It’s not ‘their’ problem…

by jacobjuncker

This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, September 9, 2012.

24 Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. 25 In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. 27 He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

28 But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

29 “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.”30 When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.

31 After leaving the region of Tyre, Jesus went through Sidon toward the Galilee Sea through the region of the Ten Cities. 32 Some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly speak, and they begged him to place his hand on the man for healing.33 Jesus took him away from the crowd by himself and put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue.34 Looking into heaven, Jesus sighed deeply and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Open up.” 35 At once, his ears opened, his twisted tongue was released, and he began to speak clearly.

36 Jesus gave the people strict orders not to tell anyone. But the more he tried to silence them, the more eagerly they shared the news. 37 People were overcome with wonder, saying, “He does everything well! He even makes the deaf to hear and gives speech to those who can’t speak.”

Mark 7:24-37, Common English Bible

Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear, that together we might learn and be inspired to live your Word in the world.  Amen.

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Throughout the Gospel narratives, Jesus spends a lot of time with people that we identify as being on the fringe or edge of society.  They were people viewed as being uncivil or inappropriate.  They were people for whom society viewed with very little worth.  The Syrophoenician woman who approaches Jesus in our Gospel lesson for today fits that description well: she’s on the fringes of society.  She was a Gentile woman who, in the Jewish culture of the time, had no right to approach let alone speak to a Jewish rabbi.  Yet, something drew her to disregard custom.  It didn’t matter to her that society said she was poor.  It didn’t matter to her that the culture said she had no rights.  It didn’t matter to her that society said she had no value.  She found out where Jesus was staying, entered the house, threw herself at Jesus’ feet, and spoke.

She pleaded with Jesus on behalf of her daughter who was sick, possessed, she said, by a demon.  We often, rightfully view Jesus as a loving, accepting person.  Our natural inclination is to think that Jesus will immediately heal this woman’s daughter, but his response is surprising:  “The children have to be fed first.  It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”[1]  He calls her a “dog.”  Rather than water this down, consider the expletive that might be used today.  Jesus, here, uses the same, demeaning, derogatory language.  He dismisses her saying that his mission is for the Jews and the Jews alone, not for dogs like her.

Many who suffered those words might have crept away, feeling small and insignificant, but not the Syrophoenician woman.  She boldly responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28).  Jesus’ earlier prejudice was very human and his insight now perhaps divine.  He instantly understands her challenge.  His mission is not restricted to the Jews.  God’s love expands beyond all barriers.  Rather than scolding her for her brashness, Jesus tells her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29).[2]

Like Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33) who pleaded that God save the innocent people of Sodom…  Like Moses (Exodus 32:9-14) who pleaded that God not kill the Israelites for their disobedience in worshipping the golden calf…  The Syrophoenician woman pleads with Jesus, God incarnate.  And, through her act of courage, she changes God’s mind.

The Syrophoenician woman called Jesus to a mission of infinite compassion and mercy.  New Testament scholar Mitzi Minor writes that Mark gives us God’s initiatives in [both stories offered in today’s Gospel lesson].  Jesus’ actions illustrated that a “worthless, Gentile girl whose mind was devoured by a demon” and a “good for nothing deaf man who couldn’t even speak clearly” were indeed children of God to be embraced and valued.  Humanity’s authentic response to God’s initiative “calls forth recognition that there are no external barriers between God and any human being: not race, class, ethnicity, gender, age, or physical condition.  Consequently, there should also be no such barriers between human beings.”[3]

Nevertheless, our insecurity causes us to create boundaries that separate us based upon arbitrary rules of status where certain people are valued and others are not.  “In the first century, the poor, the infirm, the orphaned, the mentally ill, the alien, and many women lived with very low status.”[4]  In two thousand years, we haven’t really changed all that much.  Many still look at the poor and say that if they’d only work harder—pick themselves up by their boot straps—get a job—that their lives would be better.  Many still look at the sick who cannot afford healthcare and blame them for being weak.  Many children continue to be abused, forced to live in temporary foster care situations.  The mentally ill and those plagued with addictions have few places to go to receive the care they need to function and participate in society.  Our culture continues to construct barriers that tries to keep out immigrants.  Women continue to earn less than their male peers who work the same jobs.  The margins of our society are no different than they were in Jesus’ time.  The boundaries that define who has or doesn’t have value, boundaries that even Jesus got caught up in, continue to exist.

Who is on the boundaries, the fringe of this community?  Who is shown less value in our church, in Culver, and the surrounding communities?  Are these people as strong as the Syrophoenician woman, or have they given up on us?  Are they speaking up, reminding us that we are called to live out God’s infinite compassion and mercy without prejudice? offering God’s love and grace to all without regard to the status and value society places on people?

Can you hear the Syrophoenician woman’s call to live a life of Infinite compassion and mercy? a life that lifts people from their fear, offers hope to the hopeless, strength to the despairing, healing for those who live in shame; a life of listening to the pain of others and offering them love; a life that offers food and drink to those who hunger and thirst; a life modeled after that of Christ, who was reminded by the Syrophoenician woman, that his mission, our mission is to offer God’s Infinite love, grace, compassion and mercy to all persons.

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In 1991, David Haas, an American author and composer of contemporary Catholic liturgical music released a song that captures well what it is like to live a life that exemplifies the Infinite compassion and mercy of God.  The song was included in The Faith We Sing, a United Methodist Hymnal Supplement published in 2000.  The song, “You are Mine,” is a song about God’s claim on all persons.  It’s a reminder that regardless of where you are in life, God has claimed you as God’s own.  It is a reminder, for me, of how we, as imitators and children of God, are called to offer God’s Infinite compassion and mercy to all persons.

“You are Mine.”  Words and Music by David Haas (1991)

Friends, what would it be like, if we lived out the words of this song?  What if we lived a life of Infinite compassion and mercy?  What if we met people in the midst of their fear and said, you are not alone?  What if we offered hope to all who are hopeless? eyes and a voice for all who long to see and speak?  What if we became a place where all persons could find support and rest?  What if we offered strength and encouragement to all who are despairing? and, healing for the ones who dwell in shame?  What if we led all persons to freedom in Christ, offering the peace the world cannot give?  What if, we lived out the words of this songs and showed the world God’s Infinite compassion and mercy?  I think the world would be transformed.  The boundaries that separate us would disappear.  The margins would go away and all would be brought into the center of life where Christ is found.

Friends, we have a responsibility to reach out to those that find themselves, for whatever reason, on the boundaries, fringes of our society.  It does not matter what their race, ethnicity, mental abilities, sexual orientation, social status, economic status, addiction, sin, past or present situation is.  It’s not “their” problem for being shoved to the fringe of our community.  It’s our problem for not reaching out and offering them the Infinite compassion and mercy of God and bringing them into the center of a life lived with Christ.

Friends, “The Church of Christ, in Every Age” has met the Syrophoenician woman.  The question is, will we listen to her today?  Will we understand that “we have no mission but to serve in full obedience to our Lord, to care for all, without reserve, and spread [God’s] liberating word”?  Will we listen? Will we respond by offering God’s infinite compassion and mercy to all persons wherever they might be?  I pray so.


[1] Mark 7:27, Common English Bible (CEB).

[2] Amy C. Howe, “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 7:24-37,” in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 44-45.

[3] Amy C. Howe, “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 7:24-37,” in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, 48.

[4] Amy C. Howe, “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 7:24-37,” in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, 46.

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