"The children's crumbs"-A Sermon for Proper 18, Mark 7:24-37
So, our gospel lesson today from Mark begins with a pretty brutal exchange between Jesus and a Gentile woman…a woman who comes to Jesus for a pretty good…or better said…an entirely selfless, heartfelt, and justifiable reason. Her daughter is not well…and whether she is, in fact, demon possessed or struggling with seizers or mental illness…she is very sick…and like any parent mother…this woman is willing to turn over every stone…walk a thousand miles and back again…do whatever might be required and endure any risk to see that her daughter is restored to health…to a full life. And the very fact that she, a Gentile woman, would approach Jesus, a Jewish man and teacher, to seek healing for her daughter demonstrates the fact that she is, indeed, willing to cross any firmly established social construct or human boundary…however impenetrable or costly it might be…including gender, ethnicity, nationality, and religion…to seek restoration for her beloved…her own daughter.
Now having said that, you may be thinking, and reasonably so, what is so risky or boundary crossing about approaching Jesus, of all people, for help. For we have been taught and told…I have taught and told us…that Jesus is the embodiment of love…Jesus is the divine physician who desires nothing more than to offer us the healing and wholeness that we so desperately need…that Jesus is unconditionally loving…always ready to heal and forgive…that he is gentle and kind…our friend…that Jesus loves everyone without distinction…he is the Good Shepherd of our souls…and welcomes into his sheepfold, his divine life, anyone seeking his love and care…anyone…wherever they live, whoever they love, whatever they believe. I am constantly encouraging any and every one I can…to seek Jesus out. For I believe Jesus desires a relationship with each and every one of us…and in that relationship…we find a home. We find who we are called to be and become. We find healing and meaning and purpose. And I believe all of that. It bursts my heart wide open. It is why I have given my life to this vocation, and so I will always encourage each of us and all I come know to continue to seek Jesus, alive and active in our own lives, for I believe he is just who I described…the world’s best hope…the very source of the love that makes the world go round.
But…but this Gentile woman knows nothing about all of this. Obviously, her encounter with Jesus predates the formation of any religion called Christianity...there is no Church, no priests, no pastors, no preachers…this is long before the 2000 years of Christian reflection, that we benefit from, on the purpose and meaning of Jesus’ ever so brief 33 years on this planet. Likely all she knew about Jesus was what people were saying in public…that this man is some sort of Jewish healer or miracle worker. For Mark tells us that even in this gentile city named Tyre, many, many miles from Galilee, that Jesus could not escape notice. But here are some things that she would be very aware of…that she would know all to well…that Jews and Gentiles have little to nothing to do with each other…that there was great animosity between them…that Jews considered Gentiles spiritually unclean, idol worshippers with blood running through their veins that was impure…and thus they lived outside of God’s covenant and without God’s love and favor. And Gentiles in return looked upon Jewish people with a similar enmity. She also knew that women, both in the Jewish and Gentile worlds, were considered something less than men…intellectually, physically and morally inferior in almost every way. And she knew, outside of family or servants, that a woman did not enter into a place where a man was staying, especially a Gentile woman entering a home of a Jewish man, to ask for anything…doing so could only lead to some sort of social derision, becoming an outcast…or worse. So, indeed, this woman, in the name of love…the love of her beloved daughter, is taking a huge risk, crossing huge boundaries, and turning over giant rocks in coming to Jesus.
Which brings me back to the very first sentence in this sermon…as I sort of left it hanging out there. So, after the woman works up the courage…and our love for each other, like this woman’s love for her daughter, does that…it encourages us…she goes to the place where Jesus is staying and then she literally throws herself at Jesus’ feet begging him to heal her daughter. And what happens, at least as I imagine Jesus, is totally unexpected. For what follows is, as I described it in my first sentence, a sort brutal exchange. At least at first, this love filled courageous woman is met with something akin to disdain. She wasn’t thrown out of the house or publicly shamed or immediately labeled an outcast…but still Jesus responds to her by saying…and we are talking about Jesus responding to a human being that desires nothing more than the wellbeing of her beloved child…Jesus says 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.” Let’s, at least, agree that is less than a pastoral response. Now it’s very important to say here that Jesus is referring to the divide between Jews and Gentiles…two groups of people…not specifically the woman at his own feet. The children, who are those Jesus seems to be favoring, are the people of Israel, God’s chosen and beloved, and the dogs, who Jesus is clearly not favoring, are the Gentiles. In a way that doesn’t fit our 21stcentury sensibilities in regard to how we talk to strangers, Jesus’ statement is simply underscoring the facts on the ground…laying before the woman the way things actually are. For as I have already described, there is indeed a deep divide, one we can even describe as painful, between Jews and Gentiles…they don’t play well together and they don’t share.
But still…still Jesus demonstrates some sort of openness to the woman…perhaps even testing her in some way…for he does allow her to respond. A choice that would indeed be, if not nearly as robust as the women’s, its own act of crossing the misguided social norms of the day that dictated how men and women interacted in the first century world in which these two people lived. Jesus does give her the space to speak and he does listen to her. And, indeed, the woman does respond…and wisely so…again she shows incredible courage and speaks back to Jesus. She takes on the facts on the ground that Jesus’ lays before her, and she responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And she is entirely right…I see it happen at almost every meal in my own home for we have what we lovingly call a bark-umn at our house…our beloved pet Bassett-hound Sadie…who is all too happy to suck up the many crumbs that fall under our own family dinner table. But, of course, this was not her point. It was only a metaphor. What she was entirely right about is that everyone deserves to eat…every single person without distinction. Those we consider enemies. Those we consider friends. Those with many things and those with far too little. This lovely woman dares to dream and speak not of things as they are…but as things should be. Her simple, but deeply inspired and profoundly wise, retort is a powerful witness and voice, rooted in the love of God, that reminds us…that the ways we build walls between each other…the ways we show preference for some over others…the ways we discriminate and treat inequitably those who look, love, live, and believe differently than we do…is anathema to the love of God…badly misguided human constructs…rooted in fear, which in my mind is the opposite of faith, the opposite of the sort of boundary crossing, risk taking courage and love this woman demonstrates for us.
And now to Jesus’ response to this woman’s wise and profound words…well he does heal her daughter…but otherwise he says nothing more. And in saying nothing more, his silence speaks volumes. His silence, in my opinion, has intentionally given this woman the last word. For, this woman has spoken the truth and so her words stand at the end. They are the final word in this exchange and on this matter. She is a prophet…she speaks God’s words on Jesus’ behalf. In addition to getting her daughter healed, the care and attention that her child needed and deserved, she sets the stage…she lays the groundwork…she names the direction for what will become the Church’s work for 2000 years…and hopefully long into the future. And that work, the Church’s work, our work is to take the Good News…that love is stronger than death…that God loves each and every one of us infinitely and forever…that God in Christ desires a living relationship with each of us that provides healing, meaning and direction…taking that good news, as it flows from both our words and loving deeds, to all people and all places without distinction…and in doing so…utterly destroying every boundary, border, and wall that stands in our way…that stands between sharing God’s love with each other…all others. For the world this woman desires and dreams of is what the kingdom of God looks like…the undivided, rainbow-colored people of God standing shoulder to shoulder…giving and receiving God’s own love…with all…without distinction…and then everyone gets what they really deserve…indeed healings and miracles become the order of the day.
Jesus gives this woman the last word. She grabs hold of the opportunity laid before her…and she is our example of Godly living today. Thus, our challenge is to heed her wisdom and live just as courageously…taking risks, crossing boundaries and tearing down walls in the name of love…that the kingdom of God might really come for all people…in all places. Amen.