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Going to the Dogs

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Mark 7:24-37

24 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, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.’ 28But she answered him, ‘Sir,* even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So 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. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus* ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

As our summer season draws to a close, a summer when about 71 percent of us take some sort of vacation, we find Jesus on vacation in Lebanon, in the seaside city of Tyre.  Tyre was one of the cities built up by the Romans under the rule of Herod the Great; once an island, Tyre was connected to the coastal mainland thanks to a siege bridge built by Alexander the Great’s army.  In Jesus’ day Tyre was a commercial center, a cosmopolitan center, a port city whose influence on the Galilean economy was significant; you could find wealth there, along with art and music.  People there worshiped the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods and one would suspect there were a few die-hard traditionalists who worshiped Melqart, the god of the Phoenicians, who had helped settle Tyre about 2700 years before Jesus ever set foot there.  The city’s  booming trade with the rest of the Mediterranean world meant that there was a huge diversity of culture.  There even was an ancient archeological inscription recently uncovered, written in Greek, Latin and Phoenician.  It read, “What happens in Tyre, stays in Tyre.”  OK, I made that last part up.    I doubt that Tyre had much in the way of neon lights and colossal hotels, but I imagine it was a glamorous and beautiful city in the ancient world.  Jesus was a devout Jewish guy from a small Jewish town.  And Tyre was the place Jesus decided to get away to for a little peace and quiet, to a house in Tyre where nobody would bother him. 

Except, someone did.  And not just any someone.  A woman of Syro-Phoenician origin.  That’s the only written description Mark offers us, but if we look a little closer at the situation, we learn a little more about her.  She was pushy.  Women just didn’t pop in on men and begin speaking to them back in that culture.  There were rules prohibiting such behavior.  Such a thing might only be done by a prostitute, though we don’t know if that was her profession.  She may have been one of those very rare women back in the day– like Lydia– a merchant who ran her own business.  She might have been dirt poor, she might have been quite wealthy, we don’t know.  What we do know is that she was pushy, and Jesus wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of being pushed by her, especially given her ethnic and cultural status as a Gentile of Syro-Phoenician origin.   That’s about as pagan and as far away from being a good God-fearing person as you could get, by Jewish standards.

And Jesus was Jewish.  Whether Jesus was angered because his vacation had been interrupted, whether he was insulted by the brassy way this woman entered his space and began to ask him to heal her daughter, whether he was secretly just testing this woman’s faith in him, we really don’t know.  But Mark says Jesus responded with an insult befitting the situation, calling this woman and her daughter dogs.  Not cuddly miniature poodles, but wandering mongrel scavengers who wouldn’t  deserve anything more that a swift kick or well-thrown rock.  It’s still an insult used in that part of the world.  Remember the shoe-throwing journalist who went off on President Bush?  As he threw his shoes, also a truly insulting thing to do, he yelled, This is your farewell kiss, you dog!

It’s startling to hear Jesus use such language, isn’t it?  But he does, and he reveals the ancient hostility and feeling of superiority that Jews had about Gentiles; he reveals the very human tendency toward prejudice and toward building separation between the clean people and the unclean people.  Jews and Gentiles.  Whites and Blacks.  Democrats and Republicans.  Liberals and Conservatives.  What Mark doesn’t tell us, by the way, but what other historical records report, is also a strong prejudice and dislike that Gentiles had of Jews.  They despised their ritual behavior and thought the Jewish insistence on circumcision was a barbaric form of mutilation.   The pushy Gentile mom crosses this divide, going against the rules and prejudices of her culture, and asks Jesus to purge the unclean spirit from her daughter.  Again, she has no right to ask this because she and her daughter have brought this on themselves.  After all, going to worship at temples for all the other Gods was not just an unclean act; it was worshipping in ways that served demonic spirits.  As Paul warns the Corinthians, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

So they had it coming, this pagan woman and her daughter.  They were dogs.

I’m always struck by this story because it speaks to the heroic actions of these two people who do not remain stuck in their conventional ways of seeing the world and its people.  The pushy mom wasn’t a Jew, she likely didn’t worship at the local synagogue or know much about Jesus except maybe he’d done some amazing miracles.  She didn’t deserve him even giving her the time of day.  She had to know this, and how wrong it was to go speak to him.  But she did.  And Mark reminds us that God became incarnate not only in a person but also in a culture, and here Jesus gives voice to two of the most fundamental prejudices of his culture: Jewish men did not speak to or allow themselves to be spoken to by women in public, and observant Jews tried to minimize their contact with Gentiles.  Jesus could have rightly refused to help because of what we might call this woman’s pre-existing conditions.  In fact, he starts there, but he doesn’t stay there.   He moves to a new place, and in the power of his gospel he invites us to take the same trip.

We could say that it was ultimately God’s power working through Jesus that cured the woman’s daughter, and that is the easy diagnosis.  But there are other words that come to mind, words also coming from Paul’s message to the Corinithians, that in the mystery of God’s life-journey with us, and our life-journey together, we find the powerful forces of faith, hope and love alive with us, and the greatest of these is love.  Hope brought this woman to Jesus, her faith gave her the persistence she needed, but the driving force behind all this was the deep love she felt for her daughter.

Jesus responded to her with the deep love God feels for all God’s children—and revealed this love crosses all barriers, prejudices, sterotypes, and labels.  Love heals all hurts.

Mark Twain once wrote that “Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”

Breaking chains and freeing souls was Jesus’ job description and his ultimate loyalty was to God’s unfolding work of renewing and redeeming the creation, which thankfully has included people like you and me.  As his disciples we find his job description is ours as well.  Like Jesus, we find ourselves in situations that challenge us all to reflect a bit on our opinions, our stereotypes, entrenched understandings and petrified opinions.

It’s labor day weekend, when most people are taking their final stab at vacation.  But we’ve come to this house, in the living power of faith, hope and love.  We modern-day Gentiles come here from a world where competing powers, spirits and forces seek to capture our loyalty.  We come here in the midst of a time where the great discussion continues to be what our collective responsibility should be regarding those neighbors of ours who are denied the healthcare they need.

We live in a time when we have to close our ears to keep from hearing the chains rattling, or the murmur of souls suffering.  To those who would wish to divorce the religious actions and behaviors of Sunday from the politics and daily life of Monday, its worth hearing the words of Martin Luther, writing his explanation of the fifth commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill, in his Large Catechism:

This commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury, but fail to do so. If you send a naked person away when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see anyone who is suffering from hunger and do not feed her, you have let her starve. Likewise, if you see anyone who is condemned to death or in similar peril and do not save him although you have means and ways to do so, you have killed him. It will be of no help for you to use the excuse that you did not assist their deaths by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from them and robbed them of the kindness by means of which their lives might have been saved.

“Faith without works is dead,” writes James.  Luther goes him one further:  faith without works is death.

For Christians this should be a simple proposition:  no one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they become sick. And no one should be denied assistance because of pre-existing health conditions.

Jesus overcame the prejudices and assumptions that marked his time and his culture, and a beloved daughter was made well.  Will we, his disciples, be able to do the same in our time and situation?  We’ll see.  With God all things are possible.  I just hope that future generations won’t look back on this time and see that what happened in church, stayed in church.

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