Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Sassy Savior - Mark 7:24-37

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

The story is told of a Quaker minister who was involved in a traffic accident. The other driver was quite angry, and jumped out of his car yelling every obscenity he could think of and calling the Quaker minister every name in the book. He stood there silently as the other driver said things that will not be repeated here. Finally, the man finished, exasperated, perspiring, and worn out. The Quaker minister looked at him for a moment and said, “Sir, I cannot speak to thee as thou hast spoken to me. But I sincerely hope when you arrive home this evening, that your mother runs out from under the porch and bites you.”

There is an art to delivering an insult. My grandfather used to deliver these one-liners and I found myself fascinated by his delivery. Most of his insults had to do with the perceived intelligence of those around him. About a co-worker, he once remarked that the gentleman in question didn’t have enough sense to pound sand down a gopher hole. Or about a particular neighbor, that he wasn’t smart enough to pour water out of a boot with the instructions written on the heel. Or to a claims adjustor from his insurance company, “Sir, I wish to engage you in a battle of wits, but you appear to be unarmed.” The only pity was that most of these people were, in fact, too dim to realize they’d been insulted.

Not so with the woman in today’s text. In the 7th Chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus insults a woman after he tells her he has no time for her. She understands that she has been insulted, but rather than firing one back, she presses on with her original goal still plainly in view. Even in the midst of an insult, something amazing happens. May we pray.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the picture we get of Jesus in this morning’s text. This is not the Jesus I got to know in Sunday School. This Jesus is just a little too earthy for many of our tastes. Whether we know it or not, we have been conditioned to view Jesus in certain ways. On one hand, we know that he was fully human and fully divine. However, we often think of him as being fully human on the outside, and fully divine on the inside. Some sort of divine spark placed into a human body, an everlasting piece of immortality placed into flesh. When we think of Jesus, we think of some inner radiance that seems to always beam out of him like light through stained glass. Jesus never smiles, but always looks sort of ethereal and distant, as if his mind is on great heavenly things for which we mere mortals have no comprehension. And just so we know there’s a divine being living inside that normal-looking body, we always have to put a halo on him. In short, the picture of Jesus that most of us prefer looks a lot like . . . well, this particular window.

One of my favorite cereals to this day remains Frosted Mini Wheats. I love them so much that Kellogg’s should probably send me an endorsement check. On weekday afternoons, I would watch TV (when I was supposed to be doing my homework) with an open box of Frosted Mini Wheats, slowly and deliberately eating the frosting off each delicious little square, carefully laying each square aside, and putting them back in the box when I was finished. The best part was that my sister was always up a bit earlier than I was, and she would have a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats the next morning. Incidentally, my sister never liked that particular cereal all that well, but could never figure out why.

Do you remember their ad campaign? An adult would be sitting at the table in professional attire eating a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats. They would look at the camera and say, “The adult in me loves the whole wheat side,” and then the adult would be replaced by a child wearing the same clothes who would say, “But the kid in me loves the frosted side.”

Right now, you’re wondering what this has to do with Jesus and particularly with today’s text, right? I think the way we often think of Jesus is similar to these Frosted Mini Wheats commercials. The commercials indicate that there’s a little kid inside each of us, and the way we portray Jesus is that there was a divine being inside that body. His mind always on things above and slightly disconnected from things on earth even as his body did the things that normal earthly bodies do. In short, even though we understand Jesus to be fully human and fully divine, our portrayals often make him half human and half divine – human on the outside, and divine on the inside.

In today’s text, I think Jesus is just a little too human, a little too raw, a little too earthy for what we want Jesus to be. The whole passage that was read includes two healing stories, and you’ve got to admit, Jesus is pretty earthy, pretty human, pretty fleshy in both of these healing accounts. In the second part of the text, Jesus is spitting, playing in the dirt, and giving the poor deaf guy with a speech impediment a wet willy.

In the first part of the text, Jesus casually hurls a pretty nasty insult at a woman who was only asking for help. Why? Because she wasn’t one of his chosen people, of course. She is a Gentile. She’s an outsider.

She asks Jesus to heal her daughter, and he casts her aside with a wave of his hand and says over his shoulder as he doesn’t even slow down, “It’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, “you’re not a child; you’re a dog.”

I know that many of you have dogs who are like members of your family. Not faulting anyone for that. In fact, on Saturday October 3, we’ll have a service of blessing the animals where we celebrate and remember what all God’s creatures mean to each of us, and offer an individual blessing for each animal. I know many of you love your dogs as if they’re your own children.

I just need you to understand that such a view of dogs would have been completely foreign in the worldview in which today’s text took place. Dogs were not members of the family. Dogs were not beloved pets. Dogs were not cute and adorable and cuddly animals. In the words of Dog Whisperer, Caesar Millan, “It’s a dog.”

In first century Palestine, it was not uncommon for Jews to call non-Jews dogs. It was meant to be an insult. It was a way of saying, “you people who are different than us are really not quite people. You’re not quite human. You’re just the same as the disease-ridden animals who eat the garbage and drink out of the toilet.”

We find Jesus using this very insult when he speaks to the Gentile woman who asks for healing for her daughter. Ouch. We may welcome Jesus’ depiction of Israel as “the children,” but did he have to call this poor, frantic, desperate mother, along with all her people, “the dogs?” Maybe the Gentiles could have instead been cast as “the neighbor kids.”

Not exactly the picture of Jesus we want to hang onto, is it? Jesus the snob? Jesus the racist?

Really, I think the picture is actually one of Jesus the human. Jesus the human who lived at a particular time, lived among a particular people, and may very well have had some of the prejudices and ways of doing that went along with living at a particular time in a particular place. From time to time, I will speak with people of previous generations who use words that no one of my politically-correct generation would ever use – words with racial, ethnic, homophobic, or elitist overtones. I know that people will sometimes use these words and then claim ignorance on how they’re interpreted today or say, “Well, that’s just how I was taught, but I don’t mean anything by it,” and by the way, I’ve just taught you something different so those are words about other people I never expect anyone here to utter in my presence. But, I also understand that there are a small number of folks who may use such terms completely innocently, who really do intend no harm and the last thing they would want would be to insult anyone.

If we keep digging into the context of this particular story, I think that’s exactly what was going on with Jesus. In the Greek, Jesus doesn’t use the same word for dogs that was considered derogatory. He uses a diminutive version of the word, which describes not the wild, filthy, flea-bitten, mangy dogs of the street. The word he uses describes the rare domesticated dogs of the house, beloved puppies, the pets that many of us treat as if they’re children.

Jesus is making a play on words here. He’s not being insulting; he’s being clever. Jesus is not insulting, the fact that he even poses the question to the woman is, in and of itself, a compliment and an olive branch to elevate her to higher standing than a first century male Palestinian Jew would offer a Greek woman. Back then, much as today, the Greeks loved conversation, mental sparring, friendly debate, and vigorous banter. But even more than that, back then, men did not discuss theological issues with women. Women were regarded as inferior, as mindless, as things to be owned, used, and discarded.

So when Jesus asks her this philosophical question, he is actually honoring her. He is engaging her in a style of discourse loved and prized by her culture. He is treating her as being on the same playing field as a worthy mental adversary. He is a man, asking her a theological and philosophical question on her very own turf. The very fact that he engages her on her own turf is proof positive that Jesus was not being insulting.

Skillfully, she rises to the challenge. With great grace she says, “Sir, I concede your point. The children are, indeed, fed first. But even if I am a dog as you playfully assert, what is the reason why I can’t have the crumbs the children throw away under the table?”

She was, in a word, charming. She painted herself out of the corner Jesus had backed her into, handed him the paintbrush and said, “What else ya got?” Jesus grinned, knowing that she had just declared “Checkmate” in this verbal chess game, and you know what? Jesus was impressed. Jesus was impressed by the depth of her conviction, by the strength of her love, and by her willingness to endure a little gentle ribbing if it meant she might get what she needed for her daughter. Jesus laughed and said, “You got me. And by the way, your daughter is well.”

And in that, we see a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Even when we have our prejudices, even when we have our pre-conceived notions of how the world should work, even when we have correctly identified those whom we perceive to be favored by God, God’s grace is still larger.

Even when we play favorites, God is at work in the lives of those we don’t like, those we insult, those we perceive to inferior to be ourselves. This is where the kingdom of God shows itself to a complete reversal of the kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of this world are built on the concept of scarcity. Think about it. We’ve all been told that there’s only so much of anything and everything, and the result is that we find ourselves in a constant competition with every other person around us. I was starting to search for airline tickets for a trip to Kansas City next month, and the search engine reminded me that there are “only four tickets left at this price!” There are only so many spaces in the entering freshman class. There are only so many good jobs in this field. There are only so many lakefront lots left. There are only so many fish in the sea. There is only so much oil, or so much money, or you get the picture.

The governments of the world love war so much because they have bought into the idea of scarcity. Everyone is trying to look out for their own interests, make sure their own needs are met, “I’m looking out for #1 and I don’t care what happens to the rest of you!” Nations go to war with each other, neighbors feud, students cheat, we hurl insults and slurs about anything we don’t like about another person or group of people, family members stop speaking to each other, and religious groups argue about which one of them is actually the most favored by God because of one thing – we’ve all bought into the lie of scarcity upon which the economies of the world are based.

But there is an alternative, and Jesus gives us a glimpse of it in today’s text. In the economy of God’s kingdom, even the dogs under the table get the table scraps, and it is enough to meet their needs. There is enough. Even those we’ve excluded from the table, even those we’ve treated as dogs, even those we are convinced are less than human, find enough of the bread of God’s grace and love to meet their needs. Even when we show favoritism and bar the door to the banquet hall, even when we are exclusive and narrow-minded and judgmental, God still finds a way to feed the very ones we’ve tried to leave out. If that’s not a definition of grace in the kingdom of God, I don’t know what is.

So my question for us this morning is this: if God is going to take care of everyone anyway, why don’t we just set a few more seats at the table and invite them to the banquet? The kingdom of God is often likened to a great feast, and before us today, a foretaste of the feast has been set. Every time we gather at this table to break this bread and receive from this cup, we participate in a sign of the kingdom of God. We commune with our risen Lord at this table, but we also commune with each other – with God’s people of all times and places, of all races and colors, of all economic backgrounds, of all lifestyles and ways of thinking, believing, and doing, even the ones we think don’t belong at the table in the first place.

When you come today and every time I serve you communion, you’ll receive a big piece of bread, because this is a meal of God’s kingdom. This is a meal of the abundance of God’s kingdom, not a meager meal to remind us of the scarcity the world wants us to believe in. Every time you participate in this meal, whether it is celebrated at this table or somewhere else, you are participating in a countercultural and subversive act. Every time you participate in this meal, you are declaring your conviction that God’s grace is abundant, and that there is more than enough of it to go around.

She only asked for crumbs. Jesus gave her a seat at the banquet instead.

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