Gospel (Mark 7:24-37)
The holy gospel according to Mark, the 7th chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
24 [Jesus] 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,25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
The gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace to you, and peace, from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The social structure in Jesus’ day was very class and status conscious. Your class was determined by the family to whom you were born. Once you were born into a class, there was no chance for you to change. Class brought privilege or ridicule, wealth or poverty. The people to whom James was writing certainly understood the class system. They knew who should get the best seats at the table, they knew how to cater to wealth, how to play up to those with influence in the community.
And Jesus’ hearers also understood status distinctions. They knew that those who were not descendants of Abraham were to be avoided at all cost, lest their lower status taint the faithful. They classified everyone from outside their own area as unclean, and they avoided coming in contact with them.
So when the Syrophonecian woman approached Jesus, his disciples were prepared for trouble…
The woman came with a request that was familiar to Jesus; he had seen and heard parents pleading for Jesus to restore the health of their children. In this case the woman’s daughter was possessed by a demon. After listening to the woman’s request, Jesus responded to her. We have his words written in our Gospel, and to our ears they sound harsh. He called her a dog. A dog!
We heard those words from Jesus, but printed words can only tell us so much. What we don’t know is the look on his face or the tone of his voice. Was he overworked, sleep-deprived, simply needing a break? Did he snap at the woman because she didn’t respect his day off? That might be true: after all, the first verses in the Gospel told us that Jesus was hoping not to be noticed; he simply needed a break. Or was Jesus just quoting to her the tradition that established the relationship between Jews and outsiders? Or perhaps, did he say the words with a mocking tone and a grin, letting her know that he was quoting the official policy, but that he didn’t agree with it? We would like the last interpretation to be true; that would certainly be like the Jesus we think we know. But the plain fact is, we just don’t know.
What we do know, though, is that after some conversation with the woman, Jesus told the woman that her daughter was free of the demon. Despite his seemingly harsh words, Jesus didn’t turn her away; instead, he told her that her daughter was free of the demon. Jesus did that, not because the woman came from a high social status; instead, Jesus healed her because that’s who Jesus is, that’s what Jesus does.
I wonder, though… How would we respond to this woman if she came to us for help? Would we warmly welcome her, pray with her for her daughter, look for practical ways to be of help? Or would we, like the recipients of James’s letter, treat her as an outsider, one who could never understand the deep history of this community, this congregation? Would we, perhaps without using the words at all, let her know that she is no more welcome than a stray dog by the side of the road? Of course not, we protest. We would certainly help her and make her feel welcome. And we would like that to be the truth. But sometimes we are so caught up in our own families and social circles that we just don’t see those “outsiders” any more than we notice a stray dog by the side of the road as we drive from one event to another in our busy lives. We may not feel that we are hostile to others and their needs, but often we just do not notice. We miss an opportunity to be God’s hands and feet bringing comfort, encouragement, and strength to those around us, both inside and outside of our social circles.
Today those strangers might be some of the four million refugees fleeing the devastation of brutal civil war in Syria. We wish that we would be like the volunteers in Hungary who stationed themselves along a road that refugees were likely to travel. They had stocked up with food and water to give to anyone who came by. Or perhaps we would like to be like the young German boy who was photographed at the airport, waiting for a plane to arrive with refugees on board. He was carrying a hand-printed cardboard sign that said “Welcome”; and he had brought several toys to give to children as they arrived. We would like to believe that we would do something similar. But in our most honest moments, we wonder if we would even notice a refugee among all of the ball games, school events, and family gatherings that fill our calendars…
But the good news, friends, is that God doesn’t let us stay in that state of oblivion. God continues to act in us to open our eyes, to help us see those who need help and encouragement. God continues to remind us that we are a people who have been given the mission to love and care for others, even… no, make that especially, the stranger.
The biblical scholar and preacher, Fred Craddock, tells the story of a missionary sent to preach the gospel in India near the end of World War II. After many months the time came for a furlough back home.
His church wired him the money to book passage on a steamer but when he got to the port city he discovered a boat load of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily. These were the days when European Jews were sailing all over the world literally looking for a place to live, and these particular Jews were now staying in attics and warehouses and basements all over that port city.
It happened to be Christmas, and on Christmas morning, this missionary went to one of the attics where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, “Merry Christmas.”
The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, “We’re Jews
“I know that,” said the missionary, ” What would you like for Christmas?”
In utter amazement the Jews responded, “Why, we’d like pastries, good pastries like the ones we used to have in Germany.”
So the missionary went out and used the money for his ticket home to buy pastries for all the Jews he could find staying in the port.
Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his passage back to the States.
As you might expect, his superiors wired back asking what happened to the money they had already sent.
He wired that he had used it to buy Christmas pastries for some Jews.
His superiors wired back, “Why did you do that? They don’t even believe in Jesus.”
He wired back: “Yes, but I do.”
And so do you. Thanks be to God. Amen.