Insults. I like insults. I confess it. There is nothing quite so pleasing to an old cynic like me than a well crafted insult.
Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Madam, you are ugly. However, come the morning, I will be sober but you will still be ugly."Priceless, isn't it?
Most families have their own little insults, thrown at each other in fun. When I was a child, I tried to copy my Dad who once called me a "dopey ornament". But I couldn't say it properly, and so from then on we called each other a 'dopey onument'!
In my own family, we have two favourite expressions. If one of us does something stupid, we get called a 'plant-pot'. Don't ask me why...it just works. "You plant-pot!". Our other favourite, is to refer to each other as being as 'mad as a bag of spanners' - which has a certain resonance. Sometimes it gets shortened to 'you spanner'.
But these are all in good fun. Everyone understands the rules...and no-one is offended. We all know, though, don't we that insults can easily cross the line between gentle playful fun, and downright hurt and offence.
Sometimes, the line is very thin...and it can take our children many years to learn how to straddle it. Imagine two children, say a brother and a sister, calling each other playful names. The girl says to the boy "You dog". And everyone around them laughs. The boy thinks this is fun, and tries a response..."If I'm a dog, then you are a bitch". Suddenly, the room falls silent. And the boy finds himself without any supper that night.
Certain words have the power to wound...for all sorts of reasons. Understanding the power of certain words - and especially the more offensive ones - makes it even more surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross insult. And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'.
Jesus appears to be saying that his ministry, his power, his gifts, are meant only for the people of Israel - not for anyone else.
What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me saying that only white people can come to this church. It would be like me saying that God only loves people of my race. There is no other word for it. What Jesus said was, on the face of it, a racist statement.
And this is where we need to have care. Because if we are not careful, we can suddenly find ourselves justifying racism. Last year, as many of you will know, the British National Party put up posters asking 'What would Jesus do?'. They attempted to suggest that their vision of a monochrome Britain is something that Jesus would have supported. And they were following a grand tradition.
This week we have been marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war. Hitler and the Nazis also claimed that God, and Jesus, were on their side...the side of so-called racial purity.
So is there any basis for that assumption? Does this story actually support the idea that Jesus was a racist?
When we read the Bible, we have to very very careful. It is too easy to take individual quotes from pages of the Bible, and then to use them to justify our own position on something. Three words which must always be in our minds when we read the Scriptures are these: context, context, context!
Only a few pages earlier, in verse 8 of Chapter 3, Mark reports that many people came to hear Jesus from all around the area surrounding Galilee - including the towns of Tyre and Sidon which were well known Gentile cities. There is no sign that Jesus tried to send those Gentiles away...in fact he preached God's good news to them as much as to the Jews from Jerusalem and Galilee.
In Chapter 5, Jesus heals the man called Legion, who was said to have many demons inside of him. This man was also a Gentile... living in a region which kept pigs. (As I'm sure you know, Jews would never keep pigs).
At the end of Mark's Gospel, (16:15) Jesus commands his disciples to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation".
So the immediate context of Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus was happy to preach to non-Jews, happy to heal them, and wanted the whole world to know about God.
And that theme is repeated throughout the Gospels.There is a wider context too. John's Gospel, chapter 4, records Jesus' conversation with a Samaritan woman. Men of Jesus' time would hardly ever have spoken to a woman in public...let alone a Samaritan.
So - let's break down the evidence. First we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist. But then, we've got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much hated each other. So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus statement about children and dogs?
Again, I want to drive you back to context. Do you remember what we've heard over the previous weeks from Mark's Gospel? Do you remember how the crowds followed Jesus for all the wrong reasons? Do you remember his theological battles with the Pharisees and Sadducees? He is opposed by his own religious leaders, doubted by his family, followed often for the wrong reasons by the crowd, accompanied by disciples who only partially understand.
At the beginning of this story, Mark tells us that after all these battles, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee. He entered a house and, according to Mark, "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in hiding...trying to get away from it all for a while...needing to get his head together in a quiet place without crowds all around him asking for another miracle.
Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle, a miracle of healing for her daughter. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, tired, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap. One can imagine him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I need to focus on Israel...I need to get them to understand before we can take this message any further". He gropes for a metaphor. Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all they want...".
Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world - Jesus needs to focus on the Jews first.
Then comes the difficult line: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic response. In fact, although we translate the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!
But the woman is more than a match for the tired, worn-out Jesus. And she's desperate to get Jesus to change his mind. So she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".
You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly taken his own metaphor and turned it around in her favour. Mark tells us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter".
So what have we learned from this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?
First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt the cold, like we do. He felt hunger, like we do. He felt tired, and stressed, and worn-out like we do. And, like we do, when he was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things wrong.
There is no sin involved in getting something wrong. Jesus was not sinning when he thought that he should not help this woman. He was simply, for a moment, in error. For Jesus to have sinned, he would have had to continue in his error, after it had been made clear to him.
The same goes for us. It is not sinful to hold a wrong opinion. But it would be sinful to continue steadfastly holding that opinion in the face of truth. That's why the British National Party is an inherently sinful organisation. Every major political party, every major religious teacher, every major philosopher agrees that racial separation is stupid, wrong, and counter-productive to the whole notion of humanity. And yet, the BNP persists. To answer their own question on that awful poster, 'what would Jesus do?', Jesus would have insisted that God's good news of love was a message meant for all of humanity...not just white British people.
Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong. A few weeks ago, while answering one of the 40 or 50 emails which pour into my computer each day, I wrote a line to one of my parishioners which offended her. I said something without giving it enough thought. It doesn't matter what exactly...it was between me and her. Her response, however, was really gracious...The next time she saw me, she took me quietly to one side, and let me know that what I had said was a bit thoughtless. As soon as I realised what she meant, I was mortified. I had intended no insult. But I had been wrong. So I asked for forgiveness...and was willingly given it by a lady who has far more grace accumulated than I do.
That's precisely how we should be towards one another. Recognising that we can all mis-speak from time to time...and being always ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another.
How different that approach is from the approach of so many in our society. One wrong word, one misplaced phrase can be quoted back to us for the rest of our lives. Families get broken up and destroyed because of a wrong word at the wrong time...because some people seem to almost enjoy feeling insulted. They revel in it...and take a sort of warped pleasure at being at war. Nations go to war with each other because of an insult cast by one politician towards another. Just think, for example, what harm was done by George Bush when he referred to a few nations as being part of an 'axis of evil'. Words do matter. Words can hurt. But forgiveness is stronger. Forgiveness is holy. Forgiveness is worth pursuing.
And so, finally, this story drives us on to an essentially Christian imperative. Following our Master, the Christian church must see itself as being totally committed to the breaking down of all barriers that prolong human misery, or which prevent the needy from getting help.
In order to share God's love with a neighbour, we are not expected to agree with their theology, or their life-style.
In order to love a neighbour, we don't have to be the same colour, or the same culture.
In order to love our neighbour, we don’t have to agree with every our neighbour says, or even the words he has used. Jesus was of a different nation to the Syro-Phoenician woman... and yet, as soon as he was challenged by her, he set aside all that, and gave her the help she needed.
In order to love a neighbour, we simply need to get on with the job of loving them.
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