Sermon for Sunday, September 6th, 2015 || Proper 18, Year B || Isaiah 37: 4 -7a; Psalm 146; James 1-10, 14-17; Mark 7: 24-37 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Mark 7:27
Okay—so yes, we just heard Jesus use a racial slur. And no, I’m not going to make excuses for it or rationalize it for you. According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus, a faithful Jew and– we profess — God’s own self in the flesh, just called a Gentile woman (and possibly even her young daughter) a racial epithet that 1st century Jews often used for Gentiles: He called her a dog. According to Mark, Jesus was pretty darned clear that God sent him to “feed” his fellow Jews, not the Gentile “dogs.”
Kind of makes your head spin doesn’t it?
Now, some commentators claim that Jesus actually uses the diminutive of the word “dog” here—something more along the lines of “puppy.” But there’s no apparent agreement on that, and really, it just makes him appear condescending and racist. Other commentators like to proffer that Jesus calls this woman a dog with a bit of a wink and a smile, because he’s really just testing her faith. But nowhere else in Mark’s gospel does Jesus do any such thing, and again it only seems to make matters worse: Now we have a Jesus who coolly plays mind games with a clearly anguished and desperate mother begging for her daughter’s healing.
I don’t think so.
So no, I’m not going to make excuses for Jesus’s bad behavior. What I am going to do before I get to the real point–is invite you to step outside of this story with me for a minute, to approach it the same way we might approach an article in a newspaper that makes our heads spin. That is to say, with a bit of skepticism and curiosity. See, the former journalist in me can’t help but insert the word “allegedly” to this story of Mark’s, and to re-write it newspaper- style, as in: “According to a reliable source, the Son of God allegedly called a distraught mother a dog today. Jesus was hiding in the pagan region of Tyre, the source said, when the woman tracked him down and, bowing at his feet, begged him to cast a demon out of her young daughter.”
Now, that might seem a bit crazy or irreverent to you, but it’s actually not that far-fetched. Consider that Mark does tend to write like a journalist—his is by far the most concise and unembellished of the gospels, and consider that we have no second source for this story—except Matthew, who wrote his gospel considerably later, basing much of it on Mark’s, and who added to and changed the details of this story quite a lot. So as a factual account, I’m not at all sure this story holds up.
Yet whether it’s factual or not, we’ve got to ask ourselves why Mark would have portrayed Jesus so unfavorably in this story. We’ve got to wonder why he didn’t edit this ugly episode out. And the only answer that makes sense, it seems to me, is that 1) what Jesus says here wasn’t nearly as offensive to 1st century ears as it is to ours and 2) Mark was making a larger point about Jesus’ ministry that gets lost when we read it in bits and pieces like this rather than in the context of his whole gospel.
I have to thank the Rev. Kathryn Matthews for an article reminding her readers how easy it is for us to miss “the arc” of a biblical narrative when we read it in what she calls “bite-size” chunks. Because when we look at Mark’s whole gospel, and the expansion of Jesus’s ministry within his gospel– from being a ministry exclusively for the Jewish people to now include Gentiles and other non-Jews– it’s easy to posit that this story was intended as a literary “hinge” that reflects precisely what was going on in the early church when Mark was writing.
In other words, historically we know that the early church was comprised almost entirely of Jews– Jewish followers of Jesus who later became known as Christians. It wasn’t until shortly before, or simultaneous with, the time that Mark’s gospel was written that the early church really began to include Gentiles and other non-Jews. So it makes a lot more sense that rather than being a factual account of an historical event, this story reflects what was going on in the life of the early church as Jewish Christians were challenged to welcome into their mission and ministry non-Jews.
That being said, now I’d like to invite you to step with me back inside of the story – because the most miraculous thing about scripture is that it speaks to us on so many different levels –that the depths of its truth can never be adequately plumbed, whether “factual” or not.
And this time, let’s notice that Jesus goes to a pagan home in a pagan land, yet even there he is so well known that “he could not escape notice.” He could not escape notice! Can you imagine? The very idea of Jesus not escaping notice, when we live in a world in which he seems to entirely escape notice except when invoked by political attention-seekers…Wow! Can you imagine our actions so reflecting our faith that Jesus and all Jesus lived and died for, could not escape notice? I wonder what that would look like?
Let’s notice, too, that this anguished mother’s love for her little girl is so fierce that it totally overcomes whatever fear she must’ve been feeling as she burst into that house, going against every social norm imaginable –a Gentile woman, alone with a man, and a Jewish man at that—and let’s notice the way that that fierce love of hers empowers her to find her voice, to speak truth to power. It’s really quite astonishing. Her love is so powerful it overcomes her fear…so powerful it moves Jesus’ heart to a more expansive, inclusive place. Because of this one woman’s love, God’s gospel mercy was widened to include Gentiles, foreigners, you, me, and all outsiders. Can you imagine our hearts being so filled with that kind of fierce, powerful love, that we’re moved to speak truth to power and to extend the wideness of God’s mercy to all the migrants, refugees, and Aylan Kurdi’s of the world?
And let’s notice how easy it is for us—at least I know it is for me—to examine Jesus’ motives in this passage, while ignoring our own. What motives are directing our words and our actions from moment to moment, day to day as we go about our lives? Are they the merciful motives of a Jesus-follower or the fear-based motives of the faithless? And what impact do our motives have on our relationships, our work, our churches, our economy, and most important of all on the most vulnerable of God’s people?
Ffinally, let’s notice what Jesus says to the deaf mute who is brought to him for healing. “Ephphatha!” Jesus commands, “Be opened!” And immediately the man’s ears were opened, Marks tell us, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
And that is my prayer for us: “Ephphatha!” May our ears be opened to the pleas of the desperate, may our hearts be opened to respond with mercy, and may our tongues be released to speak truth to power plainly and courageously, on behalf of all of God’s people. Ephphatha!