Dogs?

9 September 2012
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18B (RCL)
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

It will be very hard to refrain from preaching a political sermon this week! “Do not afflict the poor because they are poor.” “Don’t show favoritism.” It shouldn’t be hard to guess my political proclivities. But, we are called to preach the gospel, and all need to hear it.

I suppose the most troubling aspect of the scriptures this week is Jesus’ classification of the Syrophoenecian woman as a dog. There is no polite way to construe this. He insults her, rather severely. Why on earth would the Jesus we think we know do this? I suspect it reflects the difficulty the Marcan community had in admitting Gentiles. This healing occurs between the second crossing of the sea and the second feeding in the wilderness. Between the first of these paired miracles, Jesus healed the man with the Legion, Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood. All of these were “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” excluded from ceremonial table fellowship. In these first miracles, food plays an important role. Jesus commands those present at Jairus’ house to “give her something to eat,” exactly the same command (same vocabulary) he gave his disciples concerning the crowd — “you give them something to eat.” It is the eating together that heals.

Now, in this instance, Jesus is in Gentile territory, staying in a house. This would have been impossible for an observant Jew — what could he eat? But remember, in the argument with the Pharisees, he declared all food clean. But food maps boundaries, so did the community really mean what it said? Jesus encounters the woman, who catches him in Gentile territory, eating Gentile food, and asks for healing for her daughter (cf. Jairus). He refuses — she is not one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs (eating again). Let the children be fed first. Does the healing/feeding ministry of the community extend to Gentiles? The community at first answers, “No.” But the woman replies, accepting the insult and turning it against Jesus, “Yes, sir, but even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs.” This shocks Jesus/the community into realizing the inconsistency of their position — it is ok to eat unclean food, but not eat with Gentiles. For this saying, your daughter is healed.

So, now, Jesus encounters a man who can’t hear and has an impediment in his speech. He cannot hear the Gospel, and so cannot proclaim it. Again, this reflects the life of the Marcan community. They had a hard time hearing the Gentiles, and so couldn’t preach the Gospel. Remember that the second time the disciples cross the sea and encounter the storm, Jesus is not in the boat with them. This is a post-resurrectional encounter, a decision the community had to reach relying only on the resurrected Jesus.

That’s why we engage in mission — to be changed. Notice that we don’t do mission to encounter Jesus. Jesus goes into unfamiliar territory and comes back changed. The Gospel does not remain static, given once for all. It changes in the encounter. We need our ears opened so we can proclaim the Gospel.

James says much the same thing. If we make distinction about for whom the Gospel is intended, we have made distinctions within our own communities, and so have failed to keep the royal law. We need the strangers in our midst to be able to see ourselves (and not look in the mirror and then forget what we saw). This goes way beyond politics. We cannot see the image of God until we can see it transformed in our own prejudices.

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