This reflects the Revised Common Lectionary text(s) for this week. To find other sermons in the RCL year, go the the “Year B” sermons page. They are shown in ascending order, with the first of Advent at the bottom of the page.
Mark 7:24-37…Proper 18B
(Written on September 6, 2015, reflecting current events)
The Bible can be hard to understand sometimes. That could be a handy excuse for not living according to the Bible, but we can’t let ourselves off so easily. We understand enough of it. I’ll admit it: usually I am not confused, just unwilling. Mark Twain said it best: It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Today’s first gospel story is a little of both. Jesus tries to get a break from the crowds, but a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, hears about it and anxiously approaches him, begging him to rid her daughter of an evil spirit. We would expect Jesus to respond instantly with compassion, freeing her beloved child of the force that tormented her. But he doesn’t.
“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.’” A cryptic answer, but the people present knew that he was referring to the Jews and Gentiles. His mission was to God’s chosen people, and she didn’t qualify.
She would not give up. “ 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.”
This is one of several texts that are considered ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus. It seems out of character for our Lord to talk to the woman like that. We prefer the version of Jesus that is heroic, kind, or supernatural-looking. In this case he seems downright mean.
I can’t explain this when so many with a lot more skill have failed. But I did notice something here. The Gentile woman essentially becomes a prophet, even a teacher to Jesus. I wonder if he purposely gave her the upper hand. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last. What I noticed is the similarity with a few other situations where Jesus trades places with people.
In this case, he is the student, and the woman is the teacher. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus asked John to baptize him in the Jordan River along with everyone else. He became the spiritual inferior to John, in a way, and you’ll remember that John objected. But Jesus insisted. Was he calling attention to the reversal?
Later, at Jesus’ last Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus washes their feet. He becomes the servant and makes them the masters. Peter objects, but again Jesus insists.
And there is that last instance that is most startling of all: the cross of Jesus. He allows his accusers and executioners to have the upper hand. He becomes the guilty one even though he is innocent. He allows them to take out all their frustrations on him, treating him like the lowest of criminals.
It seems that Paul recognized what Jesus was doing when he wrote his letter to the Philippians, chapter two:
3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
He did not take advantage of his position. He did not lord it over us. He became one of us, and became the obedient one, the guilty one, the crucified one.
When Jesus encountered outsiders, he did not act like a faithful Jew. He did not avoid them because they were unclean or beneath him. He treated them with dignity and listened to their ideas, responded to their needs. In the case of the Syrophoenician woman, he gave an outsider a voice that we would never have heard otherwise. Nobody else would allow it, let alone record it for posterity.
Who are the outsiders today? How do we have the same mind of Christ Jesus, regarding others as better than ourselves?
Last week’s news was filled with the crisis in Europe. Refugees from the violence in Syria are flooding Europe, desperate for asylum. Chaos in a Hungarian train station was watched the world over. Most heartbreaking by far was the photo of a drowned child who was found on a beach in Greece. His family had been trying to reach Europe by sea, but he was one of many who perished in the attempt.
When I think about Jesus trading places with people, I think about that little boy. His name was Aylan Kurdi. My granddaughter is the same age as Aylan. The thought her in Aylan’s place is horrifying, nightmarish. I cannot imagine her meeting such a fate. But we must allow our minds to take the place of Aylan’s parents, because he deserves that much compassion. We cannot ignore the plight of desperate refugees by claiming ignorance. We know what it is like to love a child, and to be desperate to protect him.
The immigration issue in the U.S. is no less compelling. We don’t like to hear about the violence and corruption across our southern border. Instead we prefer to talk about jobs and laws and fences. I am not advocating for a specific solution to this complex issue, but as followers of Jesus, we are required to have compassion on the plight of so many impoverished and threatened people. The Europeans are wrestling with questions we ourselves are facing.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to see the needs, to hear the cries, and to respond as he does. He recognizes the value of each person, and elevates them beyond the categories we conveniently assign to them.
I was horrified to hear the arguments of some of the European leaders. One of them claimed to be protecting Christianity itself from the hordes who threatened their security. How disgusting. Instead of dwelling on that, let’s close instead with a better story, a response that seems more in keeping with the Jesus who trades places with his inferiors.
In response to the crisis in Europe, the little island nation of Iceland officially offered to take in only fifty refugees. “That wasn’t nearly enough for popular Icelandic children’s book author Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir. She launched a Facebook campaign that asked her fellow countrymen and women to open up their homes and urge the government to do more, The Telegraph reports. In 24 hours, more than 10,000 Icelanders had offered their homes for refugees to stay in. Keep in mind that Iceland’s entire population is less than 330,000.
“‘I think people have had enough of seeing news stories from the Mediterranean and refugee camps of dying people and they want something done now,’ Björgvinsdóttir told Icelandic public television RUV in response to the overwhelming support.”
One person who volunteered explained, “I’m a single mother with a 6-year-old son…We can take a child in need. I’m a teacher and would teach the child to speak, read, and write Icelandic, and adjust to Icelandic society. We have clothes, a bed, toys, and everything a child needs. I would of course pay for the airplane ticket.”
She is taking the place of a child’s mother, a mother who has been lost to violence or famine or disease. She cannot do it for Aylan Kurdi, who is now one of those lost in the struggle, but she can honor his memory by doing it for another child.
In my mind, the idea of Jesus trading places is as good a solution as any to the tricky story of the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter. Sometimes we have to look harder to see the patterns in the text. Jesus does trade places sometimes, and today’s holy meal is another example. As the Son of God, Jesus could demand that we break ourselves and require of us heavy taxes, penalties, and sacrifices. Instead he gives himself to us. Instead of forcing fearful obedience, he simply asks us to open our hands and our hearts to taste and see that he is good. To humble ourselves like every other needy person in this word who is desperate for life and safety and love, and just receive the gift that is himself. It is puzzling. It is a wonder. It is his gift to us. Amen