All are Welcome at God’s Table

Published: Sunday, 09 September 2018

All Are WelcomeThis sermon was presented by Geoff Pound on 9 September 2018 at the Ashburton Baptist Church. The manuscript concludes with Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study. The sermon ends with a prayer by Jan Richardson and her picture of the open, welcoming table has been paid for and is used with permission.

Scripture Reading: Mark 7:24-31

When Lord Chesterfield was asked about the best way to acquire a fine education he said there are three main ways:

The first way to get a good education is to travel.
The second way to further your education is to travel.
The third way to complete your education is to travel.[1]

Today we see Jesus the traveler. Mark tells us:

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.

Mark 7:24a

This is one of the rare times we see Jesus travelling out of the country of his birth. He’s travelling from Galilee, north to Tyre which today is south Lebanon.[2] Yes, what an education we can have, when we move from the familiar to the foreign. What rich learning opportunities for this Jewish teacher to be immersed in this predominantly Gentile (non-Jewish) culture. It’s never easy moving out of our comfort zone because the new experiences challenge our way of doing things, yet the fresh perspectives we gain, enable us see that things can be done differently. I wonder, what would Jesus learn in this journey across the border?

It seems that education wasn’t uppermost in his mind, nor was this planned as a mission trip. Mark says:

He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.

Mark 7:24b

So, this wasn’t a sight-seeing trip. This was travel for the sole purpose of blobbing out. He went to Tyre to retire. Is that the sort of holiday you need at the moment?

Turn back the pages and you’ll see Jesus’ busy programme of appointing disciples, teaching and healings. They seemed to have a different bed every night with preaching tours through Galilee and dealing with the demon-possessed in the Gerasenes. What an emotional rollercoaster—getting rejected in his hometown, ministering to Jairus’ daughter who was at death’s door, dealing was the death of his cousin John and then there were crowds to be fed and Mark says, “wherever he went” people begged for his healing touch. (Mark 6: 56) He was at risk of burn out. He was extroverted out. Can you picture Jesus with sunglasses? Yearning to be incognito. Craving solitude so much, he even left his disciples behind.

Mark reports the bad news:

Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 

Mark 7: 24-25.

Who let this woman in? How did she get through security? Was she a domestic worker in this guest house?

This woman had a little daughter whose life was mucked up by an unclean spirit. She’d led a dog’s life. The girl needed freedom and her mother, hearing of Jesus’ reputation, was on her case.

In every fight for freedom, there’s a need to have an advocate, someone like this mother, who can make it their mission to see them freed.

One of Mark’s favourite words is the word ‘immediately’. He uses this word 41 times in his short Gospel. Usually the word is used to illustrate Jesus’ vision, his intention, his action. He’s never dreaming or dillydallying around.

Here this word ‘immediately’ is used in connection with this woman. Immediately when she hears this miracle worker is nearby, she gets cracking. Because her daughter’s freedom is the most important thing in her life.

Have you got a person or a project that is one of the main reasons why you live? Someone, something, that is your paramount concern? Every effective group has an enthusiast, someone who makes its success, their baby.

What highlights this woman’s singleness of purpose and her steely resolve is the way she’s overcoming the challenges in her life:

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 

Mark 7: 26

Mark is stockpiling her drawbacks and pointing up all her deficiencies.[3]

She’s a woman so she’s on the back foot in relating to a man, let alone a Rabbi.

She’s unnamed which tells us something about her value.

She’s a Gentile so here was another barrier the Jews had erected.

She was of Syrophoenician origin, a migrant from a province across in Syria.

Despite all of these hurdles she got herself here respectfully at Jesus’ feet. Look at all the borders she’s crossing. This woman is begging him to bring freedom to her daughter.[4]

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.” 

Mark 7: 27

What a surprising thing to say! This comment doesn’t lift her up. Let the children—the Jewish people—be fed first.[5] It’s not fair to take the food[6] for the Jews and throw it to the Gentile dogs.

What a disgusting thing to say. To call this woman to her face a dog even if this was the customary way that Jews spoke about Gentiles who to them were ritually unclean.[7]

Maybe some of his people might have said: “Get to the end of the line, you bitch!”

Referring to her racial background they might have said, “Get back under the table, you mongrel.”[8]

What an appalling thing to say to someone who’s on the floor at desperation point. Doesn’t this language seem so out of character for the Jesus we know? Have we missed something here?

Some have pointed out that the actual word used is ‘little dog’ so it’s softer to refer to this woman as a puppy. It’s like calling her ‘pet’.

Some have said that Jesus is using this term with a wink and a smile to remind the woman that God’s bread was first delivered to the chosen people. As Paul told the church at Rome: For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1: 16)

Others have said that because Jesus knew what was to happen, ‘all’s well that ends well’. This text is difficult. It seems to convey racism. Exclusion. What do you make of this?

Look at the bold way this woman responds:

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

Mark 7: 28

‘Sir’. She’s full of respect. There’s no hint of retaliation.

She acknowledges the accepted priority for the Jews.

She notes the racial and religious slur at her people being called ‘dogs’ and, with great humour, she turns his canine imagery on its head: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Maybe she’s heard of Jesus feeding the multitudes and having twelve baskets left over and here she’s saying that she’s satisfied with licking up a few crumbs.

Jesus may have overturned the tables in the temple but this woman is overturning the tables here in Tyre.

You know the saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But this woman across the border is teaching Jesus a trick or two. A moment ago, she was regarded a dog. Now she’s seen as a woman of great faith.

Her response stretches Jesus’ thinking about the full extent of God’s mission. She’s recognized the radical nature of his ministry and she wants to join in. Does her attitude alter his action?

No longer are the Gentiles to be treated like dogs that sniff around under the table. Jesus now ministers to her and her daughter by extending an invitation to sit at God’s table.

Can we grasp the immensity of the impact of this woman?

Now increasingly, Jesus’ ministry is expanded to the Gentiles.

Mark wants us to see that the church is for all people: women, people of all races, migrants, even the demon possessed.

Has the welcome of our church been expanded that wide?

Has the welcome of our church been extended that far?

Has our church gone to the dogs?

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 

Mark 7: 29

What impresses Jesus is not her faith but her word (logos).

Her expectant word.

Her witty word.

Her humble word that recognizes that even the crumbs provided by Jesus are an absolute feast.

Jesus responds positively to her persistent word.

This woman is a corgi who keeps nipping at his heels begging Jesus to cast out the unclean spirit.

This woman is a terrier who will not let Jesus go until he blesses her daughter.[9]

This woman is a retriever who keeps searching and snaffling every crumb of grace that falls from his table.

“You may go,” he said, and she did:

So, she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Mark 7: 30

And what did Jesus do? Pack up his ‘Getaway’ holiday because anonymity was impossible?

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 

Mark 7:31

He returned but he took the long way home. He went further north into Sidon (Lebanon) and he did a great loop through these ten cities in Gentile territory.

Jesus wants us to learn more through travel in unfamiliar territory.

He wants us to break down the borders and bring freedom.

He wants us to meet people on the edges and under the table, people who are so different from us.

Like this woman of relentless courage.

This gutsy freedom fighter.

This Syrophoenician woman who shows us today the value of doggedness.

Prayer

A prayer by Jan Richardson after reflecting on this story. It’s entitled, ‘Stubborn Blessing’.

STUBBORN BLESSING

Don’t tell me no.
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
turned away.

Don’t start with me.

I am saying
you can close the door,
but I will keep knocking.
You can go silent,
but I will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle,
but I will trace a bigger one
around you,
around the life of my child,
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother
for stubbornness.

I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.

Unclench your hand,
your heart.
Let the scraps fall
like manna,
like mercy
for the life
of my child,
the life of
the world.

Don’t you tell me no.[10]

Amen.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

Scripture Reading: Mark 7:24-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

Discussion Icebreakers

Lord Chesterfield stated that the best way to get a good education is to travel.

How true has that been for you? How has travel enriched your education and life?

Got an example of the way travel into unfamiliar territory and new cultures has challenged your thinking and made you see that things can be done differently?

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.

When do you most feel like this—tired, worn out and needing solitude—and how are you best replenished when you get to this point?

Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

Discuss how Jesus must have felt when he could not escape notice.

How would you have reacted when your planned solace was disturbed?

26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 

What is Mark seeking to say about the woman and Jesus in this description?

27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

 

How do you interpret this apparent insult of Jesus to the desperate woman?

Is Jesus all-knowing (divine) or does his knowledge of things like the broadening of God’s mission something that is gradually revealed (as with other humans).

What impressed Jesus about this woman and what impresses you about her?

29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Does the woman’s response change Jesus’ attitude and action toward this woman and her daughter?

What does this story say to you about the Gospel, the mission of the followers of Jesus and the church?

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 

Mark 7:31

Jesus continues in Gentile territory and takes a long and wide loop home. What does his itinerary suggest to you?

Other questions to ponder?

Other insights to share?

Prayer

Turn your insights into prayer.

Pray again the prayer of Jan Richardson.

 

[1] F W Boreham, The Passing of John Broadbanks, (London: Epworth, 1926), 195.

[2] For the Jews, Tyre had a bad reputation. Recall Jesus’ words: “But I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” (Matthew 11:22) The Tyrians and the Jews were longtime enemies. See the tension expressed in Joel 3:6.

[3] Mark wants to show that this woman is the embodiment of the ‘other’.

[4] The verb for beg is in the imperfect tense implying that she was continuing to beg. This wasn’t a matter of requesting once. Keep asking!

[5] The word for ‘fed’ or ‘feed’ is the same as will be used in Mark 8 to describe Jesus feeding all the Gentiles. By then the Gentiles will be treated and fed as children.

[6] ‘Food’ is literally ‘bread’ so this is a continuation of the bread theme.

[7] Dogs are not well regarded in Jewish culture as we learn from the Bible. They are seen as scavengers (Exodus 22:31; 1 Kings 14:11; 1 Kings 16:4; 1 Kings 21: 19) and unclean (Matthew 7: 6). Workers of evil toward the church are called dogs (Philippians 3:2) and they are listed along with sorcerers, fornicators, murderers and idolaters (Revelation 22: 15)

[8] After the current occupant of the White House fired Omarosa Newman from her role as a political aide, he kept on in denigrating her by calling her ‘that dog’. See Michael D Shear and Eileen Sullivan, ‘Trump calls Omarosa Manigault Newman ‘That Dog’ in His Latest Insult, New York Times, 14 August 2018

[9] Like Jacob (Genesis 32: 23), she will not let go until blessing has fallen.

[10]Jan Richardson, from ‘The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief’, inspired by the fierce woman of Mark 7/Matthew 15.