"As I mused, the fire burned"

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Bread for Israel, Crumbs for the dogs

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Preaching through Mark. 19 Feb 2012, Mark 7:24 to 8:21, Last of Epiphany

We’re here at our next instalment of our sermon series through Mark’s gospel, and today we are going to specifically look at a couple of the themes emphasized in this portion: bread, being filled completely by the Kingdom, Christ’s ministry to the Gentiles, and the continued lack of understanding displayed by the disciples.

The first encounter in this section is with a nameless woman, referred to as a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin who has a daughter possessed of a demon. This is a very important encounter, and it serves as the passage that interprets the balance of what we heard last week, this week and will hear next week.

First, a note about translations. You can rely on any of the mainline bible translations for your personal reading and devotional work. However, if you are engaged in a bible study or serious work to figure out a passage, and don’t understand the original languages, the best path to understanding is to consult a number of translations. You can easily do this on the internet – I use http://www.biblegateway.com/ or http://www.biblestudytools.com/ which has 30 different English translations, including the two I use most often – the New King James version and the English Standard Version. Bible study tools also has links to interlinear Greek and Hebrew. The reason looking at several translations is important is that different translators take different approaches to the text, and you can miss subtle clues that are important to understand what is happening.

This encounter with the Gentile woman is one place where the translation we’re using – the New Revised Standard Version – has some differences. Here’s what I mean. The woman begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter, and in the NRSV Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In the New King James version, this is what Jesus says, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”” Did you hear the difference? In the NRSV, the children are fed first, in the NKJ they are filled first; in the NRSV the children’s food is thrown to the dogs, in the NKJ it is the children’s bread that is thrown. Given what is going on in the wider story, this change in translation is pretty important –because we’ve just come from the feeding of the 5000, fed with bread, and everyone ate until // “all were filled”; we’re going to the feeding of the 4000, fed with bread and everyone ate until they were filled, followed by a dialogue with Jesus about the yeast of the Pharisees, which the disciples interpret to be a criticism of their failure to bring bread. Bread and filling, which are missed in the NRSV translation…

This does focus us in one the central theme running through this part of Mark’s gospel, which has to do with bread, eating until you are full, and the ministry of Christ. The use of similar language through the passages is a signal to us that there is a common theme running throughout, and that is why translation is so important to serious bible study. That theme is tied up in bread, and in eating until you are full, the verb in Greek means to be satisfied.

Before we proceed, I want to emphasize that in these feeding dialogues we have to hear the gospel working on several levels at once. These bread stories are talking about bread, and people eating until their stomachs are full, but they’re also talking about panis angelicus the bread of Angels, or the Body of Jesus. As the people sit and eat the miraculous feast, they are also partaking of the body of Christ in the same way that we do when we gather for communion. This is important to keep in mind as we talk about this rather bold Gentile woman.

This encounter with the Gentile woman sounds quite harsh – after pleading her case before Jesus, we hear what sounds like a rebuke coming from the Lord of love and peace…basically that the bread of Jesus is not to be wasted on the dogs that are the Gentiles. This is the place the bread imagery is important, because Jesus is now talking about himself, the bread that came to feed the children of Israel first, and He should not be thrown to the Gentiles. The woman’s bold response is that even dogs lap up the crumbs under the children’s table, and for that answer the demon is forced from her daughter. Why do I state that this encounter is the lens through which we may interpret the bread dialogue? Because in this encounter we see a clear proclamation of Christ’s ministry, first to the nation of Israel, and second to the nation of Gentiles. Jesus has come to bring sustenance to those who are hungry, by first providing literal bread, and second by providing himself.

We hear Jesus’ response as a sharp rebuke, and this encounter is sometimes given modern interpretation in terms of self-esteem. There is no real rebuke of the woman, but rather toward the nation of Israel. This is just another step in the dismantling of the Hebrew religious apparatus that has been Christ’s focus right from the beginning, and if there is a sharp rebuke intended it is for the leaders of the nation of Israel. The Jewish understanding was that the Messiah was coming to rescue God’s people, that is Israel, and any suggestion that he was coming to save everyone, including the dogs that are the Gentiles, would have been considered a heresy. What we’ve seen throughout the text of Mark is a constant pushing back of the boundaries, a removal of the purity regulations, and a proclamation of the Kingdom of God to everyone, and this continues in this encounter. The woman’s response to Jesus shows her great understanding of the coming of the Kingdom…even those who are not of the nation of Israel will partake of the feast that comes in the Body of Christ.

It is hard to read this passage without thinking of a particular prayer in the BCP that is used in every communion service, just before people come to receive the Body of Christ, what we call the prayer of humble access on page 83, “We do not presume to come to this thy table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are no so worthy as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” This is what the Syrophoenician woman says to Jesus. His response to her, as we’ve heard many times before, Go, for your faith has made your daughter well.

What is the Kingdom of Heaven like? We hear this repeated mention of bread, and in each encounter people leave (filled) satisfied. The 5000 are fed, and all are satisfied; the children of Israel are fed, and all are filled; the Gentiles are fed (crumbs), and are satisfied; and the 4000 are fed, and all are satisfied. The Kingdom of Heaven is like an infinite buffet, where all are welcomed, and may eat until they are full…kind of a God of Heaven and Earth Royal Buffet, perhaps. The image is one of great bounty, and satisfaction, filling for all.

The other thing the Syrophoenician woman does is cast into very sharp focus the lack of understanding of the disciples, and this is worth a moment as something very interesting is happening. First off is the contrast between the disciples, and those Jesus heals or frees from demons. Have you noticed that in almost every encounter, Jesus orders those healed or freed to tell no one, and what do they immediately do? // Start telling everyone what happened to them…today we’re told “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” It is an interesting model of obedience, isn’t it? By contrast, when Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone who he is, they seem to be quite obedient. What is happening here is the response of people when they are personally touched by the Kingdom of Heaven – they are filled with so much joy, there is nothing to do but to tell others about it…even when Jesus orders them not to! The disciples, it seems, have not encountered the full weight of the Kingdom in spite of being with Jesus and watching all that goes on, and so they can be obedient. This is a very interesting commentary on the way that we usually look at obedience.

When you consider this with the continuing refrain about the disciples lack of understanding, it poses a puzzling question – why were these people so dim-witted when it came to Jesus? Especially when you know that in a few short months these same disciples become literal powerhouses of the Gospel, and the early church explodes through their ministry and in many cases, through their deaths. Why do they fail to see, when all those healed by Jesus (and the demons cast out) have no problem identifying who he is? My suggestion is that God acts throughout to withhold true understanding from the disciples, for if all of Jesus’ disciples were as eager to promote the Gospel as He was, the state would have probably executed the lot of them all at the same time. By veiling their understanding with ignorance, Jesus protects them so the mission of God will be made apparent after his death and ascension. At the same time, the blindness of the disciples is used to illustrate the blindness of the people of Israel…the difference between the disciples and the Pharisees is that the disciples blindness will eventually be healed, while the Pharisees are left permanently blinded.

This blindness is made very explicit in our reading today. First, the Pharisees come and ask Jesus to provide them a sign from heaven, a way of authenticating his ministry. Of course, we must now ask, what more did they want? Were all of the public miracles not sign enough? When Jesus is asked by John’s followers if he is the one, his answer is to state what has happened…the blind see, the lame walk, that is the Kingdom is proven by healing and life brought to those in need. The blindness of the Pharisees prevents them from seeing, and this is the cause of Jesus’ frustration at this point – the text says, no sign will be given to this generation…while the Greek shows Jesus’ swearing a bit of an oath, literally, may I be cursed if a sign is given to this generation.

The disciple’s blindness next comes to us in this dialogue about bread. Jesus warns them about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. The message is – be careful, for just like yeast, the wrong teaching of the Pharisees is pervasive, throughout everything. The disciples are concerned because they had forgotten to pack enough bread on this trip, and so they interpret Jesus’ to be criticizing them for failing to bring bread. This is almost a Laurel and Hardy type comedic set-up, which is why I suggest that the blindness of the disciples is being done with intent. Jesus rebukes them and says, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” As this comes in the middle of the healing of the deaf man with a speech impediment, and the healing of a blind man we’ll hear next week, the contrast is quite deliberate. While those two had their ears, mouth and eyes opened, the disciples continue to be blind and unhearing.

Jesus asks, Do you not remember? This is an important question for us to hold in mind, as our job as Christians is partly to be those who remember. I often talk about this in the context of remembering soldiers, but our most important task as Christians is to constantly recall the stories and the miracles, to recount the history of God’s people, and how God is bringing those realities into our present lives.

A final word on healing – I’ve been thinking about healing as I’ve benefited from the summary notes that are sent out after their study group on healing in the Bible meets. We have two encounters in this reading, followed by the blind man next week, and the common feature of these that jumped out is the faith of the family and friends of those in need. The Syrophoenician woman comes to Jesus on behalf of her daughter; the deaf man with a speech impediment is bought to Jesus by a group of people, in the text referred to as ‘they’; and the blind man is brought to Jesus by ‘some people’. In each case the healing is brought about after the friends and family bring them for healing…an interesting comment since there is little we hear from those being healed. This offers some suggestion as to our role in community when we are confronted with the sick and suffering – we often invite those with burdens to come forward to receive prayer, when perhaps it is our responsibility as a community to bring those people forward, and to intercede on their behalf. It is also interesting that the Syrophoenician woman is quite persistent, in our text it says she begged Jesus, in other translations it says that she ‘kept asking’, which emphasizes that in some cases we need to be persistent in asking for healing and deliverance.

We have in today’s reading a series of contrasts: the Syrophoenician woman’s faith versus the disciples (she gets it, they don’t); the permanently blind Pharisees versus the temporarily blinded disciples; those who have been filled by God versus the disciples who, even after personal explanation, still do not understand; the Gentiles, the sick and the demons who recognize Jesus versus the people of Israel who do not. The Syrophoenician woman in particular models for us an important lesson of faith – far less important is who you are, who your family is, most important of all is the response of your heart to Jesus, for it is that response that qualifies your relationship with God. Throughout all of this we have an abundant supply of the bread of heaven, which God provides for each of us so that we may be filled and satisfied, in spite of who we might be. That story continues to this day, in the midst of those who gather in Christ’s name, and when we celebrate that miraculous feeding as the community of faith. Amen.

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Written by sameo416

February 19, 2012 at 5:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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