Table Crumbs: A Sermon for Proper 18, Year B

September 9, 2012

I’m going to read part of today’s Gospel again. I want you to listen carefully and reflect on the following two questions:

  1. What does this story tell us about Jesus?
  2. How is the woman a model of discipleship?

Then, I want you to turn to your neighbor and talk for a few minutes about what you’ve heard and how you might respond to these questions.

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Jesus has travelled way outside his comfort zone. He’s in Tyre, on the Mediterranean coast, for some reason. Mark doesn’t exactly tell us what he’s doing there, but the first verse of our reading suggests that he might have come here to get a break, to take a little vacation. It’s clear from what follows that he is not on a mission trip. He has no plans to minister in the place he now finds himself. We’ve seen already in Mark times when Jesus has sought to escape the crowds, when he wanted to go away by himself and pray or simply rest.

It never works. It never lasts. And even here, when he has traveled a long distance to escape the pressures of the world, entered a house to be alone and rest, the world breaks in the door, the world of pain and hurt. Jesus can’t escape or avoid it. But he tries.

A woman, a Syro-Phoenician woman, breaks in on his solitude and rest. She needs help. Her little daughter has been possessed by a demon. She’s tried everything, and now she’s learned about this miracle worker who has come from a distance, and desperate, she pushes in the house and asks his help. Again, this isn’t so different from earlier occasions in Mark—the woman with the hemorrhage of blood who grasped at Jesus’ garment; the synagogue leader who pleaded with Jesus on behalf of his dying daughter. What’s different this time is Jesus’ response.

insider/outsider: Jesus is the outsider here, the woman may be the insider—she’s at home in this town, as a “Syro-Phoenician” she belongs ethnically while Jesus doesn’t. So, to understand the depth of the offensive statement Jesus makes, imagine making an ethnic slur while visiting Mexico, or China, or Italy.

And put yourself in the place of the woman. She’s desperate, has come to Jesus for help, and is called a dog. What would you do if that happened to you? Would you back away, try to escape without further notice, give up? Would you get into a shouting match, return a slur with a slur of your own? Or would you, like this woman, keep pushing Jesus to help?

She does the latter, and in the end, she gets what she came for.

For those of us who are long time members of Grace, we need to think about what this episode tells us about ourselves. How do we perceive and understand our mission and ministry? How do we go about welcoming the stranger and newcomer. Oh, I know, we all say we are friendly and eager to embrace visitors. But are we really? To welcome the stranger, to practice hospitality, does not mean simply inviting people to come in, to encourage them to join. We need to welcome them completely, to embrace their experiences and perspectives. We need to welcome the change they bring. We need to hear from them where our blind spots are, where we fall short of proclaiming the gospel faithfully and where we fall short of embracing and living God’s reign as Jesus’ disciples.

If you’re a visitor or newcomer, ask yourself how your presence here will change us. We often assume that churches, really, any organization that we join requires us to adapt and change to fit the norms of that group. And so it does. But it works the other way as well. Just as the Syro-Phoenician woman demanded that Jesus rethink his assumptions, rethink the very nature of his mission and ministry, so too does your coming among us challenge us to change and adapt. Whether you are here for one Sunday or thirty years, how can you open us to new horizons and new possibilities?

There’s something else of considerable importance in this text. The exchange between Jesus and the woman is a form of word play. He calls her a dog. She accepts his term but points out that even dogs eat table scraps; they share in the banquet, if only the leftovers. Her words convert Jesus. He changes his mind and tells her, “For saying that you may go, the demon has left your daughter.” In fact, the Greek word used is logos. Jesus is praising her logic, her reasoning.

And that too should surprise us, because elsewhere in Mark Jesus responds to the pleas of those who would be healed, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Now I don’t want to overstate what’s happening here but I do think it’s important that the woman’s daughter is healed because of her persistence and tenacity. Her desperation has brought her to this point. Faith is not always, and certainly not in Mark, faith is not a confession or proposition. Faith is not assent to a doctrine. Faith is following Jesus in the midst of a difficult path, in the face of persecution and trouble. Faith is persistence and tenacity, clinging to Jesus, coming to him for healing, when there seems to be no other possible solution. Faith is demanding that Jesus do what he promises us to do, to bring about God’s reign in the midst of a world that doesn’t know him.

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