Saturday, September 8, 2012

Gone To The Dogs

Mark 7:24-37 “Gone to the Dogs”  
What don’t you like about church? ...I’m sure if I brought the mic out I’d get a full list - even if you each shared only ONE thing. 

Many of us don’t like that our Christian ‘church’ traditions keep us apart from each other. (20 in this church, 50 here, 100 there) . .Yet, how hard it would be for YOU to welcome the different styles, customs, and even theologies of neighboring congregations? 

We usually admit we are more comfortable, returning to the same place and familiar customs every week. And, when you are new to this (or any congregation) you go thru an unsettled time where you try to get to know people, you are still learning the customs and basically you want to know, ‘Am I welcome, REALLY welcome here?”

Back in the early days of Christianity, (the “Jesus’ Way”) very few NON-Jews were welcomed in Christian gatherings. Almost all Christians were Jews. Not all Jews were Christians, but almost all Christians were Jews. (If you do visit other churches, you might want to be careful where you share the fact that Jesus was a Jew!) 
The fact that the earliest Christians were all Jewish is something we tend to forget when we read the Bible thru the lens of years and years of church history. Similarly, we forget there was a time when all Brethren were German.

How hard it must have been to accept the first English people into the Brethren fold. In the same way, the early church struggled with welcoming outsiders, people who were labeled “unclean” by sacred scripture. 
The questions were typical, Was scripture wrong? Did God change God’s mind? Who is right? Who is welcome? Many questions about identity made it hard to accept the first non-Jewish followers of Jesus!

Layers of difficulty were added because people of other nations behaved differently too. They didn’t obey scripture! Diet, washing, even circumcision all were issues hotly debated. We have to wonder How they ever integrated a diversity of people & nations into the ‘Body of Christ’? .... Life in the early Christian community was one big turmoil where a lot of people asked, “Am I really welcome here?”
We get a glimpse into the controversy with today’s dialogue between a woman of another nation and Jesus.
We know that Jesus opened himself to criticism (by fellow Jews) when he responded to and healed non-Jews. “Gentiles” they were called, which merely means people of other nations.  (We’d might call them, ‘immigrants’.)

It is clear when we look at the synoptic gospels that Jesus’ mission was to the Jews. Even when he reached, ‘across the aisle’ and touched someone from another nation, he never forgot that his priority was to Abraham’s descendants, who were God’s chosen people.

This is Jesus’ perspective when he blurts out the harsh language we just heard. As hard as it is for many of us to hear, there is no getting around the fact that Jesus’ called this woman and her daughter ‘dogs’

And even tho WE may have nice little dogs as pets today, and even tho some dogs can be found with diamond- studded collars and sweet smelling fur-doos, there is no doubt that the word Jesus used was derogatory...regardless of what word you use for a female dog...

IF you can stand to hear more, some commentators point out Jesus has already healed a man of another nation. It was the man so “possessed” that he lived in the graveyard and when asked his name said, “my name is Legion, for we are many”.  Jesus healed him without question and his focus remained on his own Jewish chosen people. In this case, his compassion extended beyond Jews to this suffering man. . . . So, why not to this woman and her daughter?....It’s hard to hear his lack of welcome for her.

When we ignore a hard-to-hear story like this, it becomes one of the things people don’t like about church. To be honest we need do more than gloss over difficult stories. If we strip away the years and open our EARS we can do better than merely say, “...he must have been testing her faith.”

Some scholars point out that it was likely her gender that made the difference. Women just didn’t come up and speak to strange men back then. You ALWAYS had the man you ‘belonged to’ (husband or father, or other male elder) run interference for you; Man to Man! 
And to complicate the story even more, this area where Jesus traveled was full of of wealthy individuals from other nations, not peasants. So some commentators as if there was some reverse economic discrimination going on here - ALONG with the male-female problem and the ‘whole other nation’ issue.
This story is a difficult mess of details from different perspectives, none of which I want to hear! 
I prefer my Jesus to be politically correct, pure, compassionate, and welcoming to people of all nations AND genders AND economic levels. But in biblical stories, I don’t always get what I want, at least not when I read honestly.

I asked you to strip away centuries to return to Mark’s generation so we could hear this story and ponder it’s difficulty, even if it IS HARD to hear. 
We need to recognize that Jesus was “bluntly confronting this woman with the priority of the Jews in the divine economy, a point consistently affirmed thru-out the NT.”
 Scholar Charles Cousar reminds us. And the reality of Jesus’ day carried over to the writing of this gospel in Mark’s day.
We need to accept that it was hard, very HARD for non-Jews to be welcomed into the early church. 
We need to recall that male-female equality didn’t exist then, that women were restricted to some pretty specific roles then, and only under certain circumstances were any exceptions allowed.
Jesus was a man of his day. He was part of a culture where men held all the power, he was an observant Jew, who followed the LAW all of its intent, and who accepted that God chose Jews over other people. 
We need to hear the gospel this way, with 1st century ears in order to really understand its meaning for OUR time.

Whether Rich, or poor, this PUSHY woman had TWO traits that made her stand out above other woman, of ANY nation, She had guts and she was a MOTHER!  
A Mother will do things for her daughter than she won’t do for herself. A mother will cross social boundaries, risk being shamed and is willing to stand up to name-calling and rebuke. -all for the sake of her daughter. . .
Her boldness and her wit created a moment like no other in Jesus’ history.

What happened next, is a matter of record in Mark’s story and in Matthew’s too. 
Jesus gets bested in clever dialogue by a woman, a pushy non-Jewish woman, and he - changes his mind. . . I don’t know how else to read this. One person even called it a moment of conversion for Jesus! ..(Ashton, Feasting on the Word p 46) How hard is THAT to hear?

Jesus’ commends her gutsy attitude, her bold crossing of boundaries between men and women, between Jew and non-Jew, between rich and poor. He affirms this mother’s passionate reach for a cure and grants healing, sight unseen. . .and notice, it’s not for her ‘faith’ altho that seems implied, but b/c of her WORDS that Jesus  HEARD. ‘for saying this..’ he says. . . .This is one gutsy woman! And because of her, we can begin to HEAR God’s message for us.

Still I have to admit that along with my not wanting to hear that Jesus called such an admirable woman, a dog, there are plenty of other stories that are hard to hear.  I
t’s hard to hear that Jesus struggled with his calling, that he asked God for a way out. “Remove this cup from me..”
It is hard to hear that Jesus suffered, really suffered, not theoretically, not spiritually, but physically. 
It’s even hard to hear that he died.
And for centuries Christians found it so hard to hear the open-ended conclusion in Mark that ends with an empty tomb and women running away scared, that an alternate ending was written! . Something a bit easier to hear, that explains some of the mysterious details. (We have both in our Bibles. You can check later.)
Mark's alternate ending

Perhaps what we really don’t like to hear is that Christianity doesn’t have nice answers to everything. OR that following Jesus is likely to involve more problems than solutions.
Perhaps over generations and centuries so many hard to hear stories have been interpreted for us, by priests, bishops, all manner of clergy - like me - until all these ‘set’ interpretations replaced the heart of the stories. - & until all the holy MYSTERY was stripped away... And we forgot how to listen for God in our everyday lives.

Perhaps our ears need to be open to a human Jesus; one who struggled with religious rules and interpretations in his day, who learned gradually to listen to God’s bottom-line rather than human understanding. 
Perhaps we need to strip away the years and years of religious tradition that tells us what we HAVE to believe and listen for God the way Jesus did. Whether it concerns rules from ancient times, boundaries for healing non-Jews and women, or welcoming those who are different.  Perhaps the perspective we need is demonstrated best by the other story of healing we heard today. 

The very next thing Jesus’ does, after really HEARING the pushy woman, is to reach out and open someone else’s closed ears
Isn’t that something? 
. . a deaf man is healed by Jesus, the man who has just learned how to really listen. . .

NOTE for another great take on this text, go to


Terri said...

Yeah! well done.

Martha Spong said...

That's powerful. Thank you.