Confronting prejudice.

This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, March 8, 2015.  Throughout the Lenten Season, we will be reading through the Gospel of Mark.  To find our 40 day reading plan, click here.

ReadingMark 7:24-30

 

Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.

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I think Jesus probably just wanted to get away. Ministry hadn’t been easy. Since the heavens had opened up, that pesky Spirit in the form of a dove had descended, and God declared him a beloved Son, Jesus had been busy. He had drawn together a motley crew of followers who had been traveling to the far reaches of the area to proclaim that the time had come, that God’s kingdom was coming and that people need to change their hearts and lives and trust in the Good News of God. He was confronting demons, healing the sick, and putting up with hard headed religious leaders who were hellbent on stopping rather than welcoming the realization of their tightly held beliefs. He had been preaching and teaching in the synagogues and in the countryside. Crowds were getting so big and pushing so close that there were times when he had to be put in a boat and cast out into a lake so that people would give him a little space and could here. Jesus, much to his disdain, was becoming famous. People were coming from all around to hear him teach and be healed. Yes, while Jesus was divine, Mark’s portrayal of the Christ is incredibly human. I’m sure he was tired. It had been a relentless few years of ministry. He just needed to get away. So he and his disciples, after a particularly frustrating encounter with the religious leaders, retired to the region of Tyre.

Tyre is northwest of Galilee, some 12 miles from the current Israel-Lebanon border. The city was built upon a rock island several hundred yards from the coast on the Mediterranean Sea.[1] It was a secluded place: a place where Jesus could enjoy the sea breeze, kick up his feet and pray. But, his popularity was too great.[2]

He entered a house there where he didn’t think he would be found, but he couldn’t escape notice. He was barely inside when a woman who had a disturbed daughter heard where he was. She came and knelt at his feet, begging for help. The woman was Greek, Syro-Phoenician by birth.[3]

Mark wants to make very clear. This is a woman—a non-Jewish, Gentile woman—who approaches Jesus. According to Jewish custom, she had no right to approach let alone speak to a Jewish rabbi. But, and Mark makes clear, she wasn’t Jewish.

We don’t know how she heard about Jesus; perhaps, she was part of the crowd mentioned back in Mark 3:8 who had come to witness the miraculous healings; perhaps, she had heard about him through a friend or family member. Regardless of how she may have found out about Jesus, she was convinced that he could heal her daughter, so she began searching for Jesus till she found him. It wasn’t easy, but she finally caught up with him in Tyre. She pleaded with Jesus to heal her daughter who was sick, possessed, she said, by a demon.

I don’t know about you, but I often like to think of Jesus as a pretty open and accepting person. Jesus has healed people who did nothing but touched the edge of his robe. This woman has made a herculean attempt to see Jesus; we assume he’ll heal simply heal her and, hopefully, like he did with Jarius’ daughter, go to her bedside. So, Jesus’ response is surprising: “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and to it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27, Common English Bible). That’s right folks. He calls her a “dog.” Don’t let what you believe about Jesus to sugar coat this encounter, you might consider the modern expletive used today. Jesus, here, uses the same, demeaning, derogatory language to address this woman. 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).[4]

Representative John Lewis, one of the organizers of the Selma to Montgomery march, is attributed as saying, “You cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.”[5] Just like the protesters who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to remind a nation that liberty and justice should be extended to all, so the Syro-Phoenician woman stands up to Jesus to remind him that God’s love isn’t just for a few select people, but freely offered to all.

In looking at this story and the one that follows it, New Testament scholar Mitzi Minor

writes that Mark gives us God’s initiatives… 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.[6]

Race, class, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, physical condition nor ability should separate us from one another, but all too often they do. Prejudice—an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed…without knowledge, thought, or reason[7]—and discrimination—the treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person…based on the group, class, or category to which that person…belongs rather than on individual merit—(prejudice and discrimination) was something the Syrophoenician woman stood up to in Jesus against.

As a young, white male, I was reminded yesterday how little I have to actually think about prejudice and discrimination. As a person who receives a certain amount of privilege based upon the color of my skin (regardless of the content of my character), I don’t tend to worry about whether or not I will be deemed a threat when I walk into a convenience store late at night or wear a hoodie down the street. To be totally honest, I had no idea, until yesterday, that March 7, 2015, was the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” The day some 600 peaceful protesters walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge confronted by law enforcement who tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas and billy clubs. 50 people were hospitalized and many more wounded by police on that day. The events were televised around the world to bring attention to the rampant racism that existed in Selma, Alabama, and across the nation. Bloody Sunday was a tipping point in the civil rights movement that eventually led to signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 some five months later by President Lyndon Johnson.

As a young, white male—a person of privilege—I don’t think much about prejudice and discrimination: but I should, which is why I need people like John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Greek Syrophoenician woman. They remind me of the truths

We hold self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[8]

They remind me that God’s love is reaching out to everyone and that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, Common English Bible). God doesn’t just love me and God doesn’t just love you, God so loved the world (see John 3:16); and, God did not come to create more barriers through judgment (see John 3:17), but to tear the barriers that separate us down so that we all might be one in Christ: one in God’s love.

I need people to remind me to set my privilege aside and confront prejudice. And, so, I thank God that on this day we remember those who risked their lives on Bloody Sunday and I thank God for the Syrophoenician woman. May their example encourage me to confront prejudice.

 


 

[1] “The Biblical Cities of Tyre and Sidon,” by Gary Byers MA at <http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/26/The-Biblical-Cities-Of-Tyre-And-Sidon.aspx#Article> Accessed March 8, 2015.

[2] It is interesting to note that people as far away as Tyre and Sidon had heard about what Jesus was doing and came to follow him early in his ministry. See Mark 3:8.

[3] Mark 7:24-26, The Message.

[4] “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 7:34-37,” by Amy C. Howe, in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p44-45.

[5] Facebook post by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Posted March 7, 2014. <https://www.facebook.com/SPLCenter/photos/a.439820219699.236067.170591064699/10153164560279700/?type=1&theater> Accessed March 7, 2014.

[6] “Pastoral Perspective: Mark 7:34-37,” by Amy C. Howe, in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, p48.

[7] prejudice.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 08 <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prejudice> Accessed March 8, 2015.

[8] “The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America,” <http://www.ushistory.org/Declaration/document/> Accessed March 8, 2015.