Texts: Mark 7:24-37
Date: Sept 6, 2009
Jesus wants to keep a low profile in Tyre. He’s in Gentile country, far away from the Jewish masses that flock to him wherever he goes. A woman comes to him. She’s desperate. Her daughter needs to be set free from an unclean spirit. The woman comes to Jesus even though she’s a Gentile, a foreigner, an outsider; she has no business coming to Jesus, but she does anyway. She needs help, and nothing will stop her.
Where do you find yourself in the story? Who are you? Are you with Jesus, being accosted by a beggar? Or, are you with the beggar, trying to get something you desperately need? Think about it for a second. How do you fit in the story?
Most of the time, when we read ourselves into the story, we probably put ourselves in the position of Jesus. When we read about Jesus, we think that we are supposed to imagine ourselves in his place. This has something to do with the way we talk about the Christian life as discipleship; we follow Jesus. We find Jesus in the story, and think about how he is a model for our lives. We imitate Christ; we follow in the way of Jesus. After all, that’s the Mennonite way. Jesus is our example; he shows us how to live.
So, let’s try that way of reading our story today. What does Jesus model for us? How is he an example for you and I to follow? The hardest part of the story is that Jesus calls the woman a dog. She asks for Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus calls her an undeserving dog. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27).
This is as bad as it sounds. Yes, Jesus calls this Gentile woman a dog. It was as scandalous then as it is now. Is Jesus narrow-minded at this point in the story? He knows what any Jew would know: that this woman did not belong at the table with Jews. She shouldn’t be coming around the Jewish neighborhood and asking for Jesus’ help. She has her own people, her own healers and doctors and magicians. Why trouble Jesus? He doesn’t belong to her. She isn’t one of his people. She is a dog, a Gentile, an outsider. She’s a dog, and Jesus tells her so.
This insult is probably lost on us because we might like dogs. They are cute. We have them as pets and companions. For some of us, dogs become part of the family. A couple days ago, Katie gave me an article from the Economist about how Leona Helmsley left $12m in her will for her dog, Trouble. What’s so bad about being a dog?—especially if are Helmsley’s dog?
Well, in 1st century Palestine, there was no such thing as domestic dogs. The only dogs around were wild dogs, roaming the wilderness, scavengers, eating unclean animals and even human carcasses. For Jesus to call this Gentile woman a dog meant that she was unclean and shouldn’t be hanging around Jews.
I know it’s really hard for us to understand, but we’re trying to step into Jesus’ shoes so we can walk with him. Jesus is our example, remember? He leads; we follow. Well, it seems that Jesus is simply being true to his calling when he calls this woman a dog. She comes from an unclean people and an unclean spirit possesses her daughter. And Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the one who came to purify Israel, to redeem the Jews from sins. Jesus comes to heal the children of Israel, and Jesus will not waste what he has to give on people like this woman and her daughter. As far as Jesus is concerned, they are not part of God’s plan.
But this Gentile woman teaches Jesus something. This woman, who Jesus calls a dog, opens Jesus’ eyes to a reality he had not expected. God’s love overflows further than ever asked or imagined. Yes, through Jesus God invites the Jews to the table of eternal life, but it’s an extravagant banquet. The table can’t hold all the food; when God provides, there is always more than enough. God is like my dad; he always makes way too much food for the people he invites for dinner. There are always leftovers.
For some reason, Jesus doesn’t see that at first. But the woman doesn’t take “no” for an answer. “Lord,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28). It’s a clever response, one that seems to surprise Jesus into a new awakening. She’s right, dogs eat too—they also get some of the food from the table.
So Jesus responds: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29). She gets what she needs. And Jesus discovers the overflow of God’s grace.
What can this mean for us, if we try to follow Jesus? It means that sometimes we have something to learn from beggars. No matter what we may think or believe about the people who ask us for stuff, they may have the power to open our eyes to something new.
But there’s another way to read ourselves into this story. Instead of putting us in the position of Jesus, we can see what happens when we step into the woman’s shoes. She’s desperate. This mother would do anything for her tormented daughter—to make the pain go away. She hears about a Jewish man who’s in the area; some Jews call him their Messiah, whatever that means. He has healing powers. She has tried everything for her daughter; maybe this Jesus guy can do the trick.
So the mother goes where she doesn’t belong. It’s like crashing a private party and asking the guest of honor, who you know only because he is the center of attention, and asking him if he has jumper cables; and if so, if he doesn’t mind taking a moment to give your car a jump out back. An inconvenient interruption, and quite inappropriate.
It’s like that, but much worse, and the mother is a whole lot more desperate. She’s not worried about a silly car; she is a mother who can’t help but do anything and everything for her daughter. She doesn’t really care that she doesn’t belong. The suffering of her daughter compels her to violate boundaries, to go where she shouldn’t, to beg from strangers. Desperation can make you go crazy. When you care about something so much—it’s all you can think about—and you feel like your hands are tied, you go crazy. Desperation drives you mad. The mother would do anything for her daughter. Even beg from a poor Jewish peasant named Jesus, who may or may not be a magician, who may or may not be the Messiah. But she has to find out. Her daughter’s life depends on it. So she goes and she begs. She’s desperate.
What are you desperate for? What drives you crazy? What do you want? What would compel you to find some poor stranger and beg from him? Do you want anything that much? It’s hard to imagine that kind of desperation. Sure, there are plenty of things that I want, but I can’t imagine going crazy for them. I want to be good at my job. I want to be a good husband. I want people to like me. I want to pay off the mortgage on our house. But none of these drive me crazy.
That’s why it is so hard for me to put myself in the woman’s shoes in our story. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be so desperate. I’ve had a good life so far, and I’m grateful for it. But I also notice that all the things that I just listed, all the things that I want, are all about me. Yet the woman in the story is desperate for the sake of someone else. She doesn’t want anything for herself; she wants something for her daughter. She is desperate because of her relationship with someone else who is in pain. She is driven to Jesus because she cares so much about someone in pain. Desperate for someone else’s sake.
I went to Ethan Olsen-Getty’s funeral on Friday. He was Eric and Dayna’s baby—they worship over at Durham Mennonite, and Dayna preached to us this past year. Early in her pregnancy, Dayna found out that Ethan suffered from a birth defect. He would die shortly after birth. There was nothing anyone could do. That’s desperation. They wanted something so bad, they wanted this little bundle of life to survive, and they could do nothing about it. So, they did the only thing they could do: they prayed, and cried, and loved Ethan as best they could while he was still in Dayna’s womb.
Maybe desperation just happens to us, like it did to Dayna and Eric, and like it did to the mother in our story. She didn’t plan for her daughter to suffer. It just happened and she had to figure out what to do.
But I also know that there are plenty of things going on in our lives and around us that could make us desperate, if we let them. But it’s not very fashionable to be desperate. We’re supposed to be in control, cool and composed. We don’t want to be like beggars—they are always needy, always making inappropriate requests. They make us uncomfortable. So, obviously we don’t want to be in their shoes. We don’t want to be desperate.
But that’s what it would mean if we tried to read ourselves into this story as the mother. She begs. Maybe we should too. But first we have to take time to figure out what we want. What are you desperate for? Why do you want what you want? Should you be desperate for other things? Who is the most desperate person you know? And what can you do to share in their desperation?—to beg with them?
Then we will be like the woman in our story, who can do nothing else but draw close to Jesus, to call him “Lord” and to beg, like a dog. Blessed are those who are desperate, for they shall know God.