First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
February 25, 2018 – Second Sunday of Lent
Scripture: Mark 7:24-29
Sermon: “Nevertheless She Persisted”
There is trouble in the Middle East: Israel and Palestine, Muslims and Jews; Arab Israeli, Iraq and Syria. Some point to 1948 as the start of modern conflict, or maybe 1916 or 1917, but we have a book of Israelite history that starts “in the beginning,” and a few pages into their history, the seeds of war and ethnic divisions are rooted thousands and thousands of years ago. At the foundations of Israel history is the story of Hebrew liberation from slavery followed by their acquisition and settlement in a new homeland.
1 Samuel 15:3 reads, “This is what the Lord Almighty says… ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
Deut 20:16-17 reads, “But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded.”
Their story commanded annihilation of entire peoples – justified, as they told it, under God’s direction. In order to slaughter entire villages, entire nations, “men, women, child and infant, animals and all that breathes,” one must see only objects not people as individual sacred beings.
A heart at war is a heart that sees others as objects, obstacles, irrelevancies whether on the battlefield or at the dining room table, or the office workroom or the school hallways. We learn to see others as objects when our ego claims superiority, and we feel we have a right over those who are inferior or wrong. We can also learn to see others as objects when we claim a “less than” position of victim then justify our actions due to our own mistreatment. Our victim status deserves more than what we are getting. A heart at war can be our individual hearts, and they can be cultural and communal heart of a nation as taught through ethnic, racial, and gender prejudices. We humans are not reared in bubbles; we are influenced by personal circumstances, family and culture, and national histories that set our hearts open to peace or set to war.
Some people might not like this story we hear today. Jesus is our model for kindness and compassion, welcome and inclusion, a model of a heart of peace not war. To have him dismiss and insult this Syrophonecian woman doesn’t set well if he is believed an example of perfection. So they try to clean up the story to keep Jesus free from fault and criticism. They put a theological spin on it or change the connotation of the insult he flings. I have no need to sanitize this story of Jesus. I think Jesus remains a perfect example – of what it means to grow in wisdom, faith, and understanding. That’s a model we need.
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish man from Galilee, reared in Jewish law and custom and history of his people. He responds to the woman in this story as any Jewish man of his time and place would- taught by his own culture with its prejudices that turn people into objects.
The scene is set: Jesus is tired. He needs a retreat. He has taken a sabbatical from the crowds and demands. He’s stepped away from the teaching circuit right now. He’s not wanting to do mass healings. He needs to rest. Not only has he been with lots of crowds, he’s been sparring with religious leaders. Even though he’s won all of the debates and testing by the Pharisees and scribes, he needs to recoup his strength. So he goes outside of Galilee. He goes someplace where Judean crowds won’t follow him. He goes into ‘unclean’ land filled with ‘unclean’ people. He goes to the region of Tyre beyond northern boundaries of Galilee. In Galilee Jesus was known, a renown healer and teacher that crowds gathered near. In the region of Tyre, he thought he could be anonymous.
So he was surprised, caught off guard for many reasons when this woman approached him. A Syrophoenician wouldn’t approach a Jew. Their ethic divide is well established by centuries of practice and disdain. In that time and culture, a female does not speak to a male in public. She has no right to engage Jesus in conversation. She was a Woman! And a Gentile! And in his fatigue, and from his cultural perspective, he sees this object before him and can easily justify insult and dismissal of her, “You people are not my problem. Go away, dog.”
“Dog” is a racial slur. Be not mistaken. The word is not referencing the family pet that you love or an irresistibly adorable puppy dog. The word is used twenty-seven times in scripture; each time it is a mongrel, reject, immoral, unclean insult. Jesus says, “My gifts are not to be wasted on you dogs, mongrel people.”
The woman is a mother. She will not take “No” for an answer – not even from Jesus – especially not from Jesus. Her daughter’s life depends on her persistence. Her life -living with daughter’s condition – depends on it. So she begs.
To beg is not at all unusual for oppressed people – then or now. Begging for a chance at life: that’s what we expect the marginalized to do. When the powerful say “No, we can’t help you.” They mean, “No, we won’t help you. You don’t deserve what we have. You don’t deserve health care or citizen privileges or fair housing or equal education. No, we won’t give to you what we want only for our children. You are just objects, dogs, mongrels. “
So the objects Beg. The homeless beg. The mentally ill beg. The refugees beg. The poor, the women, the people of color beg. We even see our youth in our nation this week begging to be able to go to school without getting shot, begging for the grown-ups to protect them. To insist on a chance to live today is to hope that tomorrow will be better.
So the Syrophonecian woman begs. Her daughters’ life is worth her bowing down at the feet of another and begging. She throws herself at Jesus feet and begs. When she does he calls her a dog – not a puppy, but a mongrel, scavenger, dog, she accepts his label of denigration. “Fine, I’m a dog. I’m a female dog with a daughter who will die if you don’t help. Can you not even have a crumb of compassion for her? Jesus had insulted and dismissed. Nevertheless she persisted.
She isn’t spitting in his face, telling him off, or giving him a piece of her mind. She isn’t punching him in the face or setting anything on fire. She isn’t trying to pick a fight. She remains respectful – even when he insults her, she remains humble, yet she remained determined, persistent and bold.
When she kneels before him, a transformation happens. The woman challenges Jesus to be converted to a new understanding of humanness and Godness. The Gentile woman teaches Jesus, the Jewish man. She expands his mission, or reminds him of his work of infinite compassion and mercy erasing all social barriers. She did what the learned scribes and Pharisees could not; she won. She invites him to see her as a person, not object. When he can do that, see her – as a person, not an object, not the Syrophonecian, political unclean object – when he sees her as a person his heart opens to peace.
It’s one thing to see object: immigrants, refugees, gays, women, Muslims, liberals, conservatives, dogs. It’s easy to take down an object. But human hearts change when we see people not labels or broad sweeping objects of prejudice.
We are told from his birth narrative that Jesus would grow, “increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” (Luke 2) Here we see it happen. Jesus takes huge step across social, cultural, political boundaries, when he sees her as a woman, a loving mother, caring for her child. Jesus grew through the challenging lessons that cut to the core of the status quo of his identity and his male privilege and his ethnic heritage. Jesus learns that in God’s realm there are no walls separating us from God or one another, so we can model from him that we had better not erect any walls either. No walls around the Middle East, nor our nation’s southern border, or our hearts of peace.
May it be so.