JESUS MEETS A FOREIGNER
Mark 7: 24-37
Are there any other Perry Mason fans here? I confess I enjoy watching old episodes on a streaming service we have. And I’ve discovered there are some episodes I had never seen! There was one episode, and only one, that started with the judge rendering a guilty verdict on one of Perry Mason’s clients! In the next scene, an unshaven Perry Mason is at his desk looking humbled, apparently wondering how he lost a case. The uproar from the public avalanched CBS Studios, imploring the producers to never show that episode again! And they didn’t; not in the entire first run of the show.
In a similar fashion, no one really wants to read about our Savior losing an argument to a Gentile woman; nor do they want to hear about the harsh language he uses. In politics over the last two years we heard the phrase “dog” used to describe other human beings. It seems harsh and rude. But did you know that first century Jews sometimes called Gentiles “dogs?” The description was harsh. You see, in times of great drought, the Jewish farmers of Galilee produced crops for the entire region; even the countries across the border purchased produce from them. In years when crops were slim, some of the poor farmers would harbor resentment toward the wealthy Gentiles, some of whom bought items and re-sold them for more. A certain sense of privilege, even arrogance, had set in with them, as if they were first class passengers on the Queen Mary and others were second-class. So today we wonder in what sense Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (7: 37) We will explore how Jesus seemed to grow in his sensitivity toward all foreigners in this very unusual exchange. Today we learn that Jesus encountered this woman—from an area that combines the lineage of Syrians and Phoenicians—and got into a debate with her!
Mark’s gospel, considered to be the oldest of the four gospels, shows our Lord in all his humanness.” But there is corroborating evidence: this encounter is also in Matthew 15! It really happened! A strong insistent Gentile woman begged Jesus to reconsider her request to heal her daughter. And many who have taken a second look at this exchange say she equated her position to being like an actual dog, begging at the feet of her master, waiting patiently for a crumb to fall from the table. Dr. Stan Saunders, one of my New Testament professors at Columbia Seminary, wrote these words about this meeting: “The bread, a symbol of God’s provision for God’s people, is sometimes used to refer to Gentiles, but here in it’s diminutive form it carries the connotation of household pets. [In so many words she says] ‘Yes Lord, I am a dog, so treat me like one. Give me the crumbs.’ With this, Jesus is beaten. He commends her great faith. The healing takes place at that very moment.” [Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010, p. 153.]
When I am at our daughter’s house, I am keenly aware of the constant presence of their golden retriever Hemi, whenever I get a snack or sit at the table. He is right there; waiting; looking; hoping for a morsel to drop or be given. It’s astounding that the discussion between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman went there. The woman was so desperate she sat at his feet, like a dog. “She fell at his feet….and she begged Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. He said ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” Sadly, it seems that in that time of his life, even our Lord thought only Jews got to sit at God’s table, while others got scraps. But this resilient woman had nothing to lose by challenging him. She replied, perhaps respectfully and not defiantly, it is hard to tell: “But sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” True. No one cares if Hemi eats anything under the table. But the food on the table is for the “children.”
Rap music often contains some of the harsh and degrading words describing people. In the hate literature that blankets certain websites on the Internet, there are also some ugly and degrading names being used for human beings today. Some of those who think of certain groups of people as inferior would include members of groups of Neo-Nazis, the Alt Right Movement, or the KKK. Our nation continues to be divided deeply by them. Some of you will remember the 1970s show “All in the Family,” created by Norman Lear. Lear said in an interview that he made the show to make people see how ridiculous a bigot like Archie Bunker looked. But to his astonishment, viewers embraced Archie’s outlook on life! Bigotry was, and still is, alive in America. In that day, there were plenty of people who were threatened by people of other races, countries, and sexes, and other colors of collars that might take their job or marry their daughter. As you can see in the headlines, we haven’t progressed over the last 40 years later; we have reverted back to angry, fearful, or suspicious views of others.
To judge people, as it has been said, “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” seems like wise counsel to me. To turn the rhetoric I hear today on its ear, let me give a testimony to the contrary. I have known some trashy white people and some crummy Christians. I have admired a great many people of color, and a number of Jewish people. And some of the people I’ve admired most were deaf, blind, or in a wheelchair. It took a law in 1990 called the Americans With Disabilities Act to at least take a step toward making some of our neighbors feel less like second-class citizens. Sometimes our laws go too far in restricting liberties- I know that. And yet lifting up the value of human beings is clearly something Jesus grew to do, especially as with the Gentiles who became some of his best evangelists.
Jesus gained new eyes for all people in that encounter with the woman, not just for God’s original chosen people. Gentiles who were healed by Jesus became more faith-filled and showed more thankfulness than his own people who were fraught with murmurings about him. Later he spent much of his ministry healing lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, women, children, and others who felt like second-class citizens. By the end of his time in those foreign lands, Jesus had ministered to them and embraced them. The Sea of Galilee represented a separation between Jews and foreigners. When Jesus went to the other side, he made evangelists of them as they started telling others about him! The Bible quotes the grateful people as saying: “He has done all things well! He makes the deaf to hear and the mute (the older word ‘dumb’) to speak!” (7:37).
Jesus learned and he grew. We can too. Realize that others who are foreign, or downtrodden, or hurting may have significant issues that overwhelm them. How can we, like Jesus, be taught to understand their situation? How can we learn how to walk a mile in their shoes?
To summarize: Perry Mason losing a case in court, or Jesus actually losing an argument, was a chance to learn and grow rather than to experience failure. How can we see through those new eyes of Christ, and whom can we reach with the wideness in his mercy? The world is so filled with an “Us and Them” mentality.
A girl was walking along a beach where thousands of starfish had washed up in a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she picked it up and threw it back into the ocean. A man watched her do that with each starfish. He approached her and said: “Why are you doing that? Look at this beach! There are so many starfish! You can’t really think you can do this long enough to make a difference!” The girl seemed surprised and a momentarily deflated. But then, she picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked at the man and said, “Maybe not. But I know I made a difference to that one!”
Let him work through you to love your neighbors, one person at a time.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 9, 2018