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Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, [11-13],14-17; Mark 7:24-37
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Since we were youngsters, my wife Terri and I have owned and loved Dachshunds, that breed of little dogs with long bodies, short legs, and a temperament that I believe to be somewhere between a Koala bear and a ferocious lion. One year ago, our sweet smooth haired red Doxie, Duchess passed away. As you can imagine, it was a very difficult time for us, but one for which, we had prepared. As signs of Duchess’ decline started to emerge two years ago, we knew for the sake of our other younger male Dachshund (Duke), we needed to introduce a new pup to our family and so, we adopted a handsome two-year-old black and tan male named “Tyson.” Inviting a new pup into your home, especially one who is very different from the others, can upset the balance of your home and create all kinds of challenges.
The established dogs (Duchess and Duke) were very resistant to the newcomer’s exuberance, playfulness, and energy. The old timers (Duke and Duchess) were untrusting of the new boy’s toys, his bed, his smell, his sound, and his actions. The dogs that had been with us for so long, who felt they had some claim of primacy and superiority were not ready to change or accept this newcomer (Tyson) without a fight, nip, pick, growl, chase, screech, and yelp, which seemed to go on for several weeks after he arrived. Today, through many trials, misunderstandings, and yes, a fight or two, Tyson has taken his place in our home, and although he still likes to strut around like he’s the “big dog,” Duke our old man of the house, has accepted him as an equal.
We humans in an odd kind of way are similar to house puppies that is, if and when we encounter new folks entering our community. Often new people, who may be very different from us, enter the life of a church with new ideas about church life. They often bring with them new talents, new spiritual gifts, and radical ideas that differ greatly from the established folks in the pews. Churches sometimes struggle with accepting, inviting, embracing, loving, and allowing an outsider to integrate into, and have an impact on the pack, on the community. When new folks enter our circle we sometimes become frightened, threatened, and uncertain of our own place in the system. When the new pup joins the pack, we may to try to put them in their place, so we can feel better about our place in the community. The fear of change brought on by a so-called outsider, can cause us to forget one of the key foundations of the Christian community; radical hospitality.
The gospel narrative we hear today gives us an example of how throughout the centuries, people have created barriers between each other, barriers that stand in opposition to God’s Kingdom, that kingdom where all have a place at God’s table. The story is about an encounter Jesus had with a woman whose daughter was possessed by an affliction. The woman was desperate for relief and her plea to the young rabbi for help and his subsequent reply, has become one of the puzzling encounters of Our Lord’s ministry. We need some background information in order to understand fully what is going on in this story.
The woman in the story was most likely both Gentile and also Hellenistic. She probably spoke Greek and most likely, she was of a different socio-economic class than Jesus and his disciples. So in this encounter two very different cultures collided. For example, many of the folks living in first century Palestine cultivated and harvested the food consumed by the aristocratic, Hellenistic class to which this woman perhaps belonged. Most of the people who actually grew the food and worked the land, not unlike today, lived with great scarcity and hardship. There was a distinction, a socio-economic rift, a class division that existed between God’s children, and it resulted in an “us versus them” attitude, which pervaded the interactions between these two groups.
Now, the social elites were not the only ones who espoused an ethos of superiority. The Israelite’s equally held all Gentiles, all people outside the House of Israel, with great disdain, so much that they referred to Gentiles as “dogs,” a disparaging metaphor, and a derogatory term popular at the time. (2) In this culture, people who were considered “less than” were cast aside, people such as lepers, the lame, the blind, and the deaf, all of whom, Jesus reached out to with radical hospitality, and healed them of their affliction. This particular encounter Jesus had with the woman found in Mark’s gospel could easily give us the impression that Jesus was no better than other folks of this time who ostracized the Gentiles. Today’s story seems to conflict with the person we know Jesus to be.
When this woman asked for Jesus’ help, he gave a response, which I imagine, would have been very much like the one his disciples would have used. Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Some scholars offer a palatable meaning for Jesus’ words such was, “my mission right now is this, but in due time the rest will come into the kingdom,” attempting soften the punch of the word “dog.” Some scholars translate the word “dog” as “house puppies,” or household pets who were allowed in the house and gathered at the foot of the table and received scraps.
Either way, when we hear Jesus’ cutting words, words we have not heard him utter in any other parts of the gospel, we are utterly shocked, and we are at best uncomfortable that Jesus would have made such an ethnic distinction. Theologian William Loader asserts, “When God’s election of Israel becomes the basis for Jesus’ initial refusal to heal this girl, we cannot avoid feeling indignant.” (4)
“Dog” was a common term of abuse for outcasts in that society. We have those unspoken terms used in our culture today do we not? When I lived in the deep, rural south, I remember hearing abusive labels hurled at folks, labels fueled by hatred and racism. In other contexts and situations, I have also heard terrible words used with vicious intent, with an evil so hurtful that a cutting blade or bashing stick could have done no more injury to the person. Such abuse is an evil perpetuation of injustice, and dignity-robbery. So, when we here Jesus use “dog” to label the woman in this story, we are for a moment, rocked off our pristine Christian heels, but that of course, is not the end of the story. Soon we hear a courageous response that literally reframed the Lord of the Universe’s mission statement.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The woman rebuked Jesus and his preoccupation with his ministry to the chosen, and she made it abundantly clear that she too, even though not in the House of Israel was in God’s house, needed to be fed by God’s abundant grace. She was proclaiming that now, “the gentiles are no longer outside in the streets; they are now in the house.” And in the blink of an eye—thanks to this loving mother’s theological proclamation—the dogs “will be at the table,” the place of true fellowship.” (2)
This woman rocked Jesus’ world and just as suddenly as her words were spoken, Jesus’ mission expanded and the focus was no longer just on the insiders. Jesus’ path was widened, and he realized he must invite ALL, not some, to the banquet. This unusual story depicts a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry through which, it became clear to him, that his saving power was going to be inclusive.
The gospel writer in this story, is not diving into the psychology of Jesus, he is being very clear that at the heart of Jesus’ ministry was this ongoing crossing the boundary of human divide, and bringing the Kingdom to all … even those considered to be “dogs.” Jesus did not merely wax eloquently about radical hospitality; he acted and made it discernible. “Mark’s focus is on what (Jesus) did. Jesus agreed to the woman’s request; Jesus crossed the boundary; Jesus exemplified and legitimized what by Mark’s time had become the reality, which he celebrated: the community of faith was inclusive of all.” (5)
Jesus, I believe was not testing this woman’s faith to see if she would stand up to the oppressors. I believe he was actually inspired by her. I believe Jesus actually experienced a change of heart, and a new vision of his ministry. I believe Jesus became clear about who he was, and what he was called to do. I believe Jesus was helping us to become very clear about who we are as the church, and what our mission is to become.
If you were to turn to page 855 of the Book of Common Prayer, you will find in the catechism a definition of the mission of the church, “To bring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” That statement my friends is our marching orders. Everything we do as a community of faith should be centered on unity with God and each other in Christ, and that begins by embracing, a culture of radical hospitality.
Stephanie Spellers, in her book “Radical Welcome” invites the church to once again embrace a far-reaching form of hospitality that goes well beyond the mere community integration of new people. Stephanie tells us that the community of faith is like a beautiful tapestry, woven with the diverse threads of people’s lives; people of different ethnicities, orientations, political affiliations, and people with new ideas, and new visions of the church. As these new threads are added to the cloth of the community, the practice of radical hospitality will not diminish that diversity by creating some structured conformity.
The church must not be a monochromatic wall hanging that looks the same always, and by which we merely weave folks into classic Episcopalians. The idea that a one-hue version of church that “was good enough for my grandmother and it will be good enough for those so-called ‘spiritual but not religious’ types,” may be an unbreakable barrier to some. The church needs to adapt and as new people arrive, we must recognize that there are more and more people out there, who may have never ever once stepped into a church. We must not only invite them to bring their unique hues to the fabric of our communal life together, we must be willing to allow them to transform us.
WE must adapt to a culture today where nearly 22.8% of our citizens claim no religious affiliation at all. That number was 8% in 1988, 16% in 2008, and 19% just three years ago. It is important now more than ever, for the church to realize, it is not enough to merely offer wonderful liturgy, exquisite music, and intellectual sermons. It is not enough to merely open our doors, in order to effectively share the Good News in the 21st century. The “spiritual but not religious” could become the same folks who may show up at our door and ask, “Where do I fit in, in this God Kingdom you so eloquently preach about?” Maybe they will arrive seeking the mysteries of God and ask, “Can I get a scrap of grace from you?” Maybe they come to our doors, and have some really radical ideas about how following Jesus as Lord, might take the Church into new and innovative ministries in the local community.
The question with which we must wrestle is this, “Can we be as adaptable and willing to change as Our Lord?” Theologian Stephen Fowler in a Christian Century article wrote, “The key to understanding the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is to recognize that in this moment of his ministry,” Jesus opened himself up to mission to the whole world, he opened his church to the world. Now we are to open ourselves to the whole world in mission.”(2) We the Church must recognize that when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” it was not merely a casual suggestion, a passing thought of “love ‘em if you have time or if you have nothing better to do on your calendar this month.” I believe Jesus meant it.
Two and half years ago, a young, energetic, pup entered mine and Terri’s home. Little did we know how this little “house puppy” would literally shake the foundations of our lives. At first, we tried and tried to help Tyson be like the other two dogs, gentle, unassuming, and docile, but he would have none of it. He demanded our attention, he wanted to be heard, and he wanted to be a part of the family, but just could not be something he was not. The other two dogs and Tyson scrapped and fought, jockeying for the best position on the sofa close to mama’s side. Finally, we realized that Tyson was brining to our house something we never knew we wanted or needed. That little pup brought energy, excitement, and a new way of being into our home, and his presence changed us all. I could not imagine life now without him.
Friends, the church must be transformed, by welcoming the inevitable makeover others who join us, will bring to the pack. God is at work in this place and is calling us to embrace the change others will inevitably bring and have already brought to this church. Please remember, Jesus is not calling St. Boniface to be a clubhouse where all the members look, act, and do ministry alike. Jesus is calling us to be a lighthouse, which calls ALL to the table, to bring all their differences, quirks, and new ideas where they will find a safety and security of expression in this haven of love. In this day and age, we must adapt in order to thrive, and that means we must love our neighbor with all the quirky differences and new ideas they bring.
I am sure there are folks who are very uncomfortable with new the pups who will join the pack and make changes to the status quo, but I must remind you, even Jesus changed his mind. For you see the “Master of this House” is the one who, as a result of one conversation with a courageous outsider, radically changed his mission. The “Master of this House” is the one who gave of himself freely, and brought reconciliation, grace, love, mercy, life (and life abundant) to the world and all who are in it. The “Master of this House” sits at the head of this table, and all, not just some, are welcome to not only join the feast, but to participate fully in all aspects of the great banquet. We, like Jesus, should be willing to change if necessary, change for the sake of all those who need to experience the same grace, grace that was so freely poured out for each of us.
(2) Husted, Heidi A. “When The Gospel Goes To The Dogs.” Christian Century 117.23 (2000): 829-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.
(3) Perkinson, James W. “A Canaanitic Word In The Logos Of Christ; Or The Difference The Syro-Phoenician Woman Makes To Jesus.” Semeia 75 (1996): 61-85. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.
(4)Fowl, Stephen E. “God’s Choice.” Christian Century 123.18 (2006): 20-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 6 Sept. 2012.
(5)Loader, William R G. “Challenged At The Boundaries : A Conservative Jesus In Mark’s Tradition.” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 63 (1996): 45-61. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 6 Sept. 2012.