I’ve given this sermon at a number of different churches in Alabama. I wrote the first draft in 2012 when it came up in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle. The passage had always confused me, so I took it as a personal challenge to encounter the text and see what it really had to say. The previous semester I had spent reading the Gospel of Mark in Greek with one of my professors, and the entire book (and particularly this story) have captivated me ever since. Woodland Grove Baptist Church in Elba, Alabama and All Nation’s Church in Huntsville, Alabama were the first congregations to hear drafts of this sermon as part of the Samford Sunday student preaching program.
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said 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.”
Mark 7:24-27 (NRSV)
In many Christian traditions, it is customary for the preacher to say, “This is the word of the Lord” and for the congregation to say, “Thanks be to God.” When we come to a passage like this one, however, that seems hard to say. How are we to respond to such a so-called “hard saying” of Jesus? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs … to the dogs.” This is the word of the Lord? Who is this Jesus? This Jesus is not the one I met in Sunday School. This Jesus is not the one in whom I professed faith when I walked down an aisle like this one. This Jesus is not the one in whose name I was baptized. This Jesus is not the Jesus I know.
Let me tell you the story of the Jesus who I know. He emerged onto the scene, baptized by his revolutionary cousin John (1:1-11). He was tempted and tried just as you and I (1:12-13). Out of his trials, he emerged a healer, prophet, and teacher (1:14-20). He walked out among the marginalized and the oppressed (1:21-39). Mark tells us he even went to the lepers, the ones everyone considered wholly unclean (1:40-45). He healed them. He even cured the paralytic everyone assumed deserved what he got (2:1-12). He healed him. He called tax collectors, political protestors, and everyday workers to be by his side (2:13-17; 3:13-19). He healed them. He overturned traditional rules and paradigms to the point that they called him Satan (2:18-28; 3:20-30). He healed them. He mystified us with parables and astounded us all the more by going to the Gentiles, casting out even their demons (4, 5:1-20). He healed them. Whether it’s a poor woman coming in the crowd or a religious hotshot coming to his face, he healed them (5:21-43). He traveled across the sea (he even walked on it!) and he fed the thousands (3:7-12; 6:30-52). He healed them. He told the religious leaders that they had it all wrong. “You do a great job,” he said, “of ignoring God to keep your own traditions.” (7:1-23) He healed them. A woman from the fringes, from Syrophoenicia of all places, a Gentile, comes to him and … “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Who is this Jesus? I think, perhaps, this Jesus is exactly the Jesus the disciples expected. Let me explain. Jesus assembled an uneasy alliance of different types of people to be his disciples, but they were all Jewish. They were all of the same ethnic background, the same religious tradition. By and large, they came from a culture that was understandably wary or even hostile toward outsiders. When Jesus started breaking down those walls meant to protect them from outsiders, he had to have scared them. When he started healing on the Sabbath and telling the religious leaders that it was OK, that might have made the disciples squirm in their seats. But they saw something in Jesus, something that made them keep going. After a while, I imagine such a task became more and more difficult. Consider when just a few chapters before this moment, Jesus finds out that his cousin, the one who baptized him, has been killed. Jesus and John were of the same ilk, cut from the same cloth as far as the disciples and the religious leaders were concerned. If John could get his head chopped off, what fate awaited the disciples? Surely, Jesus’ radical openness had to stop somewhere. Maybe that’s what they’re thinking when they come to this region: Tyre in Phoenicia.
Tyre had a unique relationship with Judah, where the disciples were from, and especially Galilee, the homeland of Jesus. Tyre was a Gentile city located on an island off the coast of Palestine northwest of Galilee. Alexander the Great had conquered Tyre hundreds of years before, building a bridge from the ruins of the city connecting the island to the mainland. A great regional economic power arose in the ruins of the city. By the time of Jesus, Tyre was a wealthy city with a thriving economy most of the time. Being an island, however, Tyre might thrive on trade but it did not have farmland. We know from Acts and other sources that Tyre got its food from the lands under King Herod, including Galilee, the homeland of Jesus and his disciples. Now, this exchange of goods and food worked well when the economy was in good shape. However, once the economy wasn’t faring so well, the relationship only worked one way. At that point, Tyre could still trade, but Galilee couldn’t afford to buy. Problem was, Tyre could still buy Galilee’s food, and it usually did. So, Tyreans would come and buy the bread off the tables of the Jewish people in times of famine and hardship. The Galileans might starve while the Tyrean Gentiles ate all their food. As you can imagine, Galileans were not fans of Tyre or the Syrophoenicians who lived there.
With this story as their backdrop, the disciples say, surely we can draw the line here. Surely, Jesus is not that bold. Surely, we can exclude those people who exploit us, hurt us, manipulate us, and take our food. Surely, they do not deserve the inheritance of God, the kingdom of God. The first shall be last! The proud will be scattered! The powerful will be brought down from their thrones! That’s the Gospel, right? The rich will be sent away empty! Isn’t that what Mary says in Luke? Surely, we can draw the line at Syrophoenicians of all people. Surely, Jesus can’t cross that border. Indeed, ““Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I can imagine the disciples in the back smirking and nodding. “Yes, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Take your privilege and exploitation back home, Gentile. Go.”
Perhaps Jesus knew this attitude was theirs. Perhaps Jesus knew what people wanted of him. Perhaps he knew that there were these entrenched, unjust, unfair, unrighteous racial andeconomic prejudices against this woman. Perhaps, Jesus said to himself, “This is a teachable moment.” So, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus fulfills the disciples’ expectations, everyone’s expectations, and he draws the line. Maybe he draws it to silent or audible cheers or a good hearty “Amen.” After all, these people are out. They don’t deserve it. They have been too bad, they have done too much, and they have screwed up so bad that they aren’t getting into the kingdom. It’s game over for them.
But something happens. I don’t know if there was a twinkle in Jesus’ eye, something in the way that he said what he said, something that tipped off the Syrophoenician woman, but something infinitely strange happens. A mother afraid for the life of her dying child when called a racial slur and turned away is not angry, incensed, or frustrated. She does not respond with a racial slur of her own. She does not call him a dog or even a Nazarene. If someone said that to me, I’d be mad! Wouldn’t you? I’d say some things Jesus probably wouldn’t recommend. Unholy things. But she doesn’t, because she knows what’s going on. Most of your translations, including my own, begin her sentence with “even,” but I think the proper translation of the Greek might just be and. She completes his sentence, “Yes, and the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “Let the children be fed first,” Jesus says, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” and she finished, “and yet the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus turns to her and says, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”
Wait, what? I can see the disciples startle in their seats. Did Jesus just change his mind? Did she just … what just happened?
Now, I don’t think Jesus changed his mind. I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing — and thankfully, this woman did, too. What Jesus was doing, I propose, is modeling for us what it looks like to change our minds, to revise our opinions, our biases, our preconceptions, our prejudices. He shows us what it means to live a life where tradition does not trump the command of God. He shows us what it means to live in a world where borders and biases do not trump our love for our neighbor as ourselves. In showing us how to change, he asks us to change ourselves. Consider this story.
Surekha Nelavala, a theologian and preacher from India says that when her family first moved from a rural village to a small town, they were looking for a house to rent. Nelavala and her mother were walking down the street and found a house available for rent. They went to ask the owner and the first question he asked was what caste of Indian society they belonged to. Nelavala’s mother told him that they were Christians instead, but by her saying so, he knew that they must be from the lowest class, the so-called “untouchables,” the Dalits. Nelavala says, “He became indifferent, and murmured, saying he would not rent to the untouchables, the dirty pigs.” Dogs. Angry but desperate for a home, at first they said nothing. Then her mother said, “You are calling us untouchables, the dirty pigs, but each grain of rice that you are eating is touched and processed by us only.” The man was shocked at her response and refused to talk any further, still refusing to rent to them. Nelavala says that even though “the owner could see the rationale in my mother’s argument, he did not risk changing his attitude; rather he proudly rejected us.”
This man acts precisely as Jesus did not. Jesus asks us to risk changing our attitudes about people. And make no mistake, such a change is risky. For this renter to change his attitude about these two Dalit women would have been to overthrow centuries of tradition, to overthrow a social order. For Jesus to heal this woman’s child was to look upon decades of exploitation and fear and stretch out a hand of friendship and love. That’s risky! You never know how people will respond in return, because it’s not always fun and hugs when you forgive someone. Sometimes, it still hurts. But sometimes it’s not us who risk being hurt in this exchange. Instead, more often than not, regardless of how we perceive it, we are the ones doing the hurting right now. Jesus asks us to change our attitudes about people, and that means questioning precisely how we think about things like class, race, sexuality, gender, religion, ethnicity, and nationality.
Jesus asks us to revise our stereotypes and change our opinions because maybe, just maybe,those people are really people and entirely different than we thought. Maybe those peoplehave the image of God in them just as we have the image of God in us. Maybe God loves those people just as much as he loves these people. Jesus calls us not to reduce people to stereotypes and preconceptions. He calls us not to have a single story of drugs, alcohol, sex, or violence about anyone. Everyone is a whole person, just as complex as you and me. Jesus calls us here not to reduce people to categories, to give them simple stories so we can put them in nice little boxes and ignore them. Instead, Jesus asks us to recognize the God in them as we see God in each other.
God shows no favorites. God is not in the business of picking and choosing based on human categories. The Gospel is for everyone, not just a select few. The Gospel is for you and me, but it’s also for everyone down the street. The Gospel is for you and me, but it’s also for the people in Birmingham and Montgomery. The Gospel is for you and me, but it’s also for the people in the North, out West, and South of the Border. The Gospel is for you and me, but it’s also for people across the seas. It’s for the people in Jerusalem and Judah, yes, but also for the people of Samaria and the ends of the earth.
Jesus calls us to go to the borders of who we think belongs in this kingdom of heaven. Notice that he has gone to the border of Palestine. He has gone so far that he’s in Phoenicia. He has become an outsider. He has gone to see those people who are supposedly, as Christian theologian Origen put it, “outside the inheritance of God.” What Jesus shows us is that no such category exists. The Gospel is for the people on the borders, on the margins. The Gospel is for the disrespected and refused.
The Gospel that God loves us all,
The Gospel that God came to live with us,
The Gospel that God came to die for us,
The Gospel that God is coming back,
The Gospel that is the great Mystery of Faith,
that Christ has died, Christ is risen, that Christ will come again,
that Gospel is for everyone.
That Gospel is for
the rich and the poor,
the sinner and the saint,
the criminal and the judge,
the addict and the policeman,
the alcoholic and the churchman.
That Gospel is for
That Gospel is for
black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and everything in between.
That Gospel is for
the soldier, the protestor, the politician, the theist, and the atheist.
Sometimes that Gospel
is even for we Christians, too.
Who do you think is outside of this Gospel?
Who do you think is outside of this grace?
Who in my life do I treat as less than?
Who in my life do I avoid?
Who in your life needs this grace?
Who in my life needs this Gospel?
The Gospel is not for those of us who think we have it all together. The Gospel is not for the people who think we have everything right. The Gospel is for those of us who think we have it wrong. The Gospel is for those of us who think we’ve done it wrong. The Gospel is for those of us who think we’ve made too many mistakes. That kind of Gospel doesn’t belong just in these four walls. That kind of Gospel is bigger than any building and book, any doctrine and dogma, and it’s bigger than you and me.
The good news, then, is grace.
The world is not the way we thought.
The weak are strong,
the last are first,
the poor are rich,
the sad will be happy,
the imprisoned will be free,
the dogs will be children.
This grace is enough to forgive every sin.
This grace is enough to accept anyone and everyone into our home.
Bring someone to the table,
Talk to someone outside,
Show extra patience,
Show extra kindness,
Give love when it’s hard,
Build bridges, not walls,
Houses, not barricades,
Shelters, not fences,
for this is the meaning of grace,
and there’s more than enough to go around.
This grace is enough to invite everyone to the table, and not just for crumbs, but for a feast. “Go and do likewise.”
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.