Crossing boundariesA sermon on Mark 7 September 5, 2021 by Sebastian Meadows-Helmer
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- Pr. Sebastian
In last Sunday’s Gospel we heard about Jesus’s argument with the Pharisees,
Where he questions the application of some laws that focus too much on the exterior and not enough on the human interior.
“What defiles”, Jesus proclaims, “is what come from within the human heart!”
Forgetting to handwash, is not as important as watching your tongue,
and more important than cleanliness concerns are the cruel intentions that can spring forth from the human mind, like slander, pride and stinginess.
What Jesus is hinting at, and what gets further fleshed out in today’s Gospel text is that:
Exterior constructs are not as important.
Exterior markers are not as vital in segregating the good from the bad.
Excluding people on the basis of external factors is the wrong way to go.
Or in the popular idiom, you can’t tell a book by its cover.
Today’s story is set in the large city of Tyre,
A city in present day Lebanon, on the coast of the Mediterranean (it still exists today).
Tyre was most famous for the rare and expensive purple dye that was manufactured there.
Now Tyre had a major economy… and the people of Galilee,
who were mostly farmers, probably were jealous that their produce was going to feed the inhabitants of this large city to the northwest of the region.
So there was tension between Galilee and Tyre.
The people of Tyre were despised by the people of Galilee.
So it’s interesting that in our story, Jesus travels from Galilee to Tyre.
It’s definitely not something to be expected.
Now Jesus went to Tyre and entered a house, and he didn’t want anyone to know he was there.
Jesus was basically hiding out in enemy territory, holding a spiritual retreat. He maybe was all stressed out and tired from his arguing with the Pharisees in his home region in Galllee, and he wanted some alone time to pray and get away from the crowds that were following him all around.
But he was a popular man, and even in far-off Tyre,
people had heard about him,
and so he couldn’t escape the demands of ministry.
Now in this first story that takes place in Tyre,
we have a miracle and a controversy.
It’s a really exciting story, I find, because it’s a very pro-feminist text.
We learn today of the only person to beat Jesus in an argument, who happened to be a woman.
Also, the only person Jesus says has great faith: is a woman.
Really, the unnamed woman is the hero of the story.
Jesus gets schooled.
Jesus, the great teacher, gets taught a lesson, by a woman.
Something quite astounding in the patriarchal society of the day!
Now this woman, the text emphasizes, was not a Jew, not a believer in the God of Abraham.
She was a local from the area, a Syrophoenician (descended from the ethnicities who had lived there for hundreds if not thousands of years). She is called a Gentile…or a non-Jew.
In other words, an outsider, from the Jewish perspective.
(V25) And this unnamed woman, who had a little daughter with an unclean spirit heard about Jesus, came and bowed down at his feet, paying respect for the legendary healer.
She begged him:
“Please, oh please, dear sir, cast the demon out of my daughter!
I have heard of your many exorcisms, please I’m sure you can do this one more time?”
Now, a demon or unclean spirit could have been a sign of a profound mental illness…we’re not sure, but it renders a person unable to participate normally in society, and led them to being shunned and outcast from their community.
*(V27) And then we have Jesus’s response, which is quite shocking:
“First, let the children be fed, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”.
Or in other words: “I don’t want to help you. I’m too tired.
I have my priorities: first my ministry is to the Jewish people.
That’s why I’m on vacation here in Tyre.
I want to get away from my work obligations in Galilee and Judah.
Furthermore, you Gentiles are just like dogs anyway.
Leave me alone!
If I help you I’d be taking away precious resources from the Jews and throwing it away to the pigs, or worse, to dogs.
What a waste.
Go away, woman!”
Pretty insensitive, Jesus!
That sounds pretty terrible, coming from the Prince of Peace!
Calling a woman’s culture and ethnicity, nothing but dogs?
What a horrible thing to say!
Calling someone a dog was definitely a racial slur.
It was a slur that was found in Hebrew Scriptures referring to foreigners, but it’s a bad word nonetheless.
Remember we’re not talking about cuddly house pets here.
No, dogs were seen as a sign of uncleanness, dogs were seen as scavengers,
they were looked down upon.
It is slander, pure and simple.
It’s a clear insult when Jesus calls the woman a dog.
You might even imagine Jesus calling her the B-word, to get a sense of it.
When someone says something horrible one is often too shocked to know what to say. So what does the woman respond?
Does she insult him back, and tell him to go back where he came from, back to the sticks, back to the backwoods of Galilee?
Does she confront him and say “how dare you call me a dog”?
No, the woman doesn’t do that.
She addresses him as “Sir”, or “Lord”, and calls him out in love.
(V28) “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”.
It’s startling still.
The woman talks back!
She continues with the metaphor that Jesus used (the dogs eating food) and turns it back on Jesus, hoping that Jesus will act with mercy and power. (Schnasa Jacobsen)
She breaks Jesus’ logic, and with a clever rhetorical twist,
Asks: “but dogs receiving crumbs, that’s OK, right?
There’s nothing wrong with them eating scraps, right?
And all I’m asking for is a little scrap…I know you can heal my daughter in the twinkling of an eye…there’s nothing really to it, for you are Lord,
and the power of evil and exclusion and pain have no power in comparison with you.”
Furthermore, she had taken a cue from one little word that Jesus used: “First”.
Jesus admitted in his statement that there could be the option for someone else to receive the blessing, although God’s blessing would come first upon God’s people, the Jews.
And she seizes on this opportunity and says, well, why not…it shouldn’t be a problem for a crumb to fall to me? Eh, Jesus?
(V29) And Jesus has a change of heart.
Her logic is impeccable, and he is beaten in an argument…he realizes it. “For saying this you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
And he heals the daughter from afar.
Jesus accepts and welcomes her response, as he sees that he has been, for the first and last time ever, defeated in an argument, and this time by a woman, no less!
He is overcome by the woman’s great faith, by her persistence, even in the face of an initial rejection.
She didn’t take no for an answer, and she brushed away his insensitive, demeaning slur, and stuck with the heart of the matter…Jesus’ heart, which at the moment was too narrow, and too proud, and too slanderous.
Jesus had just come from preaching about the evils of the human heart,
of pride, slander, avarice and wickedness,
and now Jesus’ heart was demonstrating what he preached against!
His heart showed pride:
because he was saying that Jews were better than Gentiles.
He demonstrated slander, because he was calling a woman a bad name.
Avarice, because he was claiming there was not enough to go around and he was being stingy with his gifts,
And his heart was wicked, because, although he had been preaching of an anti-empire reign of God that included prostitutes, sinners and tax collectors,
his vision of the reign of God was apparently not wide enough yet,
And he had to retain the boundaries he had erected around the Kingdom of God.
It was wicked of him to be so narrow-minded, and really,
God’s kinship was much bigger than even he had realized before.
For me, this text overall, is all about crossing boundaries.
In order to get some peace and quiet and a vacation,
Jesus crosses the boundaries to Gentile territory,
but he still sees the Gentiles as subhuman, as dogs.
It’s like the people who enjoy going to the Caribbean for a vacation,
but treat the local population like second class slaves,
and carry their prejudiced attitudes along with them,
and treat the resort staff with contempt.
Jesus had had some experience treating women with respect,
like when he healed the woman suffering from haemorrhages and restored her to community,
but he still was obviously prejudiced against non-Jews.
In addition, the woman, also transgresses many boundaries.
As a woman, speaking in public was crossing a boundary,
and talking back to a man, questioning his authority, was crossing a boundary too.
She also crossed an ethnic boundary, by asking a favour from someone of different ethnicity than herself.
Maybe there was also a socio-economic boundary she crossed,
as a city-dweller, talking to a landless peasant labourer.
It is here at the margins, with both Jesus out of his comfort-zone,
and the woman as well, that true learning happens. At this space at the margins, both woman and man burst the “narrow confines of sexual and political ideologies”
I think this encounter in Tyre is essential for Jesus’ development into being a more effective Saviour.
Prior to this he was a bit narrow-minded and parochial.
But this encounter breaks open his status quo thinking.
It is here that we see the God of the Margins.
It is here that we see fulfillment of the prophecy Isaiah (Ch. 56) which foretold a time when foreigners who joined themselves to the Lord would be brought to God’s holy mountain, and come together in a house of prayer for all peoples.
We had known Jesus as preacher, teacher, healer, prophet and liberator, but we see now with this boundary-crossing ministry in Tyre that he is concerned about women, and having women restored to community, which was really a ground-breaking movement,
one that is still being fought over in the Christian church 2000 years later, as to how much women should be included or not,
esp. in positions of leadership and power.
Boundary-busting is of course, not just a thing of the past,
but is a topic that extends to today.
Just as Jesus was reluctant to expand his welcome and inclusion to people he thought of as “other”,
so his immediate followers struggled to include Gentiles as full-fledged Christians, and then,
until today have struggled with women’s roles in the church as well.
But just as the early Christians finally figured out that by including Gentiles, in their community didn’t invalidate God’s promise to the Jews (and the Jewish Christians),
They found out that by expanding their understanding of God’s love and concern to people that had previously been excluded, didn’t invalidate God’s love to the former group. And so it has been with us too, in the last decade or so.
For example, we have come hopefully to realize that including same-gendered marriage does not nullify straight marriages, or make them invalid,
That drawing the circle wide on the definition of faithful, life-long marriages to include those of the same gender,
doesn’t mean that the marriage of a man and a woman is rendered worthless, rather it strengthens the institution of marriage, by allowing more people to join in and witness to God’s enduring love for Creation all its diversity.
Another example: just because we have female pastors and gay deacons,
doesn’t mean that my ordination as a male is any less valid.
When we draw the circle wide, it brings new viewpoints and experiences to the table that enrich our faith and community lives,
and expand our thinking to gain more of a glimpse of the wideness of God’s mercy and love, which is like the wideness of the ocean, only more so.
Another boundary: the church has been reluctant to understand how indigenous culture and spirituality can inform and enrich both society,
and Christianity itself, and so it struggled through 500 years of colonialism to squelch and eradicate it.
This wicked viewpoint has repercussions to this day and beyond.
What are other boundaries that we maintain today, that we should perhaps think of eradicating?
Whom do we keep from our table?
Whom do we deny rights and respectability, perhaps due to fear?
Whom do we prefer to stay on the Outside?
Perhaps drug users, or
Those who Vandalize,
Those who find employment in the sex industry,
Boundaries exist today between those with a car and those without a car,
Those with a smartphone and those without,
Those with housing, and those who struggle to find housing.
In this day and age where people seem so encamped in angry silos,
not talking to one another, we need more boundary-crossers,
more people willing to take a risk and in love, invite others to open their closed minds and consider other opportunities,
and this applies to the left as well as to the right on the political and theological spectrum.
We need to break open metaphors and images for new paths,
and be unafraid for encounters that may unsettle us.
We need to keep our minds and hearts open for a gospel that is larger than we perhaps once imagined,
A gospel that sees even Jesus challenged and re-thinking his preconceptions.
For we believe in a God, where all are fed with the bread of salvation,
Where all are welcome at the Kingdom’s feast,
Where radical equality, no matter age, gender, class, ability etc. is a reality, rather than just a theory.
Because we believe in a Saviour who healed and brought healing and crossed boundaries to restore people to their communities,
A Lord who caused people to be astounded beyond measure
Saying of him: “he does everything well. He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak”
For Jesus accepts us, and through his boundary-busting heals us.
And so we say, “thanks be to God,” for people like the unnamed woman, who dared speak up and challenge Jesus
and us today. Amen.
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