“The What, the Way, the Why, and the Who” Sept. 9, 2018
“The What, the Way, the Why, and the Who”
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
James 2:1-17/ Mark 7:24-37
“You can’t go in there,” said Peter. “Well, I am going in there whether you like it or not.”
“I said, you can’t go in there, woman.” “I am going in, mister. I have a sick daughter at home, and I am going in there and that prophet of yours is going to fix her. Now get out of my way before I give you a swift kick in the shinbone.” And so begins, paraphrased of course by Ralph Milton; so begins our story of Jesus and his disciples as they try to take a well needed break by going to the beach in the little coastal towns of Tyre and Sidon. Rest, relaxation; a time to meditate, a time to recharge and renew. And then this woman – this annoying woman – shows up.
Now before we go any further, I would like to offer up a disclaimer. Just about every other year the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman comes up. It is written in Mk 7, which we read today, and also in Matthew 15; both stories pretty near identical. And each time it rolls around, preachers and lay members alike become great bible commentators. They observe the incredible fatigue that Jesus must have been feeling at the time. They argue back and forth on the different translations for the word “dogs” – is it puppy or good dog or bad dog? Or they use this rather uncomfortable story to emphasize the importance of getting enough rest. On an on it goes. But is seems to me that all these theories and conjectures end up serving only one thing: to avoid the most troubling question in this text, the one that we don’t like to talk about, which is, “What did they do to Jesus?” What happened to the Prince of Peace, the Master of Compassion? This story – let’s face it – puts Jesus in a very bad light. How are we to think about that? How are we to feel? What’s the explanation? Is it really as simple as, “Well after all, this is Jesus’ first encounter with a non-Jewish person. It took this woman to convince him that the kingdom of God is for all people and not just the nation of Israel?” Yes, that might be the simplistic answer, but deep down inside, I ain’t buying it. So here’s my disclaimer, of sorts.
I am willing to drop all my doubt and suspicion and general uncomfortable-ness with the way that Jesus our Lord is depicted in this story for one reason, and that is so that I won’t miss the “what” of what this story is trying to drill into my head. What is so important that the writer of the Gospel of Mark would risk our high opinion of the Son of God by making him out to seem so stuck up? From Milton’s paraphrase again, as the woman pleads, “Look, I’m sorry. But I need your help, Jesus. My daughter is dying and I need your help!”
“Just tell her to leave, Jesus,” said Peter. “She’ll listen to you.”
And so Jesus replied, “I can’t help you. I’m sorry. That’s just the way it is. I was sent to the people of Israel. To the Jews. Please leave.” “
See what I mean? Ouch… this is tough to take.
But let’s go on. “Surely,” said the woman, “Surely, if you are a man of God, you have come to all of God’s people.” To which Jesus replied, “The children of Israel are God’s people. Look, I’m sorry. But you don’t take the bread that is meant for the children and feed it to your puppy, do you?” Now after an insult like this, most folks would have walked out in disgust, but we have to give this desperate mother credit because she fires right back: “Right. But even the mutts on the street get to eat some of the scraps off the family table. Surely, Jesus, your God has enough love to give a little to those of us who are not Jewish!” We’re almost to the “what” of this confusing text. What fascinates me is the “way” that it is being laid out. The lesson is being taught not by the Rabbi, the teacher, but by a woman – a Greek, no less. And the way that she turns this conversation on its head makes this story unforgettable.
Which brings us to our message today from the Epistle of James which should serve to not only answer the “what” and the “way” of this text, but also the “why.” (Jms 2:1) My dear brothers and sisters, you are believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. So don’t treat some people better than others. 2 Suppose someone comes into your meeting wearing very nice clothes and a gold ring. At the same time a poor person comes in wearing old, dirty clothes. 3 You show special attention to the person wearing nice clothes. You say, “Sit here in this good seat.” But you say to the poor person, “Stand there!” or “Sit on the floor by our feet!” Doesn’t this show that you think some people are more important than others?
What both James and the Syro-Phoenician woman tell us are one and the same: God’s ways are not necessarily our ways. (vs 5 MSG) Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. As for the “why”, that is found (vs7) This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God.
It’s all so very strange. We go through life sizing people up: “What do you do, where are you from, who the heck picked out that tie?” We find ourselves hanging out with folks that are…well, that are like us; and that’s to be expected. But one of great benefits of the church of believers is that a biker in leather and chains can walk in and sit next a local school teacher and it’s all good. The Kingdom of God is promised to anyone – anyone – who loves the Lord, their God.
I officiated a funeral a few years back for a wonderful man. He had told me earlier on that he had grown apart from his son and you could tell that it caused him to grieve, but he would never tell me why. When Bill died, folks wondered if his son would show up for the funeral and many were surprised when he did. I made a point of meeting with him a day or so before the service and the first thing he told me right out of the gate was that he had converted to Islam and that his father had never gotten over it. All the time he was telling me this, I had the distinct impression that he was grilling me. Finally, he asked flat out, “Do you have a problem with that?”
Now, ordinarily I’m not so good at thinking on my feet but here was a man who had just lost his father. I could only imagine that regrets and sadness he held bottled up for issues that could never be resolved. So out of the blue I asked him, “How often do you pray?” He told me something like 3 times a day – I can’t remember exactly. I do remember sitting with a man who was trying his best to be tough on the outside when he was hurting on the inside. And so I told him, “I thinks we all could take a lesson from you in that regard. Lord knows we all be better served by the power of prayer. I am really glad that you could make it all this way. I think your father would be glad.” He thanked me and that was that.
(Js 2:1) My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. What can we take away from the Greek woman, from James the Apostle, and yes, even from an American Muslim? It’s all about the love of God; use it, waste it, throw it around like there is no end because the kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God.
Amen & Shalom