The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I think if we were charged to help David Letterman put together a Top 10 list of our favorite sayings of Jesus that wouldn’t be on it. “Come unto me all ye who travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you,” probably. “I am the bread of life,” probably. That one, not so much.
What is going on in that story? I mean, that is the crankiest Christ—being rude, insulting, not even a shred of grace in that response. It sounds like it is better situated in some of the rather uncivil public discourse in our political scene right now. And it begs the question, what was going on? And if you look at biblical scholars and commentary writers over the centuries who have wrestled with that story, their explanations basically fall into three camps. First: it’s inauthentic; it didn’t happen. Well, that seems kind of easy. I think we’re called to wrestle with tough Scripture. The second camp is: well, maybe Jesus was thinking of it more like a proverb, like “Charity begins at home.” And then they go on to point out that the word that’s translated “dogs” is really the diminutive form of that word so, think “little dog.” Well, I’m a world-class dog lover; let me just say that that was no compliment. Whether it was a little dog or a big dog, he called her a dog. The third camp says it’s tough, it’s there; wrestle with it. And so I invite you to join me in wrestling with that Scripture.
In trying to discern where is the good news in that story—and I would actually go so far as to say that there’s not only good news in that story; there’s great good news—let’s look at the context. In the Gospel of Mark, just before we pick up the story today, Jesus has been going around the region healing and teaching and doing miraculous things—and at a fever pitch and pace. And he’s been attracting crowds who were following him from place to place to place. And as we pick up the story today, it appears that Jesus, as he periodically did, has gone to have a time apart—a time to be quiet and pray and reflect and restore—perhaps to recharge his spiritual batteries. And into that time of retreat, lands this Syrophoenician woman who interrupts his rest.
Now, the Syrophoenician woman had the audacity to approach this Jewish rabbi, already having three strikes against her—her gender, her religion, her ethnic origin—because in that day, Jews and Gentiles really didn’t mix. And when Jesus was talking about the children, he’s talking about the children of Israel, the Jews. And when he makes reference to dogs, he’s speaking of the Gentiles. That will give you a sense of the dynamic in that moment. The Syrophoenician woman has heard of all the miraculous things that Jesus has done. And the story says, she didn’t just go and ask him if he would heal her daughter, she begs him to heal her daughter. This is no passive, “gosh, would you mind” sort of request. She is desperate and willing to break the societal norms and mores of her time to beg Jesus. You have to know, as a mother, that she had exhausted every other resource that was available to her to heal her daughter and out of desperation and love for her daughter she dares to go to Jesus and beg. And what’s Jesus’ response? Let the children—children of Israel—be fed first because it’s not fair to take their food and throw it to the Gentiles.
Her response is fascinating. She doesn’t try and argue with Jesus and the privilege that he is speaking to, about the Jews. Instead she acknowledges that but lifts up another possibility. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She lifts up the possibility for Jesus that even a scrap of grace is sufficient. She asked for a crumb of grace to heal her daughter because she believes that Jesus can do it. And in that moment, I would argue, that she’s not only bested Jesus in that argument; she opened his eyes to the possibility that his ministry is even broader and deeper than he had imagined—that his ministry and his grace are not just for the Jews but the Jews and the Gentiles—which meant all, everyone, no exception. Because the story then goes on. Jesus is still in the Gentile region of the Decapolis when he heals the deaf man. You see, I believe in that very moment that the Syrophoenician woman, of all people, breaks open that the kingdom of God and the grace of Christ are intended for all—no exceptions—rich, poor, black, white, Jew, Gentile, native born, foreign born, gay, straight. All are within the loving grace and embrace of Jesus.
With that adoption, which I consider the great good news, is also a responsibility. And we hear in that passage from James what that looks like. Last Sunday, if you were here, you heard our interim dean, Dr. Wade, lift up the passage from James that talks about faith and works. And he made the important point that faith is something we do. It’s not just a noun, it’s a verb. That the substance of our faith is what we do and that’s how we see it—that we are called to be the stewards of the present. James in the passage today talks a little bit about some of the dangers of favoritism and preference and privilege and makes the point that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves—everyone, no exceptions. In the current issue of Christian Century magazine, the editors challenged some of today’s most renowned preachers and scholars to encapsulate the Christian message in seven words or less. And it’s quite an interesting list and I commend it to you. There are some that you would expect. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “We live by grace.” “We are who God says we are.” And if I were charged with encapsulating the Christian message in today’s Gospel lesson in seven words, they would be: all welcome, no exceptions, no expiration date. Thanks be to God. Amen.