Sermon: The “Dog-Woman, Jesus and the Gift of Grace”
GOSPEL READING: Mark 7. 24-37
From there 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.
She answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
What is that Gospel passage all about? Jesus actually calls the woman who begs for help a “dog”!
Well, just before this Gospel extract, Jesus is being given a hard time by the Pharisees. “Hey, Jesus, your disciples aren’t washing their hands; your disciples are eating the wrong kind of food with the wrong kind of people”
The Pharisees were pointing out how everything the disciples were doing and eating and thinking and saying was wrong, wrong, wrong as a way of, also, showing how everything about them was right, right, right.
The Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples, of not being worthy to be included, because they don’t get it – they don’t abide by the rules.
So Jesus says, ‘you think you are right, because you keep all the rules and eat the right stuff…you think that makes you pure of heart? It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, Jesus says, but what comes out of it. For out of the human mouth come cruel words, criticism, gossip, cynicism, cruel intentions.
This has been another very hard week for the human race. The Boris and the Burka row drags on, raking up unhelpful ideas and comments from extremists making the delicate balance between cultures and traditions more fragile.
More innocent people wounded and killed in, Camberwell and Parliament Square in London. Extraordinary infighting between Italian officials as the wreckage of that motorway bridge is still being searched for survivors.
Judgement, division, intolerance, exclusion, greed and fear. Why?
Back to the Gospel and Jesus and the Canaanite woman. The Canaanites of course were Israel’s old enemies 800 years before. They had worshipped Baal and the Old Testament is full of stories of conflicts between Yahweh, Israel’s God, and Baal. So, St. Mark is trying to make the point that this woman is regarded as completely outside of God’s care, she’s not just any old gentile—she’s belongs to the most worthless, most hated group of all.
To make the point, Jesus says to her – “Look I’ve got nothing to do with you.” But she won’t take no for an answer. “Lord, help me!” she pleads. Now Jesus’ direct response is hardly reassuring. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Just what is Jesus saying and why? We don’t get it!
But the woman believes in Jesus’ healing grace; she GETS IT. She understands. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Do you get it? Jesus has basically called her (and those of her community) dogs. She doesn’t deny it, she doesn’t bristle at the put down. Instead, she turns it back on him. “Yes, we may be dogs, Jesus, but remember, loving masters give their dogs table scraps to eat.”
Jesus praises her faith; her daughter is healed instantly. This is may be one of the most troubling and confusing stories in all of the gospels. Jesus is supposed to be merciful and compassionate; he’s supposed to respond with love and care when someone asks him for help. But that’s not what it looks like here. It’s not just that Jesus treats her with what appears to be enormous disrespect. It’s that she forces him to change his mind, to do something he seems not to want to do.
This story reminds of us that Jesus is not quite everything we want him to be. We’ve got this warm, fuzzy notion about Jesus and this story breaks that notion apart. As much as we want to domesticate Jesus and make his message one that confirms our preconceived notions of faith and of God, the gospels tell a different story. And this story may be the one that is most challenging of all.
One of the things I like about this story is that it shows a woman, an outsider, someone who has no religious power or even religious significance in the Jewish world of first century Palestine, challenging Jesus. More than that, as an outsider, as someone of reviled status, she forces herself into the story. She forces her way through Jesus’ disciples. She forces him to pay attention. She makes him stop in his tracks and notice her. When he apparently ignores her; dismisses her, she doesn’t walk away. She flatly disagrees with him, takes issue with him, engages in wordplay, and beats him at his own game.
Why does Jesus call her a dog? Because, he wanted his disciples – and that includes you and me – to know that the Canaanite woman got a very basic idea of Christianity, which the Pharisees and even the disciples didn’t get:
And that is: that Grace and mercy and healing have always been for people who are basically dogs. Jesus is able to use the woman’s faith to prove that.
Never once did Jesus commend the faith of anyone who was a superior, judgemental, smug and not actually needing him. You know why? He came to save sinners. He came to heal the sick and open the eyes of the blind. So how the heck Christianity can ever be smug and intolerant and a bit superior is beyond me.
So, if you are a loser who doesn’t get it. If you have a heart that is sometimes dark, and selfish. If you love yourself too much; or do not love yourself enough; if you feel guilty and inadequate; if you think some really horrible things about other people, like almost ALL THE TIME, then know this: Jesus came to trade all that brokenness for his own righteousness. All of it. You can just lay it down at the foot of his cross and let him take it from you. Jesus absorbs the pain of the world with LOVE – unconditional LOVE. That love can make you new. “He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak”.
You come to church to be forgiven; you come to church to be loved; you come to church to be healed. So take heart. And like the Canaanite woman/the dog-woman – go from church to forgive; go from church to love and go from church to heal. Amen.