Following the murders in Charleston, SC, of nine Christians engaged in Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the bishops of that denomination called on people of faith across our land to focus the weekend of September 5-7 on Confession, Repentance, Prayer and Commitment to End Racism. As is often the case, the lectionary of readings for this Sunday provided a providentially apt set of readings relevant to this prayerful call by the bishops (which was echoed by Young Jin Cho, my own United Methodist bishop here in Virginia. Here is what the Spirit brought me to say as I sought to bear witness to God’s Word yesterday at Highland Springs UMC in Highland Springs, VA.
I have a confession to make – in 42 years of ministry I’ve never preached on this text. I avoided it because quite frankly, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Jesus. His table manners might’ve been socially acceptable in his day but they’re still rather crude and rude. If we like gentle Jesus meek and mild, always caring and kind, he’s not here. It’s troubling and unsettling and takes us where we’d rather not go.
In Mark’s story Jesus is traveling in the area of modern day Lebanon. He needs to recharge his batteries and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. But here comes this woman looking for help. Poor Jesus can’t get a break or a day off.
Mark describes her as Syro-Phoenician, a Gentile. The Greek says she’s a Hellenist; inMatthew’s gospel she’s even worse – a Canaanite. In other words she’s the worst kind of outsider. In the Bible Canaanites are always the bad guys; in Jewish history the Hellenists caused some of the worst persecutions Jews ever faced. And Jews weren’t really sure Gentiles were human, so Jesus’ harsh attitude toward this woman fit right in with his time and culture.
Add to that, she’s a woman. In Jesus’ day women and men who aren’t family just don’t deal with each other; women know their place and stay in it. But here she is, uninvited into the house looking for Jesus out to ask a favor.
Now she is respectful and humble; Mark says she falls atJesus’ feet to beg him to heal her little girl. Who could turn away and not feel pity for her? Apparently Jesus can.
And he does it in a rather crass and cruel way. In our reading Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t bother me or waste my time. I’ve got better things to dothan deal with people like you.” Ouch.
One more thing really stings and hurts here. We see dogs and puppies as cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy. We love them. That’s not how they’re seen in Jesus’ day. They’re wild scavengers; curs to be kicked aside and chased away. Dogs are more trouble than they’re worth. Basically Jesus calls this woman and her daughter dogs, female dogs. At its worst Jesus may be guilty of using the B word on them. Truth be told, Jesus sounds like a sexist racist.
But there is good news here. I love that Jesus’ is so human. We Christians claim a great mystery: Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. Sometimes we want to smooth the raw edges in our picture of Jesus, but scripture says he was like us in every way, except without sin. He’s a creature of his own day and time; a first century Jew, part of a culture that sees women and non-Jews in a particular way. There’s no sin in that. The sin would be to stay that way when given a better, wiser way that’s more like God’s ways.
That’s what this woman does for Jesus. She opens his eyes wider to see more clearly. She’s the only person in the New Testament who gets the best of Jesus in an argument. I love that. Jesus rudely dismisses her; but she’s a Momma in need and won’t take “No” for an answer with her little girl’s life on the line. Jesus tells her, “It’ not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she comes right back, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Take that, Jesus. Even Gentiles, Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites, women and dogs have a place at God’s table of grace and mercy and healing and hope.
Just before this story, Jesus has a huge slap fight with Jewish religious leaders who are too focused on doing everything just so. Jesus rants at them, “You are so busy holding on to human traditions that you let go of God’s commandments.” And here’s this woman holding Jesus’ feet to the fire challenging him for doing the very same thing. Whoa.
Jesus is like us in every way except sin. The sin would be for Jesus to hold onto the human tradition of treating some better than others, as if there are 1st and 2nd class citizens. Thanks to this woman, Jesus’ very human eyes are opened to see that God’s ways are even greater and broader and wider than Jesus first thought. And Jesus changes his ways and his mind and his heart to match up to God. He is converted and tells the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
Typically Jesus connects healing with faith; here it’s the woman’s reasoning that produces the miracle. Her logic brings the change not only to her daughter, but to Jesus, too.
I love the way Mark tells his tale. In chapter 6 Jesus feeds 5000 Jews with bread and fish. In this chapter Jesus says the children’s bread shouldn’t be given to dogs but his mind is changed. That’s what conversion is. And in chapter 8 Jesus again provides bread to a crowd., but this time it’s Gentiles he feeds because he has compassion on them. Even Jesus can grow to see God’s ways in new ways; he’s blessed because of this woman God uses to make it happen.
That’s good news for us, too, because we’re Gentiles. We’re the outsiders Jesus might have missed without her opening his eyes and heart.
And there’s more good news. If the Son of God can grow in his understanding of God’s ways, so can we. If Jesus can be blessed through the honest wise words of another, so can we. We need each other; we need church folks to be open and honest with us to challenge and stretch us to live more fully for God. That’s what it means to be church, the Body of Christ together.
Some of us grew up in a time and place and that was deeply racist and sexist. There’s no sin in that. The sin is to stay there. Jesus doesn’t stay with his limited attitudeafter his encounter with this woman in need, and we don’t have to stay tied to old, small ways, either.
Our world still doesn’t fully reflect God’s broad bright ways; Jesus still groans as he heals. Racism and prejudice are alive among us, maybe in our own hearts. Some say we have to say “Black Lives Matter” because in many ways our culture says they really don’t matter.
After the racially hate-filled murders of nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Carolina, African Methodist Episcopal Church bishops asked Christians across US to join today in confession, repentance, prayer and commitment to end racism. Our own Bishop Cho made that call to us as well.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can’t stay deaf and mute to this cancer still eating at our soul. Healing comes as we listen and learn from those who are different, with different life experiences. Blessing comes as we allow ourselves like the Lord Jesus to be challenged and changed by truth heard in unexpected places. In my own life I thank God for the honest hard words and the humble life of a guy named Ben Nelson, my pastor during my teen years. God used him to convert and change this narrow-minded racist boy toward the better way of Christ. It’s true – the gospel really is that powerful and wonderful.
This winter I talked with some Randolph-Macon College students of color about their life on that largely white campus. It wasn’t easy to hear what they said, but I’m glad they told me the truth. I told them not to stay silent, and one woman said that’s hard: white folks can feel guilty and she didn’t want to hurt our feelings. But I said I hoped she’d speak up anyway because that’s how healing and conversion and better days come.
Today we come to be fed today at this table where the Lord is again present. Let us confess and repent of whatever keeps us from walking God’s wide way of grace for all; ask for healing so we won’t be deaf to the stories of our brothers and sisters and silent no more in the face of racism or prejudice. Like the woman long ago let us fall on our knees and ask for mercy for us and our land and make a new commitment to the loving way of Jesus; then our table manners will be worthy of the One who calls and heals and welcomes us all, thanks be to God.