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Beyond the Boundaries

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, 9/9/18 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel was Mark 7:24-37.
Today’s gospel reading starts out with Jesus on the move. Earlier in this chapter, we’re told he was in Galilee, probably Capernaum, where Peter’s house was. Jesus then goes to Tyre for some rest. That’s around 35 miles from Capernaum. That's where he’s at for our story. After that, he goes “by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee,” (v. 31). I don’t think so! Sidon is about 15 miles northeast of Tyre, while Galilee is southeast of Tyre. Later, Jesus goes to the Decapolis, parts of which border Galilee, to feed the 4,000.

The point is that the route was pretty circuitous. We see this in other gospels as well, such as when Jesus went to Samaria.  “[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria,” (John 4:3-4). No, he didn’t. The most direct way from Judea to Galilee is through the Jordan Valley. Samaria was a detour, but Jesus “had to go” there because it was God’s detour for him where he met the woman at the well, who helped to spread the good news about Jesus to her entire village.

Back to our story. Jesus has gone away to supposedly get some rest. The problem is Jesus’ notoriety. I love the way Mark puts it, “Yet he could not escape notice,” (v. 24). Jesus is the master of demons, disease and nature, but he is unable to secure the privacy he wants. The word has gotten around that Jesus was there and before you know it, he has company.

Now it’s bad enough that word has gotten around about Jesus’ being in Tyre, but a woman has found him. And she’s not just any woman, but a Gentile besides. Additionally, women were not supposed to be seen in public with men that weren’t their husbands or family.

The Syrophoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask that he heal her daughter of a demon. But this is culturally unconventional and even shameful since it is not coming from a male member of her family. Even so, her manner was one of humility. She was persistent, but not demanding. She bowed to Jesus, displaying her humility. She begged Jesus for this miracle. 

How does Jesus respond to the woman’s request? We expect Jesus to act like, you know, Jesus: compassionate when he sees people in need. However, Jesus’ response to the woman is rude. He has already performed a healing on a Gentile earlier in Mark (the demoniac of the tombs in chapter 5), so what’s the problem? 

Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 27). Did Jesus just compare this woman to a dog? That is very demeaning. If some of us were so insulted by such a great person, we’d probably burst into tears and creep away, feeling small and insignificant. I think I would like a hole to appear in the floor to swallow me up.

For the Jewish people of that time, dogs were not household pets, but semi-wild scavengers, who ate unclean food. Gentiles, however, would domesticate the animals and bring them into their homes. In the woman’s Gentile worldview, it was possible to be a dog and yet be within the larger confines of family space. She wonders why this bread can’t be used to feed her and her people’s hunger (v. 28). 

“Let the children be fed first.” Jesus is describing his healing power metaphorically as the children’s “food” or more literally “bread,” while Mark is pointing forward to the time when Gentiles would also be fed. Mark asserts Jesus’ boundary-breaking power to feed the hunger of both Jews and Gentiles. 

However, Jesus was convinced that he must not be distracted from his primary mission to his people. There are those who try to explain away Jesus’ awful remark, saying that he meant a little puppy and that it was a term of affection. Not so! In that day and age, it was an insult. Today in Palestinian culture it is still very offensive to call a person an animal or any kind. 

Now if we cut Jesus some slack, maybe in a very human moment of physical and mental exhaustion, he has lost sight of his mission and needs to be shaken up. Was she there to straighten Jesus out and open him up?

Or is it that the unconventionality and shamefulness of the request coming from the woman directly, draws Jesus’ wrath and disdain, not because she is a Gentile. She had no right to engage Jesus in conversation. It would be like a homeless person interrupting the dinner of the President of the United States to ask a favor. 

Perhaps Jesus responds this way because he was aware of the economic hardships that many Jews in the region of Tyre experienced because of the exploits of Gentile landowners. His rebuff of the Syrophoenician woman may have reflected this. 

The woman responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” (v. 28). This is one gutsy lady. She gives it right back to Jesus, using this same slur, standing up to what it means. Then she turns it upside down and inside out. It’s as if she said, “Sure Jesus, I don’t care if the bread is meant for the children, that doesn’t mean that your loving, gracious Father wants everyone else to go starving. That can’t be what you’re saying, Jesus, is it?” (V. 28).

On top of it all, the conversation may have been longer than indicated in this passage, with verbs indicating continued or repeated actions. It may have gone like this, “She was asking him.” “He was saying to her.” “She is saying to him” and on and on. This woman was not going to leave Jesus alone until he granted her request. 

The Syrophoenician woman acknowledges the priority of the “children,” even as she presses her request to be fed from the same table. Although they may have priority, she is not satisfied with this. Her faith calls for a larger vision of God’s mission, which includes the Gentiles. 

The woman’s faith in Jesus’ healing power takes Jesus by surprise. She has more faith than the people of his hometown of Nazareth, where he was unable to perform miracles due to their unbelief

Jesus’ changeableness and the boldness of the woman are both central to a larger theological analogy of the story. The courage of the woman to confront Jesus is what changes his mind, much as the courage of Israel to demand justice from God in the Hebrew Scriptures moves God to respond. 

Mark may be showing us that the incarnation is not a cakewalk for Jesus. He may have been struggling to find his own center in God. The Messiah must suffer under the challenge of the human condition itself, otherwise, Jesus would not be fully human. Earlier, Jesus’ response was very human and his insight is now perhaps divine. Now he understands her challenge. 

Jesus realizes that his mission may be primarily to the Jewish people, but not exclusively to them. He recognizes the God-given wisdom of the woman’s words. God’s love expands beyond and crosses all borders. Jesus tells the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29). Jesus seems to admire her persistence. 

Our world teaches us to shun the dirty, smelly woman ranting in the street or on the bus next to us and not to embrace her. Countless children spend empty, abused lives shuttled from one foster home to another, forgotten and unloved by the world. Talk to Pastor Heather Allport-Cohoon about her work as the chaplain at the G. A. Home. Maybe that’s where God would like to use you. Prisoners of other countries and religions can be blindfolded and humiliated because they are deemed undeserving of the same rights and privileges of those in power. (Howe) Are we to just keep silent and let the powerful dominate the weak? Can we use the means available to us to speak out against injustice?

Are we willing to take circuitous routes to meet the needs of such people? We are in an awful hurry today and don’t have time for detours. Shall we follow our Lord into unplanned areas, crossing boundaries and borders? Who knows what God will do through us.

Mark teaches us about persistence in prayer on behalf of others. Are we willing to continually call out to God for those in the margins of our society? Can we be like the Syrophoenician woman who didn’t care whether it seemed right or not to approach this great teacher on behalf of another, her daughter? Even though we believe and say in prayer, “your will be done,” we must not prematurely abandon our prayers for healing. We are reminded that “faith is a lively, vigorous, insisting power that does not give up easily” (Craddock).

Imagine what it would be like to be renewed in mission and energy and spirit. When we identify the people around us that need our advocacy and care will this happen. Congregational renewal does not come from the songs we sing or the programs we most want. Renewal comes when we look around us—to our households, schools, communities and world—to see who needs us, what they need from us and how we might leverage our resources to be their advocates before God and the world (Lose). We’re doing well on some of this, but there is so much more that God wants to do through us that his love and grace may flow through us for the sake of the world. Amen. 

Resources

Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices
M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B
Loye Bradley Ashton, Amy C. Howe, Douglas A. Hare, Feasting On the Word: Year B,      
         Volume 4: Season After Pentecost
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com

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