Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A young preacher had been called to a small country church and arrived for his first service. To his dismay he found one of the parishioners had brought his dog to church. The young pastor spoke politely to the dog’s owner and asked if he would kindly remove the animal. The man obliged and took the dog outside, then returned to his seat. After the service, the deacons scolded the new pastor for insulting one of the congregation’s loyal members. They pointed out that the dog had made no trouble and had been accompanying his master to church for years. That afternoon, the young pastor called at the home of the dog’s owner and apologized. “Don’t worry about it a bit, Reverend,” the man replied. “It worked out fine. Besides, I wouldn’t have my dog hear that sermon for anything in the world.”
Dogs are amazing creatures. Not only can they be incredible friends, but many dogs provide humans with much needed assistance, as well as love and companionship. Unfortunately, that was not the picture of man’s best friend in biblical times. Dogs were not regarded as beloved pets. Far too often, they were scavengers who roamed the street- searching for their next meal. And so for centuries, theologians have debated the meaning of this morning’s peculiar passage. They have wondered: Was Jesus jesting with this woman, and teasing her as if playing with a yelping pet, or was Jesus, indeed, insulting her as a backstreet mutt? I know your sympathy, as mine. True to Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism you would always “put a good construction on your neighbor’s words and deeds.” Jesus certainly wouldn’t be rude to a stranger, would he? Especially, to a woman- with a sick child. And yet to dismiss this story too quickly, and soften Jesus’ language would be to avoid a profound truth.
My friends, let me share with you today, two convictions drawn from this poignant story of a loving mother’s pursuit of healing for her child. These convictions are reminders of why we gather here every Sunday. We gather, first, to be reminded of God’s design and purpose for life. Second, we gather to be reminded that God’s grace and power- is not our right alone, but it is God’s gift freely given to all even the stranger.
Let us begin with God’s design and purpose for life. There is nothing more painful than watching a loved one suffer. As a son, I was deeply affected by my parent’s slow decline in health. As a spouse, I too suffer when my wife is ill. And as a parent, I am deeply upset when my sons are injured or sick. For anyone who has ever loved, even briefly, it is easy to understand and sympathize with this caring mother.
Scripture tells us that the woman’s daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit. Now, in biblical times, a demon or unclean spirit was a common diagnosis for mental illness, and unfortunately, there was little sympathy for either the mother or her child. The family doctor would state, simply, “Your child has an unclean spirit. So, what did your child do or what did you do that she has a spirit living inside her?” Or, you might go your Reading Group, and your friends would say, “It is what it is. If it is the will of God that your child is sick, you just have to learn to live with it.”
In such a world, it should be no surprise that the loving and hurting mother would seek out every possible cure she could find. So when she heard that a miracle worker from distant parts had ventured unexpectedly into her neighborhood, she knew what she had to do. According to St. Mark, Jesus had never been anywhere near Tyre before, and it was unlikely that he would ever come that way again, and so the woman did what any desperate parent would do. She ran to Jesus, and prostrated herself in an act of deep faith, and begged fervently, for the restoration and healing of her beloved little girl.
My friends, that’s why we gather here as well. We believe and worship a loving God who does not willfully harm his beloved children. We believe in a God who suffers with us and weeps bitter tears at our bedside. We come to meet God here in this place. We gather here to marvel again at God’s design for life, and to ask for God’s mercy, and wisdom and guidance in our lives- and to intervene in the lives of those we love. We gather in worship because we trust that he meets us here in the life of our loving Savior. So Jesus’ insult, and dismissal of the woman and her child comes to us as painful surprise. Certainly, this is not Jesus.
There are, of course, the traditional theological explanations to this text: Jesus never actually calls the woman a dog, he was merely playing. He really meant to say puppy. Nor was he ever actually refusing her, but rather he was testing her. Neither the insult nor rejection were real, but rather they were the means by which Jesus tested her faith, to see if she really, really believed in him. And, of course, she passed. The trouble with this traditional interpretation is that such a pattern of testing never occurs anywhere else in the Gospel of St. Mark. Nowhere does Jesus ever speak to a suffering Jewish mother or father in his homeland so rudely. It is only here in Tyre, in a foreign land, that Jesus speaks in such a way. And we ask, why would Jesus react to anyone in need in such a callous manner? Ultimately creates a cold-hearted picture of a God who taunts and tests us in our deepest moments of need. It was the language and an attitude common to Jesus’ listeners. Women, children, foreigners and the possessed were not to be treated as one’s neighbors, and there was no responsibility for their care. But why would Jesus use such a tone?
There may be another explanation, which leads us to my second conviction: we gather to be reminded that God’s grace and power is not our right alone, but it is God’s gift freely given to all even the stranger. It is often said, that the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning worship. Most churches today are pretty homogeneous. They may be different from one church to another, but within the congregation they are about the same. While that’s understandable it can also be limiting. We tend to bring the same perspectives to our worship life. We share the same experiences and priorities, and we hold common assumptions about God, the world, and our faith. But every once in a when someone totally different walks in to worship, we may question how well we welcome this visitor. Will the strangers feel welcome or, just strange? Will they sense people eager to make a place for them or will they feel they must first fit in and conform to the way things are?
We gather here in the community of fellow believers to be reminded of what is ultimately important and that we have been blessed by love, faith, grace, and forgiveness. All other things are to fade away, but often times we allow the unimportant to become the ultimate. And that includes a belief that God’s grace and power are ours alone.
That’s what is so surprising and almost upsetting about the story of the Syrophoenician woman and her meeting with Jesus. She is the one who reminds Jesus’ and all of his followers of what is ultimately important in this world. The caring mother doesn’t give up. She keeps fighting for the sake of her daughter. She knows what is ultimately important in her life, and says to Jesus, who has just insulted her. “Well, a master takes crumbs off the table and feeds his yelping dog to shut him up. You just heal my daughter and you will shut me up too.” Jesus looked up surprised, and said to the caring mother, “For saying that, you may go- the demon has left your daughter.”
That’s the story: a powerful testimony to the women’s tenacious struggle for her daughter- willing to risk her own pride as she came begging before the Rabbi Jesus. At the heart of the gospel is a foreign woman who was a complete outsider. St. Mark is very explicit. She was a Gentile- a Syrophoenician by birth. But it was an amazing turning point in Jesus’ three year journey to the cross. He first came to the people of Israel, but with each passing year his fame and his witness to the infinite love of God was crossing over into foreign lands. From the Gentile region of Tyre he went across to the other side of Israel to the Gentile region of the Decapolis to heal others who were not his own people.
Now, you may be wondering: why this is lesson this so important? Simply said, because we live in a world where nations make distinctions of who deserves their care and mercy. They play colorful games with language, and erect fences to test the truly faithful who will be like themselves. Christian nations defend their heritage, but do not care for neighbor in need. Several years ago there was a PBS special made to celebrate the 80th birthday of Mother Theresa In this documentary, it depicted her life as a young woman growing up in the former Yugoslavia. The movie showed that there were Jews, Muslims, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians all living in the same town. M other Theresa grew up with all these different traditions. Years later, when she was serving people the streets of Calcutta who were dying of starvation, she didn’t say, “O, God loves Buddhists more than he does Hindus more than he does Catholics.” It was her deeply felt belief that God loves all the children of the earth and that God does not show any favoritism for starving Christian children over starving Muslim children. God loves all children of the earth. And my friends, that is our assurance and challenge as well.
That is why we gather here, Sunday after Sunday- as his beloved children we are reminded of God’s design plan for life and what is ultimately important. We gather here to celebrate and experience the love of God that knows no boundaries- and whose loving hand heals all our wounds, and feeds our longing hearts. Sometimes, this Bread of Life is handed to us- and at other times, we receive only the crumbs that fall from the table- but always, this bread gives life. Welcome, my friends. This is where you belong. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.