6 September 2009/Proper * Mark 7:24-37
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
A Crumb Is Enough
This is perhaps the most remarkable story in all of Mark’s Gospel – all the more so when we consider that until the Revised Common Lectionary restored it to Sunday Reading in Year B, it had been excluded from the Prayer Book Lectionary of readings.
It is easy to see why: it features a woman, a woman of remarkable chutzpah and faith, a woman of passion, a woman of wit and wisdom. It also features Jesus saying the most disturbing thing we ever hear him say: he calls this woman, and by inference her daughter and her people in general, a dog.
But in the past we skipped over the Syrophoenician Woman to the healing of a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Which is a good place to begin, since both stories feature people who advocate for the healing of others – that is, the people coming to Jesus ( the woman and the unspecified “they”) do not ask for healing for themselves, but rather ask on behalf of others: the girl and the man. The real surprise is just who really gets healed in this story – but on that later.
A lesson in discipleship? Are we meant to be advocates for the needs of others? The story means to provoke us to answer just this question.
Jesus wants to be alone. He did not want anyone to know where he was. Enter a woman. Not just a woman but a Gentile woman. Not just a Gentile, but a Syrophoenician woman, and the Jews in Jesus’ time did not like Syrophenicians at all. So on the face of it, three strikes and you’re out!
And so it seems. She asks for her daughter to be healed. Jesus, not content simply to say, “No,” instead hurls an insult at her, at all Gentiles and at Syrophoenicians specifically: I am here to feed God’s children, ie the Jews, not the dogs of the world like you, your daughter and your people.” Not exactly Jesus meek and mild. Not exactly “In Christ there is no East or West....”
Undeterred, the woman replies famously, “Yes sir, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Please note: this is the only person in four gospels who argues with Jesus and wins. Because of her willingness to advocate for her daughter, and her willingness to confront Jesus’ discriminatory attitude, her daughter is healed.
And at that moment, the world changed – and it was a big, huge, cosmic, axial shift! Jesus includes gentiles, even historically hated gentiles, into his mission, that would be into our mission. He will no longer discriminate. He crosses the boundaries of gender, ethnicity and even socioeconomics since the Syrophoenicians were infinitely more affluent than the Jews in that region. The demon is gone. Not just the demon in the girl, but the demon that might have stalled Jesus and God’s mission.
Because of this woman Jesus changes his mind. Because Jesus changes his mind, a larger, more faithful vision of God’s reign among us is called forth. Rather than insulting her, Jesus compliments her by saying, “Because of this word you spoke, go! The demon has left your daughter.” And Jesus knows a demon has left him because of this woman’s courage to speak truth to power.
And note the new dimensions of his power – no longer does he lay hands on someone, or speak directly to the demons. He is in hiding, the girl is at home, and yet she is healed. Jesus’ power is not restricted by time or space.
And note, according to what the woman has said, it only takes a crumb of our Lord’s power to be healed, transformed, made new.
Most amazingly of all, this story suggests that mere gentiles like ourselves share in our Lord’s power. If the woman speaks a few words and the world and all of history is changed, so can we.
There are those who would have us believe otherwise. There are those who thrive on our willingness to be quiet and accept things the way they are. There are demons at work who count on us to remain quiet when a few words from any one of us has the potential to shape an alternative reality – for instance, fewer hungry people, fewer homeless people, fewer people without health care, a culture that no longer discriminates against gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, sexual orientation, age and the like.
That’s what the second story is all about – opening our mouths and speaking plainly – opening our mouths and speaking truth to power. And even if Jesus tells us to be quiet, it is not to be! The more zealously the crowd proclaimed his power and glory.
So as to be clear, the church throughout the ages, and even today, can be and has been prone to tighten the boundaries of “righteousness” to keep “outsiders” at bay. This story says that will not work. It never has. Jesus tried and was changed.
This story is not about the woman, the daughter, or the man – it is meant to be a story about us, and how a crumb of Jesus’ power can change us forever. It is about how disciples of Jesus are meant to advocate for the needs of others, especially around healing! And how a word from us can change the world. Forever. And, as we say, ever!
A crumb is enough to change the world, to change us, and most astoundingly of all, to force God to change God’s mind.
As a girl in my class on Thursday said, “Wow!”