So I never actually got to preach this sermon. My entire family was down for the count with a bug that weekend and I was the last one to go down Saturday night. I texted the chair of my deacons and encouraged him to read some of the Thanksgiving scriptures from the lectionary and invite people to share what they are thankful for. I emailed him my sermon so he would have the prayer at the end and he read it that morning and thought that this sermon really needed to be preached that weekend (since I referenced Thanksgiving at the end and it was kind of timely). So he had my admin let him into my office, grabbed my preaching pumps (yes, they stay in my office!), held them up during worship and said he was going to do the best he could do fill those shoes. Then he read the sermon and I can’t tell you how many people said worship went off without a hitch! So even though we were all sick and pretty miserable – I was grateful for how it turned out.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
November 18, 2018
A Human Transformation
I think all of us want the bible to be this entirely pure and wholesome book full of lessons, wisdom and prayers that we can turn to when we are going through a hard time – or even when we just want to figure out how to live our lives and be a good person.
But the bible can be finicky. Granted, a lot of that finicky-ness can be found in the Old Testament, which is why a lot of Christians, myself included sometimes, tend to stay in the New Testament and then justify it by differentiating between the “violence of the Old Testament and the love of the New Testament.”
But what happens when the New Testament is finicky? What happens when we read a story – especially one in the Gospel, about Jesus – that frustrates us? That disappoints us?
That is kind of where I am at with this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. I don’t like it. If I’m being honest, I don’t really like the Jesus in this story.
In this story, Jesus travels to Tyre, which is located in present day Lebanon, about 12 miles north of the Israel-Lebanon border. At this point, he was ready for a break – remember the running theme throughout Mark was that every time Jesus traveled somewhere or tried to find a secluded place to pray, people followed him. Mark says, “[Jesus] entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”
But when has that ever worked up until this point? A woman heard that Jesus was there and she went to find him.
A woman whose daughter was sick with an unclean spirit and desperately wanted Jesus to heal her.
A woman who bowed down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to help her.
A woman who was a Gentile, not a Jew.
A woman who Jesus did not initially embrace; who Jesus did not immediately help; who Jesus did not extend the grace of God’s healing and indiscriminate love.
Jesus said to the woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The food is God’s healing power in this metaphor; Jesus’ ability to heal this woman’s daughter. The children are the Jews and the dogs are the Gentiles. What Jesus is saying is that this woman and her daughter should not be the first to receive God’s healing; the Jews should.
This is uncharacteristically harsh of Jesus. He called this woman a dog, saying she and her daughter were less than the Jews. This is derogatory and racist and mean.
This is not the Gospel that I want to believe in. I don’t think it is the Gospel any of us want to believe in.
I want to get a couple things out of the way before I share my thoughts today. First of all, scholars have tried to use the intricacies of the Greek language to soften what Jesus says here. I read a commentary that said the Greek should actually be translated to say, “little dog,” which would refer to a house pet that people love and so therefore what Jesus said is not technically an insult.
I also read a sermon on this text where the preacher talked about other dog metaphors in the English language – calling someone “cute as a puppy” if they are endearing or a “bulldog” in the business world if they are a hard worker or “top dog” if they are in charge. Again, I think the preacher did not want to validate this insult from Jesus to the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter.
I also read a sermon that said perhaps Jesus was testing the woman; that he was always going to heal the girl, but he just wanted to see the strength of the Syrophoenician woman’s faith first.
And while I appreciate what all of these interpretations were trying to do (after all, no one wants to believe that Jesus could be that harsh or do anything other than welcome all people into the grace of God’s kingdom on earth), I also think that sometimes we do have to wrestle with the hard parts of the bible and not try to explain them away. We have to wrestle with these issues, the same way we wrestle with them in our own lives, today.
This is what I have been doing with this text. And, truth be told, I haven’t come to some brilliant conclusion.
I looked through my sermon archives yesterday to see if I have ever preached on the story of Syrophoenician woman before and I have not out of the Gospel of Mark, but I did four years ago out of the Gospel of Matthew. And it was interesting to read back, because my interpretation, while good, I think, seemed a little naïve and idealistic. I focused a lot on the end of the story, on the part where the woman’s daughter did receive healing from Jesus. I talked about how the lesson in this story is that we allhave and all access pass to God. I said that the lesson in this story did not come from Jesus, it came from the woman, who knew that she was worthy of God’s love, grace and mercy and demanded to receive it.
This is what I said:
Differences matter in the eyes of the society that we live in, but not in the eyes of God. The magic of God’s grace and mercy is that no one is denied it. No one. It does not matter if you are young or old, black or white, gay or straight, male or female, rich or poor, citizen or immigrant. It does not matter if you have special needs or you struggle with anxiety, depression or mental illness. It does not matter if you are highly educated or never had the opportunity to pursue your education. It does not matter if you own a mansion or are living in homelessness. It does not matter if you are sober or struggle with addiction.
It is not up to us to decide who will receive God’s love, grace and mercy. Because the truth is, everyone has access to God. Differences may divide us from one another, but those differences will never divide us from God.
And while I still believe these things to be true, I think I took the easy way out. I never named Jesus’ bias to begin with. I never called out Jesus for that fact that he initially denied this woman’s daughter healing because she was a Gentile and not a Jew.
After all, it’s Jesus – how can I criticize what he did?
I read a reflection on this passage this week that did just that. It suggested that perhaps that, in this moment, Jesus was just being human; that, like any other person, he had been influenced by the world around him.
A world that believed that the Jews were the chosen people, that the Gentiles were less than.
A world that put the Gentiles of the margins of society.
A world that saw themselves, the Israelites, as children worth of a feast, and the outsiders as dogs only worthy of table scraps.
That was the world Jesus lived in.
I have not fully processed my own theology when it comes to Jesus’ divinity on earth, but I do believe that the whole purpose of God coming into our midst was that was so that God would fully understand what it means to be human.
What it means to make mistakes.
What it means to be tempted.
What it means to be unkind, even when that’s not the person that we want to be.
It’s not easy, is it?
I think this story starts a conversation; a conversation about what it means for us, as human beings, to extend God’s grace to all people.
And also about how hard that can be to do sometimes.
Because we all live in a world that influences our thoughts, our words and our actions.
I will never forget the summer I was a chaplain; I was doing rounds with the rest of the chaplains one morning and I closed our time together with prayer. Without intending to, I made a comment in that prayer that was construed by another chaplain as racist and offensive to her and her son.
She called me out on it.
Of course, I did not mean to offend her, which I think she realized as I sobbed hysterically and profusely apologized.
But I learned a really valuable lesson that day; I learned that my words do matter. I learned that the language and rhetoric that was normal to me, as a white, middle class girl from small-town Connecticut might not be okay.
I think the amazing part about this story is that Jesus learned a lesson, too. Jesus’ initial response to the woman reflected the tumultuous relationship between the Israelites and their neighbors, but the Syrophoenician woman called Jesus out for what he said. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she said.
And Jesus changed his mind.
“For saying that, you may go,” he said. “The demon has left your daughter.”
This story is so hard to read, but it is also amazing. Because not only do we see the true depth of the radical and gracious nature of God’s love for all people, but we also see the transformation of Jesus – Jesus! – as he realizes that this Gentile woman and her daughter are also very much worthy of God’s healing.
And I believe that this transformation can happen in our own lives today.
So I am still wrestling with this text; I think I am wrestling with it today more so than I was four years ago, because, as a country, we are just in a really angry and negative place when it comes to our rhetoric around diversity.
But, the cool thing about the Christian story is that is did not end with the crucifixion. So there is always hope; and there is absolutely hope in this story. Hope that we will see transformation in our lives and in the world, hope that all people will know that they are worthy of receiving God’s grace, hope that healing will one day extend across all borders.
Even the finicky parts of the bible give us something to think about, don’t they?
Friends, as we gather around our thanksgiving tables this week, I invite us all to not only think about the blessings that we are thankful for – but also to think about the ways in which we can bestow those blessings upon others, no matter who they are or where they are on their journey through life. Let yourself be transformed by God’s love this holiday season.
Thanks be to God!