Year B, Pentecost 16
Mark 7: 24-31
This Gospel reading is a troubling one; partly because it forces us to ask some tough questions about who Jesus is. There is nothing more fundamental to our faith than Jesus, which means this text can be complicated…really complicated. The problem is that Jesus is mean in this story. He calls a woman, who is begging on behalf of her sick daughter, a dog. A dog. There is never a good time to call someone a dog. While it was not unusual for Jesus to criticize men in power (like the religious authorities we talked about last week), he was usually compassionate toward anyone on the margins, which often included women.
For centuries, preachers and theologians have been trying to justify Jesus’ words. Maybe he was testing her. Maybe the word dog was meant affectionately, more like a puppy, and he said it with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Perhaps she was even in on the joke. No. Calling a woman a dog in any culture at any time period is always bad. So why did Jesus do it?
There was a great deal of friction between the Jews and the Gentiles. Jesus was a Jew and as a Jew, he had been taught not to interact with Gentiles. Gentiles were unclean. Typically Jews did not even travel in Gentile territory. Yet the first sentence of our reading tells us that, “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.” This was deep in Gentile territory. The fact that Jesus went there tells us something was shifting in his ministry. We saw that shift begin in our reading last week.
While there was animosity between the Jews and the Gentiles, you might remember that in last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus declared that there was no food that was unclean. This was a big deal because the distinction between food that was clean and unclean was a huge point of contention between the Jews and Gentiles. But according to Jesus’ statement last week, things once considered unclean were now acceptable. This shift laid the groundwork for the people he encounters in today’s reading. If he could declare unclean food acceptable, perhaps he could do the same for Gentiles who were previously considered unclean.
However, the Gentiles weren’t just unclean. The Gentiles were hated. They were commonly called dogs. Jesus didn’t just randomly call this woman a dog; that is was what Jews called Gentiles. This woman in our Gospel reading was a Gentile. It is obvious that she had heard that slur plenty of times because she did not even bother denying it. She just accepted the slur and used it to effectively state her case. Therefore it is understandable that Jesus would call the woman a dog— or is it? He should have known better. This is Jesus, the Son of God. He should have known better. This is where things get complicated. If we say that Jesus didn’t know better and his heart was changed by his interaction with this woman, then are we saying that Jesus was wrong in the first place? And if he was wrong, is that the same thing as saying he sinned? One of the fundamental views of many Christians is that Jesus was sinless. He was perfect.
That’s true. But he was also human. This got me thinking about how we define sin. Think about it for a moment. If I put you on the spot right now, how would you define sin? I bet you could think of lots of examples…but what exactly is sin? The catechism in the back of our prayer book defines sin as, “seeking our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God and with other people and with all creation.” By that rationale, Jesus could not sin because he was God which meant his will was the same as God’s.
Yet still, I am troubled by his treatment of this woman. Then I am reminded that by becoming human, Jesus took on our frailties and to some degree our limitations. What he knew, what he had been taught from his birth, was that Gentiles were less than. His ministry was for the Jewish people. What made Jesus divine was his ability to let go of these human prejudices with relative ease. He was able to see past the slurs and see this woman for who she was—a child of God. While most (if not all) religious leaders would have simply dismissed her words, he listened to her response. He let her response and her compassion for her daughter change him.
He was able to see past the distortion that sin had created. Remember how our catechism defines sin—“it distorts our relationship with God and with other people.” It was sin that had distorted the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles. Jesus was born into a world of distortion. Unfortunately we all are. As a result, we are programmed to see people who are not like us as “the other.” We can either accept that, or we can learn from Jesus’ model and listen to “the other.”
Right now, our world is dominated by sound bites, memes and 280 character tweets. As long as those remain the parameters of how we know a person or learn about an issue, we will never actually learn anything new. We will never be pushed outside of our comfort zone. Virtually every time someone has explained to me how their views shifted about an issue or a group of people, it was from knowing someone who thought differently or was different.
In high school, I fell into a quirky and diverse group of friends. They were diverse religiously more than anything. Several were Hindu. One was Muslim. One was Jewish. There was a Catholic, an Episcopalian and a few agnostics. My Muslim friend was the one who taught me the most. She also happened to be the most devout of the group and so we talked a lot about our faith. This was before 9-11 and we were not yet living in the culture of fear we now live in. But after 9-11, I remember feeling grateful for having her in my life, because Muslims weren’t a group for me, there was a face I associated with that faith. I know that face. More importantly, I know her heart.
I think we can all agree that what is going on in our world right now (the suspicion of people who hold views different than our own, the name calling, etc) is causing far more harm than good. It is so easy to judge people now. Recently I was behind a car and they had all these bumper stickers. I remember thinking, I definitely would not like that person. Then I saw their Episcopal shield and I thought, huh, well I guess I can get past those other stickers.
While judging people based on things like bumper stickers or ethnicities is wrong, it’s part of human nature. It comes from living in a world full of distorted relationships. Fortunately, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we have endless opportunities for redemption. That redemption comes in the form of relationships, relationships with people who would be a lot easier to judge if we did not know them. For Jesus and this woman, it took one sentence. She said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” However, most of us need more than a sentence. Most of us need a relationship.
I want to challenge you all this fall to seek a relationship with someone who is different than you (a different socio economic class, religion, political party, ethnicity, etc.) Don’t enter the relationship trying to change them, open your own heart to a potential change. We can’t just complain about the lack of kindness or civil discourse in our country. Gandhi once said that you have to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” We all have that opportunity. Not only can we be part of the change, as Christians we can be part of the redemption.