Mark 7:24-30, NRSV
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.
Preached Sunday, November 5, 2017 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman.
We like easy Jesus—the guy who reminds us to be kind and gracious, generous and hopeful. We like shepherds and angels and garden resurrections, storms that have been calmed and thousands who’ve been fed. What we don’t like, at least not at first, is this. What doesn’t sit well with us? Well, for starters, in Mark 7:27, Jesus utters an ethnic slur. It’s not just in the gospel of Mark, we also find this story in the Gospel of Matthew.
But let’s start with what Mark tells us: A woman approaches Jesus, hoping he can heal her daughter. Her interaction with Jesus would’ve been offensive to his historic, Jewish sensibilities in three ways. First, to state the obvious, she was a woman—and women didn’t just talk to men they weren’t related to, and they certainly didn’t actively approach a man they didn’t know. Secondly, she was a gentile—that is, the wasn’t Jewish—she was of another faith. That’s strike two.
And the third strike sealed the deal: she wasn’t, as we might say, “from around here.” That is, she lived across the border, on the other side of the proverbial “wall.”
Ironically, Mark tells us that Jesus had traveled to Tyre—in ancient-Phoenicia, modern-day Lebanon. If anything, he was the who’d traveled away from his people. He was trying to get a break, trying to not be noticed. Sometimes church leaders go to entirely different countries—Phoenicia, Canada, whatever, to get a break. But where I was able this past week to slip into anonymity, Jesus wasn’t. “He could not escape notice,” Mark says. And the person who notices him is a woman who’s desperate.
We don’t know her name, Holy Scriptures rarely deem women important enough to name—another injustice of our faith. We just know those three things: she’s a woman, she’s a gentile, and she’s foreign. And that her daughter was possessed.
We don’t know the gruesome details of her daughter’s possession, Mark only implies that it was bad enough for her to overcome the social conventions of the day that prohibited her from engaging a man like Jesus. It was bad enough for her to disregard her own faith and bow at the feet of the One she hoped could fix it, the one she believed had the power to do something about it.
She’s pinned all her hopes on Jesus. She bows and begs. And Jesus’ word aren’t a simple “no,” or “not this time,” or “maybe later.” No, he goes further than that. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and show it to the dogs.” Put in current political discourse: Israelites First. Does that sound familiar?
And Jesus, the one who we proclaim as sovereign of the universe, savior of human kind, doesn’t just say, “I’m here for the Israelites—for the people I’ve been born to.” Nope, he takes it a step further, and calls this woman and her people, “Dogs.” Now, it’s hard for us to align his use of “dogs” here with the many and varied slurs that populate American society today, but I think we can all agree that it’s not just unkind, it’s insulting and belittling and offensive.
And our heroine isn’t having it. “But even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she says.
This is the record screeching, drink-spraying, conversation-freezing moment, the hinge of this entire story. I can imagine one of the disciples, say Matthew, leaning over to John: “Say what?”
Mark doesn’t clue us in on what Jesus is thinking. We don’t know if he rolled his eyes or if they filled with tears. The scriptures don’t tell us if he took a few minutes to digest what she said or if he immediately replied.
But two remark—get it?—able things happen.
One: he listens to her—that’s something we could use in our current political “conversations” today, isn’t it? Listening to one another?
And two: she changes his mind.
“For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
This one woman’s faith in the crumbs heals her daughter.
What’s interesting about Jesus’ last words to this woman is that they don’t match the model. We’ve heard Jesus time and again through the gospels say “your faith has made you well.” But here, he’s hardly as explicit. Here he cites her response as the thing that saved her daughter, not her faith explicitly. Yet, it seems to me, it was her faith that inspired her to go after the crumbs.
That is where the gospel is in this story—in the crumbs, crumbs that have the ability to change people’s minds—even Jesus’ mind.
Today is Pledge Sunday—a day when we offer to God what we have to give, whether its a store full of bread or just the crumbs from our table, confident that those crumbs can feed people—can feed their bodies and their minds and their souls.
Westfield Church is on to something. Every week, we work to fling our arms wider to those who are desperate for crumbs of hope, peace, belonging, faith, love, all of those identifiers of our faith. We call people to us and look them in their eyes and search for Christ in them whether or not they look like us or sound like us or dream like us or love like us. Because here’s the thing, we believe crumbs change people lives. We believe in being a crumb-y church.
The changed the Syrophoenician woman’s. And they changed her daughter’s. And they changed Jesus’.
And they’ll change ours, too.