SERMON 9-9-12 Pentecost 15B
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, [11-13],14-17; Mark 7:24-37
For about three months or so now, it has become more evident to Terri and me that our precious mini-doxie Duchess is getting older and having more health problems. We are noticing that the gray in her fur is overtaking the beautiful red coat she has had since the day we adopted her thirteen years ago. Her left eye is starting to become cloudy. Her breathing at night seems labored and strained. At times, she is as vital and lively as a puppy and at other times, she is listless and tired. We know for the sake of our other younger doxie (Duke), we will need to introduce a new baby to our family. Terri recently began communicating with a young woman in Tampa who had a two-year-old black and tan male, for which she could no longer care. Guess what, he’s now our little boy … we picked him up Thursday afternoon and in a short period of time, we both realized that introducing a new dog into the house, is quite a challenge.
The established dogs were resistant to the newcomer’s exuberance, playfulness, and energy. The old timers (Duke and Duchess) were leery of the new boy’s toys, bed, his smell, his sound, and his actions. The dogs that have been with us since we 1999 were not ready to change or accept this newcomer (Tyson) without a fight, nip, pick, growl, chase, screech, and yelp, which seemed to go on for several hours the other night. We have noticed over the past two days, that our three beautiful little Dachshunds are getting along much better, and seem to be finding their place in our home.
Humans and dogs in a strange way are not that different when it comes to accepting, inviting, embracing, loving, and allowing an outsider to integrate into, and have an impact on the pack; the community. It seems in our society, when new folks enter our circle, eyebrows raise, hair stands up on the back of our necks, we become frightened, threatened, and uncertain of our own place. Sometimes when the new dog joins the pack, we tend to try to put the newcomer in their place, so we can feel better about ours.
The gospel narrative we hear today reminds us of how we create barriers between each other, barriers that the Good News of God in Christ rejects. The story is about an encounter Jesus had with a Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter was possessed by an affliction. The woman was desperate for relief and her plea to the young rabbi for help, would become one of the puzzling encounters of Our Lord’s ministry. We need some background information, to understand fully what is going on in this story. “Syrophoenicia was an ancient Semitic Canaanite civilization situated on the western, coastal part of the Fertile Crescent and centered in Lebanon.”(1) The woman was both a Gentile, but also Hellenistic. She more than likely spoke Greek and probably was a woman of a different socio-economic class than Jesus and his disciples and thus, two cultures collided through this conversation. Another interesting tidbit of background on this story is the fact that many of the peasant Israelites cultivated and harvested the food, which was consumed by the aristocratic, Hellenistic class to which this woman belonged. Even so, because of the social class distribution of food and many other goods, most of the people who actually grew the food (the Israelites) lived with an unnecessary scarcity. There was a distinction, rift, divide between God’s children (both Jew and Gentile), and it resulted in a battle of “us against them,” which pervaded the interactions between these two groups (Hellenistic socialites and peasant farmers).
Now, some of these socialites were not the only ones who embraced an ethos of class/ethnic superiority. From the Israelite’s perspective, all Gentiles, all people outside the House of Israel, were held with great disdain, so much that they were commonly referred to as “dogs.” “Dogs” was a disparaging metaphor, a derogatory term popular at the time for describing all Gentiles and it is interesting how it finds its way into today’s pericope. (2) This story is found in both the Gospel according to Matthew and according to Mark. Today, we have Mark’s version and if we merely gloss over Jesus’ remarks to the woman, one could get the impression that Jesus is no better than the folks who ostracized the Gentile, cast out the leper, diminished the lame, blind or deaf, or desired stoning for the adulterer.
When at the woman’s request for Jesus’ help he responded with, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus was not saying, “You’re on your own here lady.” Some scholars believe the meaning behind his words was, “my mission right now is this, but in due time the rest will come into the kingdom.” Other theologians believe Jesus was not using an abusive meaning of “dog” but was referring to little “house puppies,” or household pets who were allowed in the house and gathered at the foot of the table and received scraps. Either way, when we hear his cutting words, we are surprised at Jesus’ response to a woman who was seeking his help, and it leaves us a bit uncomfortable. Theologian William Loader asserts, “When God’s election of Israel becomes the basis for Jesus’ initial refusal to heal this girl, we cannot avoid feeling indignant.” (4) Could it be that the discomfort we feel comes from our own experiences of how we have witnessed for ourselves, the atrocities weighed against the outsider? We can find some comfort that an ethnic/social/racial evil is not the heart of this story. Even so, the dialogue leaves us with an uneasiness and a tension, that challenges our own biases; the “demon” that is human inequality, injustice, and lack of dignity.
“Dogs” was a diminutive, common term of abuse in that society. We have those unspoken terms used in our culture today do we not? We dare not say them here, right? Early in my retail career, when I lived in the deep, rural south of Mississippi and later in Alabama, I remember hearing abusive labels hurled at folks, labels fueled by hatred and racism. I have also heard terrible prejudices used with vicious intent, with an evil so hurtful that a cutting blade or bashing stick could have done no more injury to the person. I have heard such diminutive terms used on a close family member because of their sexual orientation. Such abuse is a demonic perpetuation of inequality, injustice, and dignity-robbery . So, when we here Jesus use “dog” to label the Syro-Phoenician woman, we are for a moment, rocked off our pristine Christian heels. Keep in mind, there is much more going on here and the entire dialogue between the woman and Our Lord in a unique way, is opening the door for us to realize that Christian community, the life of the Church is not about exclusion, but inclusion.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The woman rebukes Jesus preoccupation with his ministry to the chosen, and makes it clear that she, even though not in the House of Israel, is in God’s house and needs to be fed by God’s abundance. The woman is proclaiming that now ,”the gentiles are no longer outside in the streets; they are now in the house.” And in a moment—thanks to this loving mother’s theological discernment—the dogs “will be at the table,” the place of true fellowship.” (2)
In a moment, the tables are turned, the mission expands, the focus is no longer just the insiders, the path is widened, and Jesus invites ALL, not some, to the banquet. This unusual story depicts a pivotal crossroad in Jesus’ ministry at which, it becomes clear his saving power is inclusive, and goes beyond physical healing. Jesus is using a little irony to make the point that all are welcome at the table! The gospel writer in his inclusion of this story, is not diving into the psychology of Jesus, he is being very clear that Jesus is crossing the boundary of human divide, and bringing the Kingdom to all … even the dogs! Jesus’ rebuke of the Syro-Phoenician woman is not really the focus of the encounter. “Mark’s focus is on what he did. Jesus agreed to the woman’s request; Jesus crossed the boundary; Jesus exemplified and legitimized what by Mark’s time had become the reality which he celebrates: the community of faith inclusive of both Jew and Gentile.” (5) Jesus I believe was not testing this woman’s faith to see if she would stand up to the oppressors … I believe he was actually inspired by her. I believe Jesus actually had an epiphany of sorts. I believe Jesus became clear about who he was, and what he was called to do. I believe Jesus is helping us to become very clear about who we are as the church, and what our mission is to become.
We must break down barriers to the table, to God’s Kingdom that we knowingly or unknowingly put up! Mark eloquently captured a culture that judged a woman on the externals, on her heritage as a gentile, but she would have none of it. She challenged Jesus and she challenges us by asking, “Where do I fit in, in the Kingdom you so eloquently preach about?” She asks Jesus, and she asks us, “Can I get a scrap of grace from you?” I love this story because like theologian Stephen Fowler asserts, “the Syro-Phoenician woman understands that God’s election of Israel entails Jesus’ feeding of the children of Abraham. She does not argue with the fairness of God’s choice. Rather, as if she had studied the Old Testament, she recognizes that such an abundant overflowing of grace must result in “all the nations being blessed.” The key to understanding the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is to recognize that in this moment of his ministry,” Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, he opened his church to the world. Now we are to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.”(2)
Yesterday in the Englewood Sun, St. David’s was on the front page in a well-written article that announced the official opening of our Jubilee Center in October. Even so, if you read merely the surface story, you might miss another announcement , deeply embedded in the words of celebration about our new ministry. The headline, “DaySchool transformed to Jubilee Outreach Center” really proclaims a new narrative about this parish. The new story is that St. David’s is a parish who more and more each day welcomes the stranger, the outcast, the misfortunate, the least, the lost, and the lonely. We are a people who believe that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” it was not merely a casual suggestion, a passing thought of “love ‘em if you have time or especially if you have nothing better to do on your agenda.” The headline reads, “St. David’s is a parish that is being flooded by the Spirit of justice, equality, human dignity, mercy, grace, reconciliation, and love! We are being transformed and at the same time, we are welcoming the transformation, which others who join us, are bringing to the pack. God is at work in this place and with these people. We will not be a church that embraces exclusion and an ethos of clubhouse. We will love our neighbor. So, if you ever hear someone ask you because of an uneasiness about new dogs joining the pack “Who let the dogs in,” I encourage, no I implore you, to loving look into their eyes and with grace and love respond I encourage you to you say to them, “the Master of this house, who gave of himself to bring reconciliation, grace, love, mercy, life (and life abundantly) to the world and all who are in it, sits at the head of this table, and all, not just some, are welcome to join the feast.
(2) Husted, Heidi A. “When The Gospel Goes To The Dogs.” Christian Century 117.23 (2000): 829-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.
(3) Perkinson, James W. “A Canaanitic Word In The Logos Of Christ; Or The Difference The Syro-Phoenician Woman Makes To Jesus.” Semeia 75 (1996): 61-85. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.
(4)Fowl, Stephen E. “God’s Choice.” Christian Century 123.18 (2006): 20-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 6 Sept. 2012.
(5)Loader, William R G. “Challenged At The Boundaries : A Conservative Jesus In Mark’s Tradition.” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 63 (1996): 45-61. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 6 Sept. 2012.