The Long Reach of Grace – Mark 7:24-30
Alright. A show of hands. How many people were bothered or made uncomfortable by this morning’s gospel story about Jesus and the Syrophenician woman? This story hardly matches our image of Jesus, does it? We think of Jesus as a Savior who embodies compassion and kindness. We certainly don’t think of Jesus as someone who calls people “dogs” and appears to harbor ethnic prejudice. So what are we to make of it?
At its core, this is a story about boundaries. Now boundaries are not necessarily bad things. We all know that cliché about how good fences make good neighbors. Britt and I have always had fences around our yard for our dogs. Our concern is not that our dogs will run off. But, without that fence as a physical boundary other dogs and animals can enter our dogs’ safe space. And while most loose dogs are no real threat, one can never be sure… not to mention that there is an occasional coyote in Vinton Woods. Boundaries draw lines around safe space. Boundaries are primal. In fact, that story of Eden (way back in the book of Genesis) reveals that the very first boundary maker was God. He drew a boundary around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Its fruit was off limits and came with a stern warning that “in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.”[i]
Boundaries were synonymous with the Israelite identity. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, chapters 11-15 are known as a Holiness Code or a Manual of Purity. At the opening of Leviticus chapter 19, the Lord speaks through Moses saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’.” To be holy was to be set apart. Holiness was a boundary line that separated God’s people; distinguished them from the cultures and ethnic groups around them.
And so, while we may find Jesus’ comment to the Syrophoenician woman offensive when viewed through the lens of our culture, it would have been completely logical and appropriate to Jesus’ contemporaries.
Indeed, it is not the beginning of this morning’s gospel story that would have been shocking to a first century audience; it is rather the ending that would have caused surprise and even offense. So what happens in this exchange between Jesus and this woman that results in such a liberal, shocking conclusion?
Well, in fact, our gospel writer has been preparing us for this encounter for quite some time. You see the language of holiness has a short hand, so to speak, defined by the words “clean” and “unclean.”
For us, today, the opposite of clean is dirty… as in, literal, physical dirt. We’ve had a lot of rain this summer and sometimes, when my dogs come in from doing their business in the back yard, I need to meet them at the door with an old towel so that I can wipe the uncleanness from their feet, i.e. the mud. With so much rain, mud or wet dirt, is inevitable in my back yard. But, I don’t want dirt in my house… which is why I make every effort to remove it from my dogs’ paws before they enter the house.
But, if you were a Jew in bible times, the word “unclean” would have a different meaning for you. And “cleanness” would be a designation synonymous with holiness.
Now, from the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus confronts and does battle with that which is “unclean.” No sooner does Jesus’ ministry begin than he is confronted by a demon-possessed man – a man who, the gospel writer tells us, has an “unclean” spirit.[ii] Over and over again, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus – like a modern-day superhero – engages in battle with that which is unclean. And, consistently – without fail – Jesus is triumphant. Now, Jesus is triumphant because he is not made dirty by coming into contact with that which is unclean. Instead, when the “clean” Jesus comes into contact with someone or something “unclean,” it is his holiness, his cleanness, which is transferred.
Now here’s what makes this idea of uncleanness and cleanness relevant to this morning’s story: this woman is unclean. She’s defined as a Gentile from Syrophoenicia; a dirty foreigner. And she intercedes, she pleads, for Jesus to combat an unclean demonic spirit that plagues her little girl. She is an unclean, foreign woman entering the holy, consecrated space of Jesus, the Son of God. But remember, it is Jesus’ holiness that spreads pervasively.
This encounter between Jesus and the woman is a “collision,” so to speak, between the clean and the unclean. It is, by normal Jewish standards, a forbidden collision that would contaminate that which is holy. But Jesus defies the standard result for when Jesus encounters the unclean it produces an entirely different result. Jesus can take what is unclean and consecrate it, clean it up.
Yet there is even more to this story for it is a story about faith that is stronger than any boundary line. You know, if I had been this Syrophoenician woman, I have to confess, I would have probably slunk away in humiliation. But, this woman is persistent and persistence, in the gospel of Mark, is equated with faith. It is persistent faith that enables someone to approach Jesus, the one through whom God’s power is at work. This woman has made a request of Jesus and she is desperate for his assistance. She believes Jesus is able to do what she asks of him; so now she need only convince him. But she must be careful and clever. She is a woman engaging in conversation with a male rabbi. She is in dangerous social territory. And, although we do not perceive it as modern Americans, Jesus’ response to her is a challenge of sorts. She must find a way to get what she wants – the healing of her daughter – without disrespecting Jesus’ stated position that his healing power is, first and foremost, intended for the children of Israel. And here is where her faith comes most into play. She does not challenge Jesus’ position. Yet, she believes his power is so abundant, so plentiful, that even the crumbs of it will be adequate to effect her daughter’s healing.
She says, “Lord, even the puppies under the table eat the little one’s crumbs.” In other words, “OK, the dogs don’t get their own freshly baked loaf of bread. I’ll give you that. But, when the little children – in their typically messy fashion – drop crumbs on the floor, no one prevents the puppy dogs from cleaning it up.” The woman doesn’t challenge Jesus’ position that his ministry is primarily to the Jews. But, she demonstrates great faith in the abundance, the plentiful quantity of grace available through Jesus as she ponders aloud: is there any reason why the Gentiles should be denied from cleaning up the leftovers? And, as a result of her very imaginative and faith-filled response, the woman receives exactly what she wants – exactly what she came for. Her daughter is healed.
This woman, a dirty Gentile, becomes an example of faith. She is bold; she is persistent. She puts her all into this request in order for her daughter’s need to be met and, because she does, the limits of God’s grace are stretched out to incorporate those who once seemed out of bounds.
So, what can this story mean for us today? Well, whether we like to admit it or not, we are still a culture with boundaries. There are certain people we struggle to accept. And there are people who consider themselves beyond the boundaries of God’s grace. But this story is a dramatic reminder that boundaries can be broken, they can be transgressed because the healing grace of God is bountiful enough to spill over into all kinds of places. You know, my friends, Jesus’ encounter with this Syrophoenician woman becomes a turning point in Mark’s gospel. From this location in Tyre, Jesus heads to another Gentile area where he will heal a deaf man. From there, he’ll continue through Gentile territory and miraculously feed a multitude of 4,000 people – all of them dirty Gentiles.
This woman, with her dogged faith – pun intended – seems to be the catalyst for Jesus’ ministry to expand and incorporate those people once considered unclean and unworthy of God’s grace. Her willingness to risk herself has a dramatic impact on the reach of God’s grace made manifest in Jesus.
So, could it be, as this story seems to reveal, that we – ourselves – have something to do with the reach of God’s grace? Could it be that we – ourselves – might become the catalysts for boundaries to be broken and God’s grace to spill over into unexpected places? Could that really be? Well, this morning’s story seems to say “yes.” That our God is not a God who pays no attention to our pleas and goes on his way doing his own thing, unmoved by our concerns. But, perhaps God’s grace is brought into “hard-to-reach places" because we do a little reaching, a little stretching, a little risking, of our own. Perhaps God’s grace can be brought into “hard-to-reach places" if we choose to live out a faith that is bold and persistent. Friends, far too often, we are content to let the distribution of God's grace be at God's own discretion. But the Syrophoenician woman was not. And her story challenges such a passive posture of resignation.
Could it be that we, ourselves, have something to do with the expansive reach of God’s grace? Could it be that we, ourselves, might have something to do with the places where God's grace can bring healing and salvation? Could it be? I think it could. This morning's gospel story can issue a challenge to us that, when our faith is persistent and our pleas are earnest, God's grace can flow through us into the "hard-to-reach" places of our world to the people in need of God’s healing touch.
Perhaps this morning you’ve given up on a situation in need of God’s grace; someone you love in need of healing and restoration. Perhaps you’ve lost faith; perhaps you’ve stopped bowing before Jesus to plead for his grace. But I want to encourage you to keep the faith, a faith that is bold and persistent; and to trust and believe that God can still use you – can use us – to pour out his grace into places that may seem out of bounds. God's grace can flow through us into the "hard-to-reach" places of our world and to the people most in need of God’s healing touch.
[i] Genesis 2:17. New Revised Standard Version.
[ii] See Mark 1:21-28
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