unclean.’ Is what Jesus says to her just an insult, then? No, it’s a parable… One key to understanding it is the very unusual word Jesus uses for ‘dogs’ here. He uses a diminutive form, a word that really means “puppies.” Remember, the woman is a mother. Jesus is saying to her, ‘You know how families eat: First the children eat at the table, and afterward their pets eat too. It is not right to violate that order. The puppies must not eat food from the table before the children do.’”
As Keller continues, “If we go to Matthew’s account of this incident, he gives us a slightly longer version of Jesus’s answer in which Jesus explains his meaning: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ Jesus concentrated his ministry on Israel, for all sorts of reasons. He was sent to show Israel that he was the fulfillment of all Scripture’s promises, the fulfillment of all the prophets, priests, and kings, the fulfillment of the temple. But after he was resurrected, he immediately said to the disciples, ‘Go to all the nations.’ His words, then, are not the insult they appear to be. What he’s saying to the Syrophoenician woman is, ‘Please understand, there’s an order here. I’m going to Israel first, then the Gentiles (the other nations) later.’”
She’s a mom and when a child’s involved, I don’t know a mother who is all that interested in the big theological picture of God’s plan for the world – when she’s worried about a sick child.
She’s a mom, and her child IS her world.
Mark adds how the mother is saying to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, but the puppies eat from that table too, and I’m here for mine.”
She’s a mom who understands that she isn’t in the sequence of priorities, by birth or by faith. I think the sense of what she is saying is “I may not have a place at the table – but there’s more than enough on that table for everyone in the world, and I need mine now.” She’s not saying, “Lord, give me what I deserve on the basis of my goodness,” instead she is saying, “Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of your goodness, and I need it now.”
Let me repeat that, “Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of YOUR goodness.” That sounds a whole lot like grace, doesn’t it?
She’s a mom who recognizes she isn’t entitled to a place at the table by accident of birth as much as anything else. She isn’t standing on rights, or dignity, or goodness. She’s standing on her “rightless assertiveness,” as Keller puts it, even as she asserts the need she brings to Jesus.
She’s a mom and much more, amid a Jacob-like verbal wrestling with our Lord, holding her ground with someone who is far more than a rabbi alone. I like how one commentator elegantly puts it:
“Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility. It appears she recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to. ‘Go ahead, children, eat all you want. But what if your table can’t contain all the food Jesus brings? The excess must therefore start spilling to the floor — even now.”’ [Skinner]
When I flipped the page of an old commentary of my Dad’s and opened it to the version of this miracle/parable story as in Matthew, a slip of paper tumbled out. A narrow slip, which is what my Dad wrote his sermon notes on, in his nearly illegible handwriting Dad wrote: “I never cease to be amazed by Jesus’ wonderful gift of talking with the people he encountered in various places.”
It’s easy to miss that in this exchange, as we contemplate “rights” from the perspective of our society which has so elevated personal rights at the expense of social responsiveness and responsibility. Yet, Jesus did not dismiss her. He stayed in the conversation, and in this exchange the teachable moment becomes ours as well. Dad was onto something: Jesus talked WITH her, not at her.
In an age when too many are still held back, treated as socially inferior, religiously marginalized, and politically unequal, it’s here in the Gospel of Mark that a nameless woman who is all of those things becomes the FIRST to understand a parable of Jesus. It’s the nameless who grasps the deeper understanding. Jesus leaves none of us in unfilled hope, still a beggar, but seats us at the table and claims us too as God’s beloved children… children from every tribe and language and nation. As it’s been noted, “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.” [Johnson]
This is the table he asks us to set, as disciples.
Having not been there in that earlier exchange in Judea, Mark seems to lift up the anonymous woman as inexplicably understanding the implications of what Jesus announced in Mark 7:14-23… that everyone really is in the same boat as to what makes one defiled. Therefore, why should any have to wait to participate in the blessings made possible through the advent of the Christ?
So it’s not about merit. It’s not about standing. It IS that she listens to Jesus as much as he listens to her.
Amid that listening, as it’s been observed, “It is only until you realize that you have no leverage in your position before God that you will finally begin to hear and understand His voice and call on your life – just like the Gentile woman who had nothing to offer Jesus–to lean on His grace alone.”
So if we are left with answers, we are also left with questions to wrestle with, as followers of Jesus hearing the words of Mark today…
How would we hear this encounter today between Jesus and an unnamed person who is all the things that challenge an age which has seen misogyny, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia move center stage in our own land?
How might we hear it when, let’s face it, most of us here come from a place of privilege simply by accident of the color of our skin, in a time when so many of the same seem overcome with fear and resentment – falsely believing there isn’t enough on the table for all to be fed with the abundance of our nation?
How might we hear it when others’ frustrations, with the too-long deferred “better days” in our society, bubble up and they don’t simply say, but instead proclaim, that it isn’t enough to be satisfied with crumbs… and demand an equal seat at the table?
How might we hear such questions as those used to having a place at the table – when we, as people of faith, are called to be the salt that flavors the world – discover the Kingdom’s truth: none of us has any more right or privilege. We all come as beggars to the table and it’s solely by the grace of God that we are fed – and that the table is far more spacious and far more abundant that we can possibly image?
How, might we place ourselves in this encounter, one that precedes the feeding of 4,000 by Jesus?
How might the miracle take place now? And here’s a hint: It is not simply about the feast nor limited to the confines of the table!
Pastor’s Notes: Timothy Keller, Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God. Penguin Books, 2013. Elizabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Mark 7:24-37.” 09 Sep 2018, accessed on 03 Sep 2018 at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3761 Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 7:24-37.” 09 Sep 2012, accessed on 03 Sep 2018 at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1382