Mark 7: 24-37 and James 2.1-17
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?
We all know, though, don't we, that insults can easily cross the line between gentle playful fun, and downright hurt and offence. Which is why it is quite surprising – even shocking - 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 people of my race can come to this church. What Jesus said was, on the face of it very ethno-centric. (Which of course means – centred, or focused on one particular ethnic identity).
But when we read the Bible, we have to be 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. There are three words which must always be in our minds when we read the Scriptures: (you know what they are…) context, context, context!
First the context of the story. 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 the pigs into which the demons were sent, over a cliff. (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 an entirely inclusive figure. He clearly wanted all peoples 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. That was an astounding thing for Jesus to do. Men of Jesus' time would hardly ever have spoken to a woman in public...let alone a divorced Samaritan woman! So, the context of the story is that Jesus was anything but ethno-centric.
Then there is the context of the writer. What was Mark trying to say by telling this story? Well we don’t know much about John Mark – the assumed-writer of this Gospel. Legend tells that he was a disciple of Peter, and that his Gospel is essentially a transcription of Peter’s memories of events. But we can’t be sure. What we do know is that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel, perhaps 20 or 30 years after Jesus, the message of the Kingdom had already crossed many national borders. Peter was probably in Rome, and Paul had been travelling all around the Mediterranean, following Jesus’ command. So, this Gospel was written to be heard and received by people of many nations.
We cannot know, but we can infer that Mark’s purpose in telling this particular story was to underline the universality of Jesus’ message – by showing Jesus himself wrestling with the issue. In the early days of Christianity, there was a great deal of discussion about whether the new Faith was intended for the Jews alone. Jewish Christians wondered, for example, whether uncircumcised Gentiles could enter the Kingdom. I think we can infer, with good cause, that this story was Mark’s way of saying ‘you know - even Jesus wrestled with that question’. But, Jesus’ dialogue with a Gentile woman in need served to confirm his basic instinct. It was an instinct already proved by the preaching he had already been doing Gentile cities: that the Kingdom of God is for all humanity.
So, we’ve examined the context of the story. We thought about the context of the writer. What is the third context we need to examine? Our context. What does this story say to us? What does it speak into our context?
The heart of this story is the Universality of the Kingdom of God. Although Jesus, and his message, springs from Jewish roots (and through the lens of Jewish thought) it is a message for the whole world. The benefits of the Kingdom are not meant for a privileged few. God’s Kingdom of Love reaches out to all humanity. This is an insight we do well to remember, especially when we start to wonder whether the benefits of a Christian country, founded on Kingdom principles should (or should not) be made available to those seeking help and shelter from other parts of the world. On a local level, it’s a message we need to hear when we think about how we use this building, or the wider resources of the parish. Are they meant only for we who gather in church for an hour on a Sunday morning? Or are the resources of the Kingdom of God meant for all?
Secondly, in a more inter-personal context - I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things out of balance, or use perhaps hasty words at times of stress. It’s good to recognise that we are all human, although we all, with Jesus contain a Divine spark. But in our humanity, we can all mis-speak from time to time...and we all need to be ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another.
So, in our context, we have (first) the idea that the benefits of the Kingdom are intended for all humanity. Secondly, we are reminded to always act with forgiveness and compassion towards each other. These are the central themes of the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman. Those are the conclusions we take, from the context of the story, the context of the writer, and our context too. All three, held together in harmony. These are ideas to live by. These are even ideas to die for.
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