Mark 7:24:37; James 2:1-10, 14-17
Freeport/Merrick, “Crumbs of Grace”
September 9, 2018
There’s an empty desk in the fourth-grade class in Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver, Colorado. There’s also a hole in the heart of Leia Pierce, as a result of the suicide of her 9-year-old son, Jamel Myles. Jamel hanged himself August 23 three days after school began. Jamel like to style his hair like his sisters, and on the first day of school, August 20, he wore fake fingernails. Classmates bullied Jamel because he identified himself as gay. Some students told him to go kill himself. He was just 9. Jamel loved Pokemon cards, robots, music, and wearing a dress with a tiara and high-heeled shoes. And now he’s gone. Suicide rates have in Jamel’s age have doubled since 2007 and it is the second leading cause of death for middle-schoolers.
For many, bullying is just a part of growing up. We don’t fit in. We’re not popular. We’re different. We dress differently. Perhaps speak a different language. Or we are differently abled. We have different views. Our sexual orientation is different. We are isolated, shunned, put down. One ten-year-old named Thomas, who was autistic, invited all 70 of the classmates in his grade to his birthday party. Only one showed up. In a cyber world, attacks become even more persistent and demeaning. Bigotry and prejudice, putdowns and bullying have become common place. It’s no longer for a phenomena in school. Close to half of worker have been or have witnessed harassment on the job.
For this reason, our gospel lesson from Mark hits us in the stomach. Jesus has entered the Gentile region of Tyre. A Syrophoenicean woman, a local gentile, discovers his presence and begs Jesus to heal her little girl, who is possessed by an unclean spirit. Modern listeners are stunned by Jesus’ response to this Gentile mother: “let the children be fed first; for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus shockingly uses the common derogatory term that Jews used for Gentiles – dogs. The in Jewish history,term meant, bad, disguised as a demon, embodiment of evil. Remember that dogs were not the modern-day pampered house pets; most dogs were scavengers or hunters not the cute lap animals we take selfies with today. So, Jesus used a bad name, just like some of the unmentionable bad names people call each other today.
How can Jesus be so callous and rude? Many commentators, uncomfortable with this politically incorrect Jesus, have tried to soften this offense by assuring us that perhaps the tone in Jesus’ voice, which can’t be captured in writing, mitigated the harshness of his words. Others have speculated that Jesus is deliberately setting up a “teaching” moment about prejudice for his disciples, although at the expense of a Gentile mother in distress. Or maybe Jesus was talking about cute puppies, watering down the insult. Yeah, right.
We can speculate for days what it all means. What this passage seems to highlight is the depth of the humanness of Jesus, who mirrors back to us the ordinary beliefs of his culture. Jesus states what every adult Jew of his age was raised to believe non-Jewish people were inferior. This belief is not even particularly Jewish: distrust and prejudice against other nationalities, outsiders in endemic to our broken human condition. It’s as if Jesus went to a Black Lives Matter rally and decides to chant, White Lives Matter. Here Jesus is, at a Syrophenecian Lives Matter rally and he adds salt to the wound by saying, but Syrophencians, even the children, are really dogs, so how much can they matter if they get served last?
If we stay with the discomfort of this painful encounter between Jesus and this Gentile mother, we find an amazing story of healing. This conflict doesn’t end with the mother walking away defeated or Jesus refusing to help. The story ends with healing and change. This mother challenges Jesus, and throws the image back to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Now to be honest, this isn’t the answer I want. I want this woman to tell Jesus off. I want this mom to set Jesus straight. I want her to say, “Jesus, how dare you call me a dog!” I am worth more than crumbs Jesus!!
But that isn’t the story we get. It isn’t the life we get either. We don’t always say what we want to say in the heat of the moment – at least for some of us, especially when conflict is in the air, a little girl is suffering, and a renowned healer is in our midst. Unlike the sitcom world, we don’t have the perfect comeback in the heat of the moment. But you know what? The perfect come back is not so important. What is important is a real, open, and just dialogue. The Syrophenian women didn’t set out to make Jesus feel guilty and she didn’t attack him for his beliefs. She knew Jews were bigoted. In fact, the Greeks were bigoted, the Romans were bigoted. 2000 years later we live in a bigoted country, a world broken by our divisions and conflicts.
So, this woman stayed focused on what she needed. She knew about Jesus. She knew deep down he was good. So she used that knowledge to stretch his heart even further. We see, even in what we think might be an imperfect response and an imperfect exchange, Jesus is able to listen and be changed. As a result this little girl is healed. And so is Jesus.
There is a lot we can learn from Jesus and this Gentile mother and how they handled their conflict. We all have prejudices, some benign, some spiritually dangerous. What does James speak of but the age old prejudices against the poor? There are stereotypes and prejudices for every race, nationality, hair color, body type, class, sexual preference and religion.
Like Jesus, we live in a world where the old prejudices no longer work, and we are called to be open to a new way of seeing: the refugee is neighbor not stranger. Can we train ourselves, like the Gentile mother, to respond not to attack but by turning an argument on its head? Can we, like Jesus, be open to our bigotry and change?
It is significant for us to note Jesus is changed in this discourse – He tells the mother, “For saying that, you may go --- the demon has left your daughter.” Jesus was open to be challenged. Jesus was open to be corrected. Jesus as a result changed his mind and healed the Gentile’s daughter. That is a gift that he gives us. Jesus can change. So, can we. If Jesus can hold views that need to be changed, perhaps we can have the courage to examine ourselves to see if we too, need to become more compassionate and understanding. Maybe we too need to listen to strangers in our midst.
Although we might be disturbed at Jesus’ initial response, I am grateful that Mark included this uncomfortable story. As we begin a new church year we are encouraged to take a good look at ourselves. To discover where we are unwelcoming. Where we resist change. To enter the honest dialogue. To work for reconciliation and revitalization in our churches and in our communities.
We are reminded that our world still cries out for healing, and that healing will come through very imperfect people. That’s us. Healing came despite the imperfections Jesus displayed. Healing come despite the imperfections of this Gentile woman. So, as we enter this new church year, let us commit ourselves to be a safe, loving place, a place where all the Jamals and Thomas’s of the world, where people who are oppressed, all those who hunger for love can come here, and find a refuge, a home. In this home, let us find Jesus, through our imperfections and a compassionate faith that will reach out until we connect. Let the crumbs of grace work through us, as long as we are willing to engage the truth, to change, so let’s create a community we’re we are all safe, we are all included, and can find the love of God in each other’s eyes. amen