From there [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, 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.”

Mark 7:24-37

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 6, 2015) on Mark 7:24-37. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So what stories were Jesus was told to make him think it was okay to call a Syrophoenician woman a dog? 

Today’s reading from Mark is one of those hard texts, one of those stories where Jesus says something that we want to smooth over. Commentators, theologians, and scholars struggle with this text because this isn’t the Jesus we like to meet. We’re into the Jesus with his arms wide open, welcoming little children into his embrace. We’re into the Jesus who loves the world. But today’s Jesus doesn’t sound very loving. He sounds, in our first story, downright mean. 

And he is. When this woman comes to ask Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus is being someone we don’t want to see. We shouldn’t try to explain the discomfort away by saying that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said - claiming that he was merely calling her a puppy or said this harsh statement while winking. We shouldn’t say that Jesus is calling her a beloved pet, like our golden retriever who is good with kids. Jesus is calling her a dog, feeding on the old traditions in his background that called Gentiles, dogs. They’re feral, savage, and unfriendly. They’re not worth our love. Jesus is dismissing and insulting her because she’s a Gentile and he’s a Jew. This isn’t the fun Jesus, the happy Jesus, the Jesus standing up for the poor, sharing meals with prostitutes and tax collectors, and turning water into wine to keep the wedding party going. This is Jesus dissing a woman who’s daughter is sick. He insults her; he calls her an ethnic slur. He tries to get her to go away. 

And she says no. She actually has the guts to talk back to the Son of God. She flips the stories that Jesus knew, that ones that he grew up with that defined her as someone not worth healing. She bends the dog metaphor to her advantage - and Jesus heals her daughter. She convinces Jesus to be the Jesus that God demands him to be. 

Over the past few weeks, I keep wondering about those stories that we’ve been told that formed us into the people we are today. I know part of why I’m thinking about this  because my son Oliver is getting to the storytelling phase of his life. He’s not only busy playing with his toys, using his imagination to come up with his own. He’s also asking more questions, asking “what’s that?” And so, almost unexpectantly, I’ve become his storyteller, his explainer, the guy who has to describe why all concrete mixing trucks don’t look the same and why he jumping from the top step might be a bad idea.  

So as I tell stories, I try to find the stories others tell and the stories that formed their opinions and beliefs. When some big event happens or when some cultural or social phenomena starts to dominate my news feeds - I’m drawn to the stories that underpin the feelings, emotions, and actions of all those involved. Because, in so many of our news cycles, the battles we see are fought over stories. 

And one of those fights I saw this week involved Hungary and the thousands of refugees from Syria and the Middle East who are trying to head to France and Germany. Hungary, fed up with the influx of people, shut down its rail system, stranding thousands of people who then formed camps inside railroad stations, afraid of what was going to happen next. And as they sat, scared, frightened, penniless, with no homes to go back to because risking their lives with human smugglers was safer than staying home - they watched as leaders from across the European Union debated about what to do with them. The prime minister of Hungary echoed the concerns that many had about these refugees. They were too foreign, too Muslim, too different, to be accepted into Western Europe. They were never going to belong to the countries that adopted them because they would never be European. They, and their children, and their children’s children, would always be the other. That was the story, the fear, underpinning all the talk about the money and resources needed to handle this crisis and the questions about who had the authority to actually act. So as Europe kept telling it’s story about who is welcome and who isn’t - another story showed up on it’s doorstep in the form of a photograph of a young boy, his body washed up on the beach, because the little boat his family was using to flee war-torn Syria sank on its way to Greece. 

When Confronted by this story - for the moment at least, Europe has started to change.  

When Jesus left the area around Galilee, leaving the territory he knew and headed to where the Gentiles lived - he tried his best to just blend in. He wanted to disappear. Maybe he was looking for a little vacation, a little R&R since he had spent quite a few months casting out demons and healing the sick. Maybe he just wanted a few moments to himself, to not have to defend his choices to every religious authority that came his way. Maybe he was just trying to find a moment where he could just breathe. But Jesus can’t escape notice. The more he tries to tell people to be quiet, the more others talk about him. No one, in the gospel according to Mark, actually follows Jesus’ command to not share, to not tell the stories about how Jesus has made a difference in their lives. So even when he visits a place full of people not like him, Jesus can’t stop being found out. Because that’s what the kingdom of God is all about. It isn’t about building barriers - it isn’t about hiding - it isn’t about limiting who has access to God’s love and who doesn’t. God’s kingdom isn’t interested in keeping the walls we built up. God’s kingdom is all about breaking those walls down. 


And, sometimes, those walls are the stories we’re told. They’re the stories we tell about who is welcome to be our neighbor and who isn’t. They’re the stories we tell that tell others who we think they are, rather than letting them tell us who they are. Even Jesus isn’t immune to the stories that shaped him. Even he, after announcing that God’s Kingdom is here,  after healing the sick, casting out demons, and debating theology with the smartest religious folks in the land - even Jesus, when standing toe-to-toe with the Syrophoenician woman, even he can’t see that God’s story is bigger than what’s come before. Jesus doesn’t originally understand that God’s kingdom doesn’t play by our rules. We don’t get to decide who is in and who is out. We don’t get to decide who our Syrophoenician woman is that shows up at our doorstep, what she looks like, what language she speaks, or what faith she believes. We don’t get to decide which new story is going to show up among us - but we do get to decide if that new story is going to change ours. We can aim to build walls - to try to round up and Fedex the unwanted away from us - or we can aim to be like Jesus - to see the one we don’t want to notice. Jesus, after meeting the Syrophoenician woman, doesn’t immediately turn around and head straight back to Galilee. The next story isn’t Jesus hanging with his disciples on a boat in the Sea of Galilee sharing a story about this gentile mom whose daughter he healed. Instead, he’s caught in the Decapolis, another Gentile area, where a man who can’t hear and who can’t speak is brought to him. And the stories about who is in, and who is out, that Jesus originally believed in, are gone. Jesus says “Ephphatha,” “Be Opened,” and he was healed.