Reading Mark 7:24-end
Preacher Reverend Neil Summers
We are human beings, not animals. How many times have you heard those words from migrants in the news this week?
Today’s Gospel sees Jesus mainly in Gentile, that is non-Jewish, territory. He has already performed one healing of a Gentile, known as Legion, when a host of demons was sent into a herd of pigs. In today’s story, too, a demon is exorcised, though on this occasion Jesus appears to heal with the greatest of reluctance. The most startling aspect of the story for the modern reader is his answer to the woman’s request, ‘Let the children be fed first; it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ Although Mark’s account softens the word ‘dog’ with a diminutive ending (we might say ‘doggies’!) this is inescapably the standard Jewish insult against Gentiles. Contrary to our common perception of Jesus as the great includer, and to modern Christian expectation, and to all concepts of political correctness, Jesus seems to be endorsing this piece of prejudice, making it clear that what he calls the ‘bread’ of his mission was intended only for the true chosen of God – the Jews. Although the woman’s daughter is healed, because of her mother’s humility and faith, the impression remains that it is done grudgingly and very much as an exception. Now some commentators suggest that Jesus really didn’t intend to insult the woman, but that he was sparring with her in the humour of the day. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he initially refused to heal the daughter – simply because she wasn’t Jewish. There’s no escaping that Jesus’ words and the intention behind them are jarring, shocking and theologically problematic. They are meant to exclude, and the language used, however you translate it, is a religious, if not a racial, slur. Mild or harsh, said dismissively or maybe even said gently, a slur nonetheless. But what a bold and brave retort Jesus got from this woman! ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’…the sort of quick-fire, clever clincher that most of us might think of hours after the event rather than on the spur of the moment. She persisted and she won as Jesus, rather than delivering another put-down or making some face-saving excuse, instead tells her that her daughter has been healed…despite her status as a Gentile.
This text can be used to argue for a radical inclusiveness in the Church. The argument goes that even Jesus had to learn that inherited ways of figuring out who’s in and who’s out must be challenged. Indeed, these attitudes can be so ingrained, so habitual, so natural a part of being human, that Jesus had to have his mind changed by this woman. Perhaps even more importantly for contemporary debates, Jesus’ mind was changed precisely by his experience of a Gentile woman with a shockingly stubborn faith – even though, from a Jewish viewpoint, she wasn’t supposed to have any faith at all. Jesus might well have presumed that his mission was only to Israel, but there was evidently something about this woman that caused him to change his mind, something that caused him to hear God’s call in a different way. In a funny sort of way, I find the story comforting. It certainly emphasises Jesus’ human nature, for we recognise in this story that we can all hold negative attitudes towards people who are different from us, those we might regard as ‘dogs’, outsiders, not worth bothering with.
In modern terminology, we could say this was an occasion when even Jesus was forced to think outside his own box. He had to break free of no-longer-relevant ways of thinking, old attitudes, social, cultural and religious prejudices, and personal biases, in order to let God’s healing into this scenario. Imagine where all this could lead in terms of our assumptions about who should be in and who should be out of the church and its leadership – not to mention those seemingly endless battles in the Anglican Communion we have over the role of women and human sexuality. Imagine, too where this leads in terms of appreciating the crucial role of experience, the need to reflect on and understand our experience, and the powerful challenges presented by new contexts, new knowledge and fresh discoveries. If even Jesus could have got such important things wrong, couldn’t we, and the church, have got other very important things similarly wrong? If Jesus was persuaded by this outsider, shouldn’t we all be open to being persuaded to change our minds about those we instinctively exclude, or who are different from us, or with whom we disagree?
This story seems to say that we can potentially learn new and valuable things through embracing – or at the very least be willing to meet half-way – those who are not like us, whether the difference between us be gender, sexuality, race, nationality, colour, economic status, faith tradition, religious denomination, or whatever. And, yes, we might have to learn the hard way, by getting things wrong and realising our mistakes – just as Jesus appears to have done here. And as we learn, the moral good – what we ought to do – actually shifts. The perennial challenge is to do our very best to identify and to choose the best moral option actually available to us, seeking to overcome the fact we are often hindered by our emotions, or inherited ways of understanding (and misunderstanding) our world – and, yes, even by our own religious, cultural and racial biases. Inevitably, we’ll end up short of the ideal; we are fallible, and being fallible is an inevitable part of being human – even, it seems, if you’re the fully-human Son of God.
Just one example to illustrate this: in the past, it might have been reasonable to treat your slaves with compassion; but once we realised that slavery was wrong, that question became pointless. God no longer requires us to treat our slaves properly, because we now know we ought not to have slaves at all. Now a new moral obligation exists. New moral options emerge that never existed before – sometimes because we have created different structures, sometimes because we make new discoveries, sometimes because we understand things differently. It has always been that way. Some ethical principles may remain always and everywhere the same – such as loving your neighbour. But the concrete good – how we actually love our neighbour and who is our neighbour – often changes. The good changes for us, and it changed for Jesus too. That’s not surprising, for the moral good does not pre-exist out there on a tablet of stone, waiting to be discovered. Rather the concrete good changes as new possibilities emerge. The real moral challenge is not just to do the eternally preordained right thing, but to set up the conditions and the structures, so that new and better things become imaginable, conceivable, and so become do-able. Quite a prospect in the midst of the current migrant crisis.
Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman changed his options. Once he recognised her very real faith in him, his calling her a ‘dog’ was no longer an option. A new good emerged as a new possibility, which is why he healed her daughter. The challenge of this Gospel is to dream of what could be, to be willing to have our horizons shifted, to have our assumptions undermined by the unexpected face of God discovered in another person, especially the person who is different or an outsider – not least the migrant fleeing conflict, persecution or poverty. Let us be open to encountering the Syro-Phoenician women of our day, those we’re secretly tempted to reject and call . . . dogs, doggies….and sometimes even worse….
We are human beings, not animals.