This past Sunday I preached for the third time at Azle. I think it went pretty well. I preached on Mark 7:24-30, the story of the Syrophoenician woman. It is a difficult passage to preach on, but I thought I did a pretty good job. I’m going to post the manuscript on here, but the audio should be posted soon. I will make a different post including that. But I hope you enjoy it; if you don’t let me know why. If you do, let me know why to!
Jesus was having a bad time. He had just finished arguing with the leading religious experts of the time. The “experts,” also known as the Pharisees had marched the more than sixty miles from Jerusalem to Galilee, where Jesus and his disciples were. This walk takes more than four days to make. The Pharisees and Scribes walked more than four days to see this man called Jesus. When they got there, the Pharisees basically called Jesus and his disciples “dirty people” because they did not wash their hands before eating.
While washing your hands is a big deal now because of health and culture taboos, it was an even bigger deal in Jesus’ time because of the Jewish purity laws. The Pharisees were calling Jesus unclean, unholy, and even less of a Jew than them because he did not wash his hands before eating. Jesus then preached against the experts and their food purity laws, which culminated in him telling the crowd that had gathered around them that all foods were clean. It must have been a taxing sermon, because even though Jesus tried to take refuge in his disciples, he still decided to go into a house in enemy territory.
Tyre was a neighboring region during Jesus time and was a major enemy of the Jews b/c it was a center of cult worship of the Roman Emperor. The peoples within the region were also a different race than the Jews, unlike the Samaritans who could trace their lineage back to Abraham. Jesus sought refuge in an outside region where he was probably not wanted; in fact if we go back to the only time Jesus wandered into Gentile territory in the fifth chapter of Mark where Jesus heals a demonic, we can see that he was begged, begged, by the Gentiles to leave. So, Jesus is going to a region where the last time he was there, was an unwelcome visitor. Jesus really must need a break if he was willing to go here…but he doesn’t get one.
A woman comes into the house and falls down on her knees, one of only two people in the Gospel according of Mark to do so, and begs Jesus to heal her daughter of an evil spirit that had been with her. This woman can’t know much about Jesus. She at least knows that he heals people of demons b/c the man whom Jesus previously healed in Gentile country disobeyed Jesus and yelled throughout the countryside, city-center, and everywhere in between about Jesus’ healing powers. She probably heard about Jesus through this man. She heard that Jesus could work wonders, and her daughter needed a wonderworker. In desperation, she intrudes on Jesus’ quiet time and asked him to do her a favor.
This woman, a person of different race, religion, nationality, and gender comes to Jesus begging that he at the very least take pity if not on her, than on her daughter. No problem right? This is Jesus we are talking about. The Savior of the whole earth and every person in it, right? Wrong. Jesus rebukes the woman by telling her that he won’t heal her daughter because she is not Jewish. See, up to this point Jesus had been preaching about the Kin-dom of God only for the Jews. He is trying to save the nation of Israel so that they can be a “light unto the nations.” The other countries would get their chance later, but right now Jesus’ message is for the Jews. So in probable tiredness, Jesus replies to the woman with “Let the children [the Jews] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs [the Gentiles].” The food Jesus is talking about is literally the “Bread of Life.” This food, which apparently included Jesus’ healing powers, were not for the woman’s people quite yet. A word is needed on what he called the woman.
Jesus called the Syrophoenician woman a dog. Dogs were not beloved creatures in Jesus’ time. It is even hard for me to believe. My Golden Retriever Addie would beg to differ, but the Dog was the symbol of all that was unclean to the Jews. Dogs were the scavengers of Jesus’ time. They ate garbage, other animals, and even dead bodies. We see this when we turn to the 22nd chapter of Exodus, verse 31 where Moses tells the Jews to throw the unclean meat to the dogs. Dogs were not clean animals. They were not kept as pets. There is some speculation that the passage could be translated as “little dogs,” in hopes that Jesus wasn’t being too mean, but if we take our modern sensibilities out of the equation, a dog is still a dog, no matter the age the animal.
I think the best example of what Jesus meant by dogs in today’s world might be an opossum; I thought maybe raccoon, but even those can be cute sometimes. An opossum is usually never cute. No one has ever called me an opossum, it’s not a common insult, but I can imagine if someone called me one I would take offense. Who wouldn’t? Opossums are ugly scavengers that cause mess and destruction. We avoid them at all costs. We do not keep them as our pets. So if you want a more “modern” word to substitute for dogs so WE can understand Jesus’ offensive parable, opossum might be appropriate.
If I were the woman, if I was called a dog, I would have run away with my tail between my legs. But the daughter must have been close to dying because she not only stays, she plays into Jesus’ twisted parable. She replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She acknowledges to Jesus that Jews do have preference for his message, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t receive some benefits of the kin-dom of God. For example…maybe Jesus could heal her daughter. That might have been what she was thinking, I really don’t know.
What I do know is that what happened next defines Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had a watershed moment. Instead of being a racist, sexist, and whatever you want to call someone who discriminates someone else because of their religion, Jesus’ barrier against the Gentiles was broken down. Jesus must have sat there, I imagine him sitting in the house, dumbfounded for a few moments. His eyes were opened. He could see that it was possible to include the Gentiles, and specifically this woman and her daughter. No one has to be left out of the kin-dom of God. He even grants the woman’s request and exorcizes the evil spirit inside her daughter from afar, a feat I’m sure is not easy. The woman then goes home to find her daughter healthy.
While it is easy to focus on Jesus’ in this story because it is he who is central to THE story, the person who is the teacher here is not him, but the woman. It was the woman who crossed all of the barriers between him and her to ask for a healing, it was her who had all the risk, and eventually it was her who opened Jesus’ eyes. She was the barrier breaker. She is the one we are to learn from. The good news is that even though Jesus, the Son of God, had barriers in place, he was able to see that those barriers were wrong and push, jump over, or trample them so that he could see all people for who they were…people, and that all people have access to the kin-dom of God.
So what are we supposed to do with this story? What do we do with this type of Jesus, this type of Son of God? A Son of God who is racist, sexist, and again…whatever we call someone who is prejudice against other religions. Do we try to get rid of the story? Do we push the story and him to the side like those “other” Bible stories that are troubling? Neither are these are possible b/c we aren’t about to change composition of the Bible, nor are we really supposed to pick and choose passages which we like, I don’t think we can even say this story was to teach his disciples a lesson because Jesus and the woman were alone! So what do we do? I think we are supposed to accept that this is one viewwho Jesus was, a real living and breathing person, similar to you and me.
Even though as Disciples of Christ we are open to many views, many of us affirm both the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The story of the Syrophoenician woman is a story about the humanity of Jesus. And for me knowing that Jesus had the ability to over come his barriers, to learn, to live, to make mistakes, and to truly be human, well for me that makes God more accessible. I cannot identify with a God that is distant, abstract, or remote, but a God that can fumble, can say bad things, can LEARN…well that is God that I can worship.
Not only does this story give me a picture of who God is, but it also shows me something that humans can do. If a woman is able to make the Son of God change his mind, can make the Son of God look inward, and help him change his message to include all people, can break barriers, so can we. We have seen barrier breaking over time in our own country.
Our country was started because people wanted to break away from the tyranny of an absolute monarchy. Breaking this barrier continued when the thirteenth amendment outlawed slavery and gave all men the right to vote, then again in 1919 when the constitution was amended to allow all persons, regardless of sex, to vote. We broke barriers in the 60’s during the Civil Rights movement, the 70’s and eighties during the feminist movement. While we still have a ways to go, these barriers have been broken down so that we can continue to do work to make them better.
So what barriers do we keep up today? My mother is an elementary guidance counselor, so she hears and tells me a lot of stories about the families in her school. She does this because I know none of the of the parties involved so I can be a blank slate for her to vent to. When I was home this past week, my mother told me the story of Consuela. Consuela is married to a man named Bernardo and has two children, Jose and Maria, in my mother’s school. As you can tell by her, her husband’s, and two children’s names, Consuela and her family are hispanic. The difference between her husband and herself is that her husband is here with documents, and Consuela an “Undocumented” or an illegal immigrant. She did not come to the United States because she wanted to, but because her parents brought her when she was four years old. She grew up in the US, went to school, met her future husband, and started a family. Sometime in her life she found out she was here undocumented and had to live and grow with that.
This past year she decided that she wanted to become a citizen of the United States. For her that meant that she needed to go back to Mexico in order so that she can return to the United States legally so that she might gain her citizenship. So that is exactly what she did. She left her family so that she may make things right. But when she got to Mexico, Conseula found that getting back to her family was easier said than done. She completed every step that our government requires so that she might gain legal access to her family, but that was not enough. Every time she put in a request it was delayed. She was given any number of excuses for the delays, but the end result was always the same. She was not allowed back into the United States. Consuela has been in Mexico for six months waiting to come back legally. My mother was beside herself for not seeing me in five months; I can’t even imagine what Consuela must be feeling. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of stories like this. People divided by the very real, very physical barriers and the barriers inside our minds.
I will not advocate for a particular immigration policy, not only is it not my place here at the pulpit, I have absolutely no idea how to solve the problem and will not attempt to, but I will say that we as Christians are called to extend Grace to our neighbor, including our neighbors across the border. This story helps me realize that we are called to break down the barriers in our minds and in the physical world so that we can solve the problem of mothers not being able to see their children, mothers who were only trying to make things right. We are called to break down barriers so that we can see people as, well…people.
Will you pray with me?