In addition to today being the Wisconsin Ironman Triathlon, it is in church parlance, the beginning of the program year. Our choir is back after its summer hiatus and Christian education for children and adults begins as well. This week, we are beginning something we’ve not done in quite some time at Grace, at least not on a regular, consistent basis. We will be offering two bible studies—one begins today, between the services; the other takes place on Thursday evening at 5:30. I hope some of you will take advantage of these opportunities, for engaging more deeply with scripture is essential to deepening your faith and your experience with Jesus Christ.
Scripture, as familiar as it may be, always retains the power to challenge us to grow more deeply in our faith. No amount of familiarity will take away the experience of encountering new questions, new ways of thinking about God, and new perspectives on our old world. One of the greatest challenges we face, as human beings and as Christians, is to become settled in our ways, to assume we’ve got everything figured out, to lose the capacity to be surprised, to grow, to expand our world.
But even bible study can be deceptive at times, for our tendency is to impose our issues, our questions, our presuppositions and assumptions on the text, to force it to conform to our needs, rather than to allow it to speak openly to us. We want it to make sense, we don’t want it to disturb our lives or our faith, and so instead of opening ourselves to how it might change us, we change it.
That’s true even with, or perhaps especially with the gospels. The gospel of Mark, in spite of its brevity, presents us with a picture of Jesus that challenges our assumptions in almost every episode and there may be no story more difficult to understand than the one we heard today.
For what can be more disturbing, more unsettling than this story in which Jesus not only seems to refuse the pleas of a mother seeking help for her daughter, he dismisses her by calling her a “dog.” The Jesus we encounter in this reading is nothing like the loving, sweet, compassionate Jesus of our fantasies. In fact, there’s little resemblance to our common assumptions about Jesus in the image the gospel of Mark gives us of him.
Before we look more closely at these two stories, I want to point out one interesting detail about the context. We are provided with some clear geographical referents here, and since none of you has your bible turned to the map section in the back, I’ll help orient you. So far, most of Jesus’ activity has occurred in and around Galilee. Capernaum seems to have been a center for him. He’s gone other places. We saw him cross the lake to the region of the Gerasenes, where he cast out evil spirits from a man who lived among the tombs.
But now, we see Jesus going on a journey, to Tyre. Tyre is on the other side of the country on the Mediterranean Ocean. Like the region of the Gerasenes, it’s gentile territory. But the geography is even more interesting that. We’re told that Jesus went to the Decapolis by way of Sidon, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (he should have been using google maps) Sidon is a 20 mile detour in the wrong direction, Decapolis being beyond Galilee. I suppose we could compare it to driving to Baraboo from Madison, and returning via the Wisconsin Dells and Lake Mills. And remember, Jesus was walking, not driving on the interstates.The Decalopis, too is Gentile territory.
The text implies that Jesus has traveled here to get some rest. It’s likely that he had no intention of teaching or healing, an inference supported by Jesus’ own statement in response to the Syro-Phoenician woman. It’s one thing to make an ethnic or racial slur in public. That’s just what Jesus did, by calling her (and by extension all Syro-Phoenicians) a dog; It’s quite another to make such a slur when you’re the outsider. Jesus is from out of town, a Jew, and presumably the woman is a local.
But note her response. Instead of attacking him, she argues with him on his own terms, and bests him. “So, I’m a dog,” she says, “well, even dogs receive table scraps from their masters.” Jesus responds by assuring her that her daughter is healed. It’s worth pointing out something else—Jesus doesn’t say, “Go your faith has made your daughter well.” There’s nothing about faith in this story. It’s the woman’s skill in debate, in arguing, that wins Jesus over.
This story raises all sorts of questions—about miracles, about Jesus’ self-understanding, about his attitude toward non-Jews and toward women. I’ve preached about those things when we’ve read this story in previous years. But I would like to pursue a different thread, and think about it in light of the second healing story we heard. It’s very brief: some people bring him a man who is both deaf and has a speech impediment; they beg him to heal him. In this case, Jesus responds immediately and without question.
Several interesting things about these stories. First, in both cases, Jesus is asked to heal, not by the person in distress, but by their loved ones, the mother in the first case, friends presumably, in the second. In neither case is faith mentioned; and in keeping with several other healing stories, the healings take place out of sight of the public. And our gospel concludes with a puzzling, though characteristic of Mark, Jesus’ admonition to his followers and to bystanders to remain silent.
I hope my brief exploration of these two stories has intrigued you enough that you want to go deeper, to explore in greater depth the biblical text—if so, we’ve got bible studies for you.
But I want to leave you with something else. Perhaps the most difficult thing about these verses from Mark’s gospel is the apparent slur that Jesus throws at the woman, comparing her to a dog. We can’t believe Jesus would say something like that. But notice how the woman responds: she doesn’t lash out at him, she accepts his assessment of her and uses it to challenge him back. As I said earlier, there’s a lot here, and any number of ways of interpreting this interchange that can unsettle us and invite us to challenge our assumptions.
But as I’ve reflected on it this week, something else, something new has confronted me. I think our tendency is often to interpret this passage in light of questions of inclusion and openness and the expansion of the gospel to Gentiles. It’s an important message in our time. But what strikes me is that when the woman accepts Jesus’ categorization of her, she is doing something else. She is admitting her unworthiness to receive his help, and that, I think deserves our closer attention.
I wonder whether any of you have felt that you don’t deserve God’s grace and mercy. I wonder how many of you have struggled to receive Jesus’ promise to love and forgive you. We are taught in our professional and personal lives to stand up for ourselves, to demand our rights, our fair share, our due. But that face or persona we present to the world can often feel fake or unreal. We may feel like a fraud. That may also be true in our spiritual journeys—our doubts, uncertainties, our sins and shortcomings may make us feel unworthy of God’s grace and mercy. But it’s worth remembering, as the Letter of James says, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
In our Rite I Eucharist, there’s a prayer called the Prayer of Humble Access, we say it together just before we receive communion: In it are the following words:
We are not worthy so much as to gather
up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord
whose property is always to have mercy.
Sometimes, we need to admit who we are, in all of our doubts, uncertainties, brokenness and sin, for when we do, we open ourselves to the wonderful expanse of God’s mercy, which is more than we deserve, more than we can imagine. Sometimes, crumbs are more than enough. They can fill our hearts and heal us, body and soul.