"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Bread for the Dogs

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Preaching in a different pulpit Sunday, filling in for a friend. This is a re-work of a sermon from earlier this year.

Bread for dogs. 9 September 2012, Mark 7:24-37, Trinity 14, St Michael and All Angels, Edmonton

We are going to specifically look at a couple of the themes emphasized in this portion: bread, being filled completely by the Kingdom. The first encounter in this section is with a nameless woman, referred to as a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin that has a daughter possessed of a demon. This is a very important encounter, which continues the work Jesus has been doing – breaking down the barriers between Jew and Gentile, unhinging the massive set of Jewish purity laws, and the encounter serves as the passage that interprets the balance of what you heard last week in the feeding of the 5000.

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/ which has 30 different English translations, including the two I use most often – the New King James version and the English Standard Version. 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”; the next encounter in Mark is 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…

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 filled, 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 insult should not be minimized, and some preachers seek to explain this away by saying that Jesus was being ironic, or that his mind was changed by her faith…which both miss the mark. If you look at the context of chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel which you heard last week, Jesus is in the midst of a series of teaching points about the Jewish purity regulations.

These purity regulations were immense and difficult to maintain…and the problem with becoming impure is that you were restricted from public functions, or even being near others until you restored your state of ritual purity. When we moderns hear these terms, we often start to think about being dirty – we wash our hands after we clean out our cat’s litter box for example to restore cleanliness, but this is not the sense of the purity rules. What happens when one becomes impure in Jewish thought is that you are placed out of the right place and out of right relationship. Worse, if you happen to touch others, they too will be rendered impure. Impurity is dangerous because it exposes you to forces beyond your control, and most serious of all, it makes you an outcast. So we hear repeatedly in the healing narratives that lepers ask Jesus to make them clean, that is to make them pure so they can return to their families.

In last week’s gospel we heard Jesus answer to the Pharisees as to why his disciples ate with defiled hands by quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” This is a worthy caution for us as well, as one of the things we love to do, particularly in organized churches, is to teach as doctrines the rules of humans. Now, on the heels of Jesus engaging these issues of the purity laws he encounters this Gentile woman, who by virtue of her birth was automatically impure, and could not be made ritually pure. Jesus first statement to her is one right out of the mouths of the Pharisees he has just been criticising: “Let the children be filled first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” Jesus takes on the role of the Pharisee here to make a point to those who follow him. It was expected that a Gentile dog’s request would be rejected outright, but that is not what happens.

First, the place of this woman is emphasized for us through a parallel with another healing of a little girl – the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, Jairus (Mark 5:21-43). This was a few weeks back. The point I want you to note is that Jairus is named, and his request is honored without debate. He’s on the inside, ritually pure, and has a clear identity. Immediately after we meet Jairus we hear of the woman with a discharge of blood for twelve years – a condition which would have rendered her permanently ritually impure. She is unnamed, just a woman in the crowd, who should not have been in the crowd because she would render all those who touched her impure. When she touched Jesus, he became ritually impure, and yet she was healed, and made well by faith. When this still unnamed woman disappears, Jesus calls her ‘daughter’. Her faith has made her a true child of God.

Now the Syrophoenician Gentile comes to Jesus, she too is unnamed, and brings a plea for her daughter just like Jairus. For her boldness she is rebuked, and her demon-possessed daughter is called a dog to boot. She responds boldly, pointing out that even their dogs eat the leftovers that fall from the table, and for that faith, she too is a daughter of the Lord, and her daughter is healed.

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 we 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.

This contains important messages for us. It is faith that matters, not who you are. In God’s kingdom the nameless, the unclean, the impure, are made sons and daughters through nothing more complex than faith.

The passage also teaches us about the bread that came down from heaven, Jesus. Note when he addresses the woman he doesn’t reject her, but rather says the bread was there to first fill the children of Israel, that is the Jews. This encounter reflects God’s saving ministry in the creation, 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.

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.

A final word on healing –We have two encounters in this reading and the common feature 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. One of my learning points out of the text is my need to seek out our sick, and to bring them forward for prayer.

We have in today’s reading a series of contrasts: the Syrophoenician woman’s faith versus the disciples (she gets it, they don’t); those who have been filled by God versus the disciples who, even after personal explanation, still do not understand. 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.


Written by sameo416

September 8, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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