A sermon on Mark 7:23-30, preached by Rev Richard Keith on 4 November 2018
In Mark chapter 7 verse 23, we read,
“Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.”
Tyre was on the Mediterranean coast, northwest of Galilee, in what we would now call Lebanon. For three and a half thousand years it has been a prosperous trading city and still a popular destination for tourists today.
By going to Tyre, Jesus has once again gone beyond the borders, outside the holy land of Israel. The people there were Gentiles. Non-Jews worshiping their pagan gods. Strangers to the promises of the Old Testament that God would bless the world through Abraham’s family. The poorer folk of Tyre would have spoken Aramaic. The rich and powerful would have spoken Greek.
Verse 24 tells us that
Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.
His ministry load had been hectic. People were always wanting and wanting more. Wanting a blessing. Touching him. Crowding him. Pressing in on him. The Pharisees and scribes were no better. Arguing with him. Plotting against him. It was natural for Jesus to retreat to a place where nobody knew him. Where he could find rest and renewal.
However, we are told that
he could not keep his presence secret.
A woman came to him and fell at his feet. She was a local woman but a Greek speaker. She either belonged to the ruling class or to one of the wealthy merchant families. She was rich or powerful or both, and educated. She had everything money could buy. But she was in great need. Her daughter had been possessed by an evil spirit and must have been manifesting terrifying physical and psychological symptoms. The woman was afraid for her daughter’s life and however she found out who Jesus was or where he was, she fell at his feet and begged him to drive out the demon.
The story so far fills us with empathy for both of them. We feel for Jesus who can do so much good, but at what personal cost? If only he could have a week a day, a moment to himself. But we also feel for this woman, a non-Jew just like us, a mother worried for her daughter.
Jesus said to her,
“First let the children eat all they want for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
There are two possible ways to explain this remarkable statement. Jesus is either trying to insult her to make her go away and leave him alone, or this is some kind of test. And I’ve read a couple of preachers this week who think it is a deliberate insult. That Jesus was tired and annoyed that he’d been discovered. All he wanted was a holiday, a little time to himself. Was that too much to ask? So she caught him with his compassion down and his humanity showing. He called her a dog to make her leave him alone. Like he was saying, “You’re not a Jew. I need to keep my power for people like me.” And those preachers tried real hard then to show how great it was that Jesus was human just like us. That even he could make mistakes and learn better.
But I’m not convinced that that’s what’s happening here. For one thing, this is the Jesus, who in chapter 4 crossed Lake Galilee in a little fishing boat. Rode a storm that almost sank them and killed them all. Just to go to a foreign land to drive a demon out of a non-Jewish man. Was Jesus too busy to help him? Was the man just a dog and unworthy of his help? No, Jesus helped him and then left like that was all he came to do. Like he had risked all their lives to help one non-Jewish man.
This is the Jesus, who in Mark chapter 7 said that it isn’t the food that goes into someone that makes them unclean, but the words that come out of them. All the food laws that make all the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew actually make no difference at all. Because food doesn’t penetrate to our heart to our real humanity.
This is the Jesus, who on the cross died for the sin of the world, for Jews and non-Jews everywhere. Is the Jesus who never said No to anyone going to say No to this woman and call her a dog to make her go away?
For another thing, Jesus was using proverbial language. Like I might say, “It’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.” It doesn’t mean I think you’re a dog. It just means, “What’s the point of bringing up an old argument that will upset you and start it all over again.” I mean, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, because curiosity killed the cat, so although the early bird gets the worm, it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.
And for another thing, Jesus often used confronting language. At the wedding at Cana his mother said, “They’ve run out of wine.” Jesus said,
“Woman, what’s that go to do with me and you?”
A royal official begged Jesus to come and heal his son. Jesus said,
“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe.”
And, of course, he said to the woman at the well,
“Go and get your husband,”
knowing full well that she wasn’t married to the man she was living with.
The rules of politeness that say that there are certain things that you can’t say to people you don’t really know, don’t mean anything to Jesus. Jesus spoke to everyone like he’d known them all his life. The sort of thing that you would only say to your sister or to your best friend – you know, how you can speak your mind and it will never damage the relationship, but if someone overheard it, they’d be scandalised that you would talk like that to anyone – Jesus spoke to everyone like that. Jesus will tell you the truth that you need to hear like he’s known you all your life. Because he has.
Lastly, if she’s a dog, then I’m a dog too. If the Jews are the children at the table in Jesus’ little story, and the non-Jews are the dogs that shouldn’t be getting the children’s food, then I’m a dog too. I’m half Celt and half Saxon, which is probably why I’m always fighting with myself. My ancestors were braving the last ice age in northern Europe before Abraham was born. They were complaining about the rain and dreaming of going to a land in the southern hemisphere where it was hot and dry all the time since before Israel was even a country. My roots come from Britain and Germany, not Palestine. My people aren’t little puppies who’ve been house-trained, they’re like wild dogs tamed only by the gospel that the missionaries brought only a thousand years ago.
Jesus wasn’t insulting her to make her go away. He was provoking her, talking to her like he’d known her all her life so that she would say the very thing she said next. Jesus meant, “I’m the Messiah of Israel, sent by my father to the children of Abraham. My miracles reveal that all his promises to them have come true. Through me, my Father will bless the whole world. But the time isn’t right yet. First let the children eat all they want. For it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
Jesus said, “No. Not yet.” Has the Lord ever said that to you? Have you ever had a burden on your heart, someone you love who is hurting that only God can help? Have you ever fallen at the Lord’s feet and begged him, and he said, “No. Not yet.” What are you going to do about it? Stop asking? Or go away and sulk? Or grab hold of the Lord and not let him go until he blesses you?
Jesus said, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” People make the mistake of thinking that that’s what this passage is all about. But it’s all about the next line. She replied,
“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Now, that’s why this story is in your Bible. It isn’t there to show you that the Lord is human. And that he can make the same stupid and uncaring mistakes that we all do. It’s there because this smart, brave, desperate woman had the courage to grab hold of the Lord and to not let him go until he blessed her.
“Yes, Lord,” she said. She agreed with him. She wasn’t born into the chosen race. She wasn’t one of the children of Abraham. When Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land to possess it, her people had fought back. They had kept their land and founded their city upon the edge of the sea and made their money trading with the world. They were non-Jews and not ashamed of it. Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, so yes, maybe Israel had first rights to any miraculous power within him. Maybe the children should eat first at the table. But if she was one of the dogs, she was just one little puppy. Wasn’t the Master’s table big enough to feed everyone? Wasn’t the Master’s feast generous enough so that everyone could have enough? Would there not be just one little crumb for the puppy under the table?
It’s almost like she knew more than she should. I mean, she one of the characters of the story of the Gospel. She isn’t meant to have read the story. But it’s like she knew about Jesus feeding the five thousand. About how he took the five loaves of bread and the two little fish and blessed them and broke them and handed them out so that everyone had enough and when they picked up the left overs, they filled twelve baskets. It’s like she said to Jesus, “I know how you set your table. I know how you feed your children. You’re like those Presbyterian women. You always make too much. Isn’t there one little left-over for me?”
Jesus said to her,
“For such a reply, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”
And that’s the only example in the whole of Mark’s Gospel of Jesus healing someone from a distance. Not the only time in the four Gospels. But the only time in Mark. Significant enough to say that this is special. This is the power that created the universe with a word. The word that made a big bang can heal a girl he never met and set her free from the demon within. It’s a sign that when the Lord gives his life for the sin of the world, there will be no more dogs, but all people, the people from Tyre, the people from Britain, the people from Wattle Hill, will be his dear children. It’s a sign that when the Master sets his table to feed his children, he always makes too much and there is more than enough for everyone.
This story isn’t about the time that Jesus called a woman a dog. It’s about how Israel’s Messiah became the Saviour of the world. It’s about the Master’s table which is big enough for everyone to have a seat, and stacked high with food enough to satisfy everyone with more than enough. So that there is a seat for you and more than you can eat set before you. More blessing than you need.
Have you ever fallen at the feet of the Lord and begged him to help someone you care about? Has the Lord ever said, “No. Not yet.” What are you going to do about it? This clever, brave, desperate woman teaches us to grab hold of the Lord and to not let him go until he blesses us. Because he has more blessing than we need.