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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.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
– Mark 7:24-37
When I was a kid, from the ages of nine through eleven or twelve, I played on a baseball team. It was kind of like Little League, but this was a separate league started by the people in my home town that was in competition with the local Little League. This was the Little Knights League, and eventually, Little Knights became a bigger thing locally than Little League. One of the few differences between the two leagues was that, unlike Little League, every Little Knights player played at least two innings per game. This was a very good thing for me, because up until the last few games in my playing career when something finally clicked, I might have actually been the worst player in the league. I was a guaranteed strikeout, I was guaranteed to not catch the pop fly that was hit to me, literally out in left field. The only reason I played was because my grandfather was a founder of the league and the manager of one of the teams – the Giants – and every other family member had been a Giant before me, so I had to be a Giant, too. Up until that last year, every game was pure hell for me. And it had to be the same for my parents, who had to be cringing as they sat in the bleachers watching me mess up every single game.
One of the best things, though, about Little Knights was that unlike Little League, Little Knights had a concession stand. For a dime, you could get your choice of a bag of popcorn, or a snow cone, or a bottle of pop, and at the end of each game, every player got their choice of a free snack. For me, it was always a bottle of Orange Nehi, and I’m telling you, at the end of a hot, sweaty evening, there was nothing, then or since, to match the taste of that ice cold, sharply carbonated orange pop going down your throat.
And at the end of the evening, as everyone was heading home and the concession stand was closing up, all the kids who didn’t have the money to buy something would gather around the window, next to where Mrs. McCann would be cleaning out the popcorn machine, and they’d all ask her, “You got any scraps? You got any scraps?” You know, the popcorn scraps. The tough, little, half-popped kernels that you get in every batch of popcorn and that end up on the bottom of the machine, that you’d never really want to eat and you certainly couldn’t sell. But if you didn’t have a dime, it was better than nothing.
There’s something like this going on in today’s gospel story. Jesus, who has been going all over the Jewish countryside preaching about the realm of God and God’s love for them. But he’s tired and needs to take a mini-vacation away from things to recharge his batteries, so he leaves there and goes to Tyre, which is not part of ancient Israel but is the neighboring Syrophoenician kingdom. The Jewish people looked down their noses at the people of Tyre, just as they did with all Gentiles. They weren’t part of God’s chosen people; they were disrespectable, unclean, even contemptible; good people aren’t even supposed to associate with them, let alone do them any sort of kindness. So Jesus slipping off to Tyre would be kind of like us slipping off to Canada for the weekend, if we hated all the Canadians and thought they were all filthy subhumans worthy of our scorn; but they had a nice beach and the exchange rate was good, so we just put up with them.
And while he’s here, trying to go off the clock for a bit – trying to do some “self-care,” as pastors are instructed to pay attention to today – this strange Gentile woman seeks him out and asks him to heal her daughter. And in one of the most shocking and seemingly atypical stories we have of Jesus in the gospels, Jesus is downright insulting and rude to her. He says that it isn’t right for him to help her – he’s been sent to proclaim good news and to help God’s children, the Jews, not to Gentile “dogs” like her.
This sounds bad enough to us, in English, today. But in ancient Middle Eastern culture – and even in some of those cultures yet today – to call someone a dog is one of the worst insults you could call someone. This was the first-century equivalent of calling a black person the “n-word,” or a gay person the “f-word,” or similar slurs to others. It really isn’t what we’d expect from Jesus. And then, of course, we heard this woman put Jesus in his place. She’d come, desperate for him to help her daughter, and now, when facing the ultimate of insults, she stands up for herself against him as she continues to claim that she’s worthy of at least some attention and compassion from him. She asks him at least for some crumbs off the children’s table. She asks for some scraps.
This seems to have been a turning point in Jesus’ own understanding of his ministry. The scriptures say that, divinity aside, he had to learn things as he grew and matured – he “grew in stature and knowledge;” and here it appears that he learned something from this woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and her daughter, and the suffering and injustice they were enduring, to ask for his help. And as we heard, Jesus honored her faith, her trust that he could help her, and her tenacity in standing up for it even in the face of the social and cultural deck being stacked against her, and he healed her daughter.
This is an important story for us to remember, especially now when we’re continually seeing the protests and demands from various groups in our own culture today that they be treated in accordance with the promises of our country’s founding documents and our legal system. For too long, these groups were considered the dogs. They didn’t even get the crumbs, the scraps, or our society, and then they eventually got at least that, and now, they’re calling for full equality – demanding to be recognized not as the dogs under the table, but as children equal to all the others in our family. In one way or another, we’ve all been complicit in treating these others like dogs, or at best, less-favored stepchildren, in society, and even in the church. And because we’ve all been complicit in this, whether as individuals or just as members of cultural structures that systemically did it, we have an obligation to take an active role in fixing the problem, and making a place at the table for these children, our long-shunned brothers and sisters. This is true whether we’re looking at society, or the church itself. We all have to learn the lesson that the plucky Syrophoenician woman who maybe figured she just didn’t have anything left to lose, taught Jesus on that day so long ago.
Friends, we have to learn this lesson over and over as we come to see the fullness of the realm of God. Jesus, and then the earliest church, had to learn that God’s message of love and acceptance wasn’t meant only for the Jews, and in every age we come to terms with expanding our understanding of who’s inside that “circle.” We need to keep focused on the incredible, extravagant grace that God has given us, and to understand that God has given us the responsibility to reach out and extend that love, and grace, and justice, and acceptance, to all those around us. That’s the simplest, most essential truth of the gospel – God’s good news. And any time you hear someone talking about the gospel in a way that excludes some group or another, you know they haven’t learned the lesson Jesus learned the hard way in this story. We need to learn, and re-learn, that in God’s eyes, we’re all called to share in the abundance and beauty and wonder, and especially the justice, of this world – not just the scraps, but the whole, big, puffy, white kernels, buttered and salted for all of the flavor of God’s great creation.
Jesus had to learn it. And if we learn it, and if we do everything – everything – that we can to open up room at our table in church and society, and to give everyone – everyone – an equal seat, equal respect, equal dignity, equal consideration – equal justice – then in God’s eyes, we’ll have hit a home run. And in God’s eyes, that will qualify us for something even greater than a free, ice-cold, Orange Nehi.
Thanks be to God.