First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
September 9, 2018
Scripture: Mark 7:24-30
Sermon: “Toe to Toe with Jesus”
It was late in the season when two of my friends and our youngest managed to put together a fishing trip to a large sand pit in south central Kansas. It was cold enough heavy coats were required in the pre-dawn light as we launched our two boats into the water. It was probably about mid-morning as we were sipping coffee and fishing when I decided I wanted to change positions in the boat. Now, it is important to note, the boat my son and I were in was a rather old boat and it was a v-bottom boat. And I can tell you, for any of you who may have had the opportunity to be on a body of water in a v-bottom boat, everything your parents taught you, or tried to teach you, about standing up in a v-bottom boat is true. However, I had been in fishing boats for a lot of years, I was fifty-years-old, give or take, I knew what I was doing, I was a long-time fisherman with years of tradition and experience on my side. The water was smooth, there was no wind, I would be fine. I told Nate I was going to stand up and turn around.
I carefully placed my feet against the ribs in the bottom of the boat so they would not slip, I gently rose to my feet; everything was fine. As I began to turn, the boat shifted to one side. I compensated by leaned against the shift, the boat shifted to the other side, I compensated by leaning against the shift, with each shift and compensation the rocking of the boat became more pronounced and difficult to manage. Although it seemed like a long process, I am sure it was only a matter of seconds before I knew we were in trouble and I made the conscious decision to abandon ship before I managed to turn the boat clear over and dump us both into the cold deep water.
Several things went through my mind, mostly that I did not want to flip the boat, also the thought of the sandpit itself, they basically have no slop up to the shore, they are deep and even though we were close to the bank, I suspected we were in at least 10 feet of water or more. I bailed against the rock of the boat in an effort to hopefully not swamp it and into the murky water I went head first. My first two thoughts were… I can’t see and it’s cold! I spun in the water and quickly realized my heavy suede, quilted, insulated, flannel lined, zipped up coat was acting like a sponge. And at least to my sense of direction, which I had lost by this time, I was sinking. Disoriented, my glasses gone, the murky water hard to see through, locked in a heavy sponge of a coat… I…was afraid.
Ever been there? Know exactly what you are doing? Backed up by years of experience and tradition? Confident things are will go and are going well? Your mission, your plan, your vision, your purpose, your destiny well in hand… and all of a sudden, one misstep, one unforeseen shift, one overconfident move… everything seems to go to heck in a handbasket, and the first best option appears to be… has to be… bail? Ever been there?
I think about Jesus’ journey in the reading we shared this morning. According to the author of Mark’s telling, Jesus and his followers had been in Bethsaida, then Gennesaret, both near the Sea of Galilee. And then the telling has Jesus “setting out” to the region of Tyre… near 38 miles… not a short walk… and certainly not “on the way” to anywhere in particular as in the telling, after he goes to Tyre he goes back to the Sea of Galilee region. So, one might speculate, he went to Tyre on purpose, with a particular motive in mind. What was the motive? Why did he go there, a place outside Israel where he would most likely not encounter any of his faith? Self-care? Rest and relaxation? Go somewhere he could be incognito? Maybe he wanted to go where he and his followers could be challenged even more? We really don’t know, all we know is he went.
What we do know is he went to the region of Tyre, entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. But somehow someone found out. Someone obviously leaked the information… and a woman shows up at the door. And not just a woman, which would have been controversial enough in Jesus day… but a woman who was a Gentile… a Syrophoenician woman… a foreigner not only to Jesus nationality… but a foreigner to the faith… an outsider… came to him to ask for healing for her daughter. And… Jesus’ famous… or infamous line 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.” And my first question of the text and of Jesus at this point in the story… You just walked near 38 miles… to insult a woman you don’t know? Really Jesus?
I have heard sermons preached on this text that suggest Jesus did this as a test for the disciples… kind of a “watch this” move to challenge them to step in and do the right thing. I have heard it suggested that Jesus did this for the woman’ benefit to challenge her to stand up for her faith. I have heard the passage massaged suggesting that the word translated “dog” really means more like “puppy” so it was really a term of endearment rather than an insult. To all of which I say nonsense!
I do not believe, based on what I have studied and believe about the life and ministry of Jesus, he would have ever used anyone, in particular someone on the margins of society and culture, someone who had lived a live on the outside of looking in so to speak, oppressed by his own as a tool to make a point. Nor do I believe that he would have called the woman a puppy out of some sense of endearment of compliment. What I do believe here is that Jesus was wrong.
He was a product of his upbringing, a product of his faith, and to call a gentile, foreigner, a Syrophoenician a “dog” was a common insult used by some Jews… and Jesus found himself confident in his tradition, experience, and purpose wrapped up in the language of his day. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” was an effort at dismissal in order to keep the woman moving along and not interrupt the mission Jesus believed he was on… to bring the Kindom to the children of Israel. “What I have is not for you…” was the message behind the words. This woman… for the Jewish Jesus… was outside the bounds of what he believed he was called to be about. In the moment it was more important for him to be right… than to see the humanity of whom she was. This is one of the reasons there are so many attempts to soften this story about Jesus. It is difficult to imagine Jesus doing such a thing as the one we follow to exemplify the epitome of Justice, Compassion, Mercy, and Love. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In some sense was used as an instrument of fear toward one not believed to have access to God, not worthy, unacceptable to God… a tool to build a wall and separate one from another.
However, the woman was having none of it. She refused to be dismissed, to be ignored, or to be sent away. She does not lower her head and shuffle her feet back to her sick daughter. It is her daughter’s life hanging in the balance here and evidently, she knew of this Jesus, this teacher and healer, and she stands toe to toe with Jesus and challenges his attempt at dismissal… uses his own words against him to help him see his error… “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
All of his tradition and experience now finds itself threatened… some who hear these words in the crowd that surround him perhaps feel a little fear, tangled up in that tension between what is right and what is the law. For some, if they are too tightly tethered to the letter of the law may find themselves wrapped in the cloak of judgement like a sponge in the sea and sinking… fighting … even fearful of the outcome of this tense scenario. Someone trying to point out to Jesus … a teacher, rabbi, healer… that he is wrong… and not just any someone… but a woman and a foreigner who has the courage to stand up to Jesus and say “No! This is the life of my daughter I am talking about, and compassion, mercy, justice, and love are not characteristics of God that can be walled off by religion or national origin. This is about healing and justice and everyone has access to God’s love and compassion… you can’t exclude my daughter because you believe your tradition and experience says otherwise.”
Jesus does not respond in anger, he does not try to defend his previous comment, he does not continue to dismiss her and her faith, he does not try to convert her, he does not put conditions on the healing of the daughter… Jesus recognizes the wisdom and strength of this woman’s faith and courage… and like any good progressive realizes he was wrong… he learns from his adversary… learns from one with whom he disagrees… learns that indeed the love and compassion of God reaches beyond his own faith and people… “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” “So, she went home, found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.”
It is one of the reasons Jesus life and ministry was seen as so dangerous, not only by some of the religious elite, but by the governing empire as well. He was willing to recognize just because this is the way things have always been, does not mean it was right, and does not mean it cannot be changed!
Walter Brueggemann in his book, Disruptive Grace states, “[Jesus] teaching was immediately recognized for what it was, a dangerous articulation of an alternative social practice. It was dangerous because it led his listeners – who had uncritically accepted conventional rules of social engagement – to have second thought, to imagine that their own lives could be different. His teaching was elusive so that the listeners were left free to make connections and fill in the space, so elusive that the authorities did not find it easy to incriminate him even while he called their very existence into question.” Brueggemann postulates, “[Jesus] performed a world with a long neighbor reach in which strangers came into his purview and were made stakeholders in new social possibilities.”1
Jesus willingness to be taught… opened to all kinds of new possibilities… dangerous possibilities… for the faith as well as culture and society. Robin Meyers in his writing Saving Jesus from the Church shares… [Jesus] willingness to be open and inclusive of women in the early movement is a stunning example of the radical vision that is the reign of God. Citing MLKJr, Meyers writes, “you cannot set the captive free if you are not willing to confront those who hold the keys. Without confrontation compassion becomes merely commiseration, fruitless and sentimental.”2 This confrontation is not only with those who oppose… but confronting ourselves and our own biases and prejudices as well.
Ultimately, it is about the greatest commandment and our willingness to live a life and faith guided and grounded in love. Jesus, citing the Hebrew Scriptures knew… Loving God, Loving Neighbor, and Loving Self were the bedrock of what the Kindom of God was to be in the world around us. I have long appreciated Frederick Buechner’s thoughts on the Law of Love, in which he states that Jesus taught this love of God, neighbor, and self was what all rules and laws and commandments hung upon throughout our scriptures and throughout our lives of faith and practice. And every characteristic of our life and faith should be judged according to these three things… and if they do not hold up under the scrutiny of loving God, neighbor, and self… they are to be superseded… even, says Buechner, Jesus own teachings.3
As I wrestled with the ever-growing weight of my coat in the cold water, I was trying to find my bearings… which way is up… I finally managed to unzip the coat and shed the anchor of its bulk and focus then on the light that came from above and the murky image of something just beyond the surface. My head finally broke the surface of the water to find a hand… clearly in front of my face… my son… who took us to shore… lesson confirmed and learned… no matter how much tradition and experience one believes they have… nothing is set in stone… and the standing up in a v-bottom boat… is not a good idea.
How teachable are we? How open to learning are we? What do we need to shed to become better at loving all of God’s children… no matter how fearful they are? Or we are? How wide are we willing to draw the circle… by whom are we willing to be taught? I think of all of those I so vehemently disagree… and what I might bring to them to teach and guide… but also what do I see in them that can teach me as well. I think of last week and the fliers we found on our building place by those whose fear is so manifested in threat and violence. How do we love those who would rather control and separate rather than live in community and compassion? How do I love a neighbor who is so bent on bigotry and hate? Maybe their hate and bigotry are really a hand reaching out for help? For Hope? For Love? How do I love my neighbor who is so bent on the instilling of fear and hate? I resist, not taking on their fear and reacting in kind… but resisting while extending a hand until, hopefully there are others who find the courage and faith to stand and resist as well. May I learn about the fear it takes to be where they are… and in my resistance… perhaps… just perhaps… they will see too, love is the Way.
The Way of love is not a doormat. The Way of love is not a broad road. The Way of love is not sentimental or soft. The Way of Love is the Narrow Way… but it is the only Way that leads to life and a Beloved Community of All.
May it be so. May it be Soon!
1 Brueggemann, Walter 2011, Disruptive Grace, Reflections on God, Scripture, and the Church. Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
2 Meyers, Robin R. 2009, Saving Jesus from the Church, How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus. HarperCollins, New York.
3 Buechner, Frederick 1993, Whistling in the Dark, A Doubters Dictionary. HarperCollins, San Francisco.