I don’t remember when it happened, but somewhere along the line Carrie or I must have said to our kids, ‘Hate’ is a bad word. I don’t necessarily disagree, I just don’t remember saying it. But both kids surely remember. I come in from a long day and jump in getting dinner ready. We are processing the day, maybe talking about something else entirely. We are in the car and it comes out of our mouths: I hate that. I hate that for them, or something that is, in our mind, relatively innocuous. But it always comes, especially from Heath: DAD, hate is a bad word. Mom. Remember. Don’t say HATE, he says. Doesn’t matter the context. Sometimes we are sure he is asleep and he pops up – as he did on the way back from Carrie’s parents on Monday night. Dad. Stop it. Hate is a bad word. It doesn’t matter how often we try and explain we aren’t talking about hating anyone in particular, or the nuances of context. He doesn’t care. You said it. It seemed important. I am going to remember, he asks. Will you?
Time to put your money where your mouth is, Jesus. That is what this woman says to him. It is doubtful she knew, born on the western coast of Syria, that Jesus had been trouble from the beginning. She likely didn’t know about the demon Jesus had cast out back in Capernaum, who had hissed at Him, naming Him, even then, as ‘the Holy One of God.’ Or the leper in chapter 1, a man paralyzed in chapter 2. A man with a withered hand, another demon, a young girl restored to life – all those the Pharisees, the church, called unclean. In Mark it is always the outsiders that ‘get it.’ And it grows in chapters 7 and 8. Jesus had been in Galilee, in Jewish country, pushing the boundaries out. But after rejection in his hometown, Jesus heads into Gentile country. Mark needs his readers to know that while Jesus’ ministry is based in Galilee, His gospel is never restricted to one homeland or people. The truth about God’s reign was for everyone.1
Who knows if the Syrophoenician woman knew any of this? Just before today’s text Jesus had completely upended the religious establishment by declaring ALL foods clean. He took off up to Tyre – it seems like he wanted a break. He entered a house, and "did not want anyone to know he was there." "Yet he could not escape notice," Mark says. Regardless of what Jesus wanted, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. She doesn’t care where he has been or that he might not want to be noticed. A gentile, she has entered a home unescorted by a male; she’s unclean herself and begging Jesus to help her even more unclean daughter. These details in the story would have made Mark’s audience squirm.2 But when someone you love is sick you don’t care. When someone you love, especially a helpless child, someone you love more than yourself, is sick, you don’t care about any of those things. You want her better. And so she comes, kneeling, begging, please, Jesus, please, breathless with desperations. And then she waited…
And Jesus calls her a dog. This is, from where I sit, the most troubling portrait of Jesus in all of scripture. He may be really tired, under extreme pressure, has just realized that this relationship with the Pharisees is beyond repair. He sees where this thing is headed. But that doesn’t excuse Jesus from making what is essentially a racial slur. The first half of the sentence emphasizes His mission to the Jews, to Israel. This is language not outside the bounds of the gospels – let the children be fed first. To the Jews first, then the Gentiles. The word Jesus uses for ‘fed’ here, ‘satisfied,’ is the same word Mark uses a chapter earlier when Jesus uses five loaves and two fish to feed five thousands – ‘And all ate and were filled,’ were satisfied.3 But then Jesus makes a turn. She comes to Him, exhausted, yearning, and he scoffs at her, calling her a dog, telling her she is less than human, that, by implication, that God’s promises don’t extend to her and her child. You can imagine the ink that commentators have spilled trying to justify Jesus’ behavior. Some have argued that Jesus is really saying, ‘puppies,’ intended as a term of endearment. I am sure He is tired, and cranky, and his blood sugar was getting a little low, and had really hoped for a nap. But there’s no excuse, and we must confront that fact that this is "not Jesus’ finest hour."4
But next comes what I believe is the good news in this text – this woman refuses to take this insult from Jesus. I think it is because she sensed something about Him. As Mark tells us at the beginning, even when he tried Jesus ‘could not escape notice.’ There was something about how He carried himself, the good news of God He embodied that convinced her that He could heal her daughter. I also bet she was a little mad, and shoots back, Sir, really kyrie, Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Lord, even poor little animals like me – I imagine she leveled her gaze at him – still deserve the goodness of God. You can feel the next question unspoken: You aren’t saying that God’s love stops at the border, are you, that God’s mercy and grace are limited to certain ethnic groups or religious groups or political parties? You aren’t saying that, Jesus, are you? But, even deeper, I think that this woman is calling Jesus to be who she knows that He is. No matter how much He wants to, he can’t escape notice. You can’t be anonymous, Jesus. That’s not who You are, not who You are called to be. Be that One, she says.
And her challenge leads Jesus to change His mind. This is a pretty extraordinary idea, that one person’s witness can affect God, can even lead God to change God’s mind. That we aren’t simply actors in God’s play, but have something real to do here. That can be troubling for those who need God to be strong and omnipotent and removed, but I think this text is calling us to consider not only God’s grace is for ALL peoples, but our job as disciples is to call each other to something higher, to be a community of people that don’t escape notice ourselves, that risk sticking out in a world of brutality and consumerism and too much meaningless political speech. That our ministry might matter.
Some of you know I love those sappy ESPN segments on sports as vehicle for overcoming great obstacles, and one of you sent me one recently- the link will be on the website.5 Matt Woodrum is 11, and he and his twin brother were born with serious bleeding, Matt’s in his brain. Everyone was sure he would die, but then he kept growing. At 2 he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, so his left side doesn’t work terribly well – walking is hard, running, with his pronounced limp, is even harder. But, as wonderfully resilient as kids are, Matt doesn’t seem to be terribly aware of his limitations. Field day came last spring and, naturally, Matt decided he wanted to run the longest race, the 400 meters, an entire lap around a track. No one was entirely sure his legs could physically handle the strain. His parents videotaped the race, and Matt starts, slowly, the other kids taking off, everything as expected. Then he begins to fade, and his PE teacher jogs over to him, starting to talk him through, step by step. And then, even as the other kids are finishing, the video shows this one girl starting to cheer, from far off, then making her way through the middle of the track towards him. Others jump in, with the compassion we must learn from our children – it looks like 30 or so in the video, and it is astounding. I admit to tears in my office this week, as the crowd grew, kids cheered, surrounding him on the track, escorting him all the way to the finish…let’s go Matt, let’s go. Let’s go Matt, let’s go. Encouraging. Calling him to be who he knew he could be, who everyone knew he could be.
And I wonder if this is what the Syrophoenician woman did for Jesus and what we, in His name, might do for each other. That we, on this Rally Day, as we set the tone for another remarkable year in this place, might not be able to escape notice because of our care for others, because we invest in this ministry even when we feel really busy, that we might pray, calling each other to be who we know, who God knows, we can be. Because teenagers don’t have to be bullied in the halls at school, because people don’t have to be hungry, because we could be a community that shows Durham who it could be, as we listen carefully, as we proclaim Christ’s boundless love in our every action, a love that travels way outside of Gentile territory, into classrooms and shelters and hospital rooms, in our neighborhoods with manicured lawns but not free of loneliness and regret. That we could recommit ourselves, even as we leave this place today, to be a people who don’t escape notice because of our compassion, because of the risks we will take, because of our willingness to break boundaries through love. That Christ might even cast out the demons among us, and we can go and rejoice to the world.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. This insight comes from Brian Blount and Gary Charles’ Preaching Mark in Two Voices, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), p 117.
2. Much of this summary comes from the Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich’s fantastic paper on this text for the 2012 gathering of The Well in Montreat, NC.
3. Mark 6: 42, Greek reference from Goodrich.
4. Goodrich’s language.
5. Matt Woodrum, Run With Me, courtesy Don Hertzog.