Scripture: Mark 7:24-37
Every so often at work we have to go through a period of time to retrain. During this time every one of the employees must sit, listen to a lecture, and answer questions. During this time every employee groans because once a year they have to redo everything, and at the same time get all the work they are required to do finished.
If you work for a company or have ever worked for a corporation you have probably had to do something like this. But there is one course that seems to really irritate many, the training on harassment. It is not that employees want to harass people or be harassed, but the irritation comes because after this you feel as if you cannot even speak to anyone without the potential of losing your job, or facing prosecution.
Harassment, diversity, and political correctness have been hot topics over the past few years. In most case these topics should be approached with great caution. We do not want to cause unnecessary harm to those around us. The problem is that it is nearly impossible to create an environment that is totally free from all forms of harassment or political incorrectness. It is possible to create an environment that is manageable thought. The difference between an environment trying to be free from all harassment and a manageable environment is balance. A harassment free environment is a place that can become just as hostile as one with little concern for political correctness. I have actually been in this sort of environment, one where everyone sits in total silence while eating lunch because they are afraid of being reported to management for harassment.
I am saying this not because I support an environment of harassment but because to create a manageable requires time and open communication. There must be a place that people feel free to speak without great threat. There must also be a space of time for people to adjust to a new way of thinking.
Jesus lived in a time and place that was full of racism, nationalism, patriotism, and religious bigotry. If we feel that these issues are bad today you would be surprised at how bad these issues were in ancient times. Even in the religious community, the community that we base our Christian ethic on was one of the most discriminating groups in the ancient world. Just think for a moment the greatest temple in the ancient world was built to honor the Hebrew God. Its beauty and greatness was spoken of by not only by Hebrews, but also the Romans. It was considered one of the greatest buildings in the entire known world. As a house of worship there was not a rival, yet it was a place reserved for only one group of people. Only the Jews could enter into this place of worship, if you were not Jewish, you could only marvel at its greatness from the outside and imagine what the beauty was on the interior. To distill this down to the most basic elements the temple was a house of racism. It is hard for me to even say that because history has treated the Hebrew culture very harshly. Religion, the religion that focused on the one true God was racist. Or was it?
In ancient Israel the racism was so dense that many would completely avoid certain areas of geography because the people that lived there were not of pure ethnic ancestry. It was not the fault of the Samaritans that their ancestors intermarried with the invaders of the past. They believed and worshiped the same God as those in Jerusalem, but they did not do it the same way. So not only were they discriminated over their race, but also religion.
There were other areas avoided. Three great ancient empires defeated Israel before they returned to their land. The Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom; the Babylonians defeated the southern kingdom. Some were taken to Babylon while others were left in the area. Many of those left behind were the ancestors of the Samaritans, while those taken into exile became what we know as the Jews, but the third empire then over threw the Babylonians and now they were under the rule of the Persians. It was the Persians that allowed the Jews to return to their land. The Jews rebuilt the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. The Samaritans worshiped in another area, and they still worship there today. Then even the great Persian Empire fell to the Greeks lead by Alexander the Great.
This fourth empire, the one that colonized Israel after they returned to their land, set up cities throughout the conquered lands, and in these cities they taught the Hellenistic worldviews. The Hellenistic people would move into these cities, and now Greeks live among the Jews. Tyre is one of these areas. Jesus goes to this city. He tries to go in secret but word gets out. If you can imagine this would be pretty big news. The religious community was exclusive. Adherers to this religion did not mix socially with the outsiders, and a rabbi to visit their city was nearly unheard of. Jesus faced this culture. This culture was weighed heavily by discriminating ideas, yet in the center of all of this was one woman who was unconcerned with what was politically correct, the only thing on her mind was the wellbeing of her daughter.
Jesus and this woman lived in the center of a culture war. They spoke, acted, and lived in solidarity with the world around them. The woman takes a chance and enters into this room to the presence of Jesus, surrounded by people that hate her. They hated her because of her ethnic background, her religious background, and her gender. What does she actually expect? She falls down at the feet of this great rabbi, the rabbi that taught about God in a way different than the others. The rabbi that could cast out demons and heal various diseases. To this woman there was an opportunity, to release her daughter from bondage. She braves the ridicule of the culture, because the goal was more important than anything else. And she asks a question.
Imagine the scene before we continue. Imagine every group of people that rubs you the wrong way. Imagine those individuals covered in tattoos, people with piercing, the single mother with children of mixed ethnicity, or maybe someone holding hands with someone of the same gender. Imagine these people openly, what are you seeing? Are you seeing a person or a stereotype? Are you willing to speak with this person respecting them as they are? I ask this because this is what everyone in this room with Jesus is going through. This woman challenges every aspect of their religion as she comes into the room, and they must deal with their prejudices.
She is there on Jesus’ feet begging for him to heal her daughter. Jesus knows the tension weighing down in the environment, but his response is somewhat disturbing. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” After two thousand years we may not notice how politically incorrect this statement is. Not only is he calling her and her family and culture dogs he is stating to her that the Jewish culture is better. It is a statement that is hostile, harassment in any way that you look at it. Yet it is open and manageable. The culture is what it is. Neither group can artificially or force change. So Jesus speaks into the current culture, He does not judge, condemn, or support any aspect of that culture but he meets them all where they are. It is at that point that one can start to change the culture. Meeting and speaking to the community where they currently are, teaching them the truth and starting them on a journey into the Light of God.
I am reminded of the vision of Isaiah when he saw of the glory of God and says, “I am undone, I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips.” Jesus left His place in heaven, to live among mankind. He came to bring reconciliation between God and Mankind. To reconcile, to bring real lasting peace among enemies you must first enter into a conversation, in honesty and respect, accepting them for who they currently are and encouraging growth. Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God, to spread the influence and reign of God throughout humanity. Jesus is sitting in this room of prejudiced people on both sides and says, “you don’t take the food from kids and give it to the dogs.” Jesus is saying in this statement, that redemption comes through the Jewish people. They were the people through which God was revealed. They by default would be the first in line, for no other reason than that they were waiting.
God is not only for the people of Israel. When the nation first came into the Promised Land an inn owner named Rehab was accepted into the community because she believed in the God of the Hebrews. A Moabite named Ruth was accepted into the community saying that her mother-in-law’s people would be her people and their God her God. Even the great lawgiver, Moses, married not one but two non-Hebrew women. It is odd that I mention women and not men, but in the Hebrew tradition true Jewish heritage is based not on the father but the mother. It is the mother that carries the child and gives birth, and before paternity tests were invented the mother was the only parent that could be proven without doubt. So in each of these cases the children resulting from these marriages should not have been accepted as pure, yet they were. God in the Old Testament was a God for all people.
The woman and all present knew of this history. Even the Pharisees taught that Gentiles could become part of the community. The woman replies to Jesus, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She knew that through the imperfect eyes of humanity she would never be seen as equal, but she hoped that God would provide grace. Both spoke in parable, in a figurative way using common language and visualizations to express their faith. We have all seen dogs or other pets eat the things that are dropped from the table, it is the same food as on the table. She spoke great theological knowledge in an almost flippant way. The grace of God, the bread of life is the same food that nourishes all people, if it is found on the table or down in the dirt. Jesus, I am sure enjoyed this meeting of wits. And in this conversation both spoke to the heart of prejudice. To God all people are equal; there are not slaves nor free, Jews or Greeks, men or women. Though we may have prejudices God does not. Though we may see dogs not worthy of God’s grace, God sees something totally different.
I speak of prejudice, harassment, racism, and bigotry, among other really dark words that remind us of our darker history as humans. I speak of these because Christ came to set us free from all bondage. If we do not see the humanity of another we are living in bondage, and when we judge and condemn we may actually keep others from experiencing the grace of God.
Paul says, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived? Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
This is who we were. This is the lifestyle that each of us struggles to walk away from on our journeys to God. We may be a few steps closer but we are not totally free from the threat of bondage. The only way to be free is to build peace with God and mankind. Those we imagined just a few moments ago are broken and hurting people loved by God, people for whom Christ died for to provide the way of salvation. They hunger and thirst for many things both physical and spiritual. The forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil bind them and they are in need of someone to point them to their redeemer.
As we enter into this time of open worship I ask us each to consider what we would do if someone like this woman came into our meeting. Would we help them along the journey of faith in Christ or would we toss them out to the dogs? It is a hard question but one we must answer if we truly want to be a community Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living Christ’s Love with others.