Turning the Table
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 7:24-30
So, I wonder how many of you felt uncomfortable or even upset, by this morning’s gospel story and the exchange that takes place between Jesus and this Syrophoenician woman. This story doesn’t seem to present Jesus in a very good light, does it? I mean, we think of Jesus as a Savior who embodies compassion and gentleness. We certainly don’t think of Jesus as someone who goes around calling people “dogs” and appearing to harbor ethnic prejudice. So what are we to make of this story?
Well, within our bible’s gospels, it’s always important to look at each story within its broader context; to consider the stories and events that surround it. This morning’s gospel story follows on the heels of the bible story I preached about last Sunday; a controversy between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders over his disciples’ hygiene. Jesus’ disciples, the Pharisees point out, don’t exercise proper technique washing up before dinner.
Now, that was a story about the important Jewish topic of cleanness versus uncleanness; or, in religious terms, holiness versus unholiness. And being holy – for an ancient Jew – was about separateness; being distinctively set apart from the broader culture.
Let me provide a quick summary of what I shared last week to refresh our memories since – as I say – these two stories are so connected; in fact two stories that cooperatively communicate what the gospel writer wants to teach us about the life and ministry of Jesus.
So, some background for the ancient holiness movement: Somewhere around 586 B.C.E. the Jews in southern Israel were overrun by the nation of Babylon. The city of Jerusalem was ransacked, the temple razed to ruins, and most of Israel's brightest and best were taken into exile. Now, for a long time prophets had been warning the Jewish people that their half-hearted practice of religion, their rampant secularism and disregard for the needy was going to get them into a lot of trouble. And, lo and behold, it turned out the prophets were right.
Once in Babylon, the people had plenty of time to reflect on what had happened. And during those years (and shortly thereafter) is when most bible scholars believe the first few books of Old Testament scripture took organized written form; a form which placed a strong emphasis on Jewish separatism or segregation. From that point forward, the Jewish religious leaders placed renewed emphasis on the distinctiveness of the Jewish faith and lifestyle, a lifestyle that would clearly reveal who they were and whose they were; a lifestyle grounded in their relationship with God.
But over time, some of the religious leaders began to focus more on the lifestyle than they did on the relationship. Now, the Pharisees were a particular group of Jewish religious leaders who sought to interpret and teach Jewish commandments. Some did this well. But for others it became an obsession, a compulsion. They embellished, reinterpreted and supplemented the commands God had given. They became so concerned with the letter of the law that they smothered the spirit of it.
And throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus continually clashes with these Pharisees. But it's not because Jesus wants to discredit the distinctiveness of the Jewish faith. Rather, it’s because Jesus wants to insure that people understand what that distinctiveness is about. It’s a distinctiveness based not on adherence to a set of rules; rather, it's a distinctiveness based on a unique and intimate relationship with God; a relationship of loyalty and trust in the goodness of God and the sufficiency of God’s grace.
So, in the mind of a 1st century Jew, the categories of “holy” versus “unholy” (or profane) and “clean” versus “unclean” defined social spheres; they divided or distinguished those people and things who did and did not belong to God.
Now, from the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus confronts and does battle with that which is “unclean”; with that which threatens to separate and segregate people from one another. No sooner does Jesus’ ministry begin than he is confronted by a demon-possessed man – a man with an “unclean” spirit.[i] 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; a kind of communicable holiness.
In this morning’s story, we have a double dose of uncleanness. This woman and her daughter are unclean because they are Gentiles, not Jews. But in addition, the woman’s daughter has an unclean spirit. Jesus’ encounter with this woman is a “collision,” so to speak, between the clean and the unclean. It is, by normal Jewish standards, a dreaded collision that would result in contamination. But Jesus defies the standard result for when Jesus encounters the unclean it produces an entirely different result.
Now both our bible stories – last Sunday’s story about the disciples’ failure to wash up for dinner and today’s story – are also about table fellowship. In the ancient world – and still today – consuming food is only one piece of what happens when we gather around the table, a complex social process (and remember “holiness” is a social category). Especially in the ancient world, meals were about relationships: community, hospitality and boundaries. And hospitality, at its simplest and most basic, is really about grace. Food, hospitality, generosity and grace are inseparably fused together. In fact, meals – how we eat, where we eat, with whom we eat – are a visible, tangible expression of hospitality, generosity and grace. When we choose to eat with people, we draw them into our social circle. When we choose not to eat with people, we exclude them from our social circle. This was especially true in the ancient world.
So, this morning’s story, like last Sunday’s story of the disciples and their failure to wash up for dinner, focuses on the topic of cleanness and uncleanness; who is in and who is out. In addition, the “table” or a meal is the metaphor employed in the discourse between Jesus and this woman. This woman is seeking the healing grace of Jesus for her daughter who is suffering from an unclean spirit. But Jesus initially proposes that pouring his healing grace out over the life of this unclean Gentile child would be akin to throwing good food intended for one’s children to the dogs under the table… and, let me assure you, dogs weren’t thought of in the ancient world in the same way we think of them today.
Jesus’ likening of this Gentile child to a dog would have been – among his Jewish contemporaries – viewed as an appropriate and effective insult.
If you’ve ever been to impoverished areas of rural Central America you know that, for the most part, the dogs are feral; they’re not treated as pets. They are viewed as predators in competition for precious food resources. When I was about eight years old, the church where my dad pastored hosted a missionary from somewhere in Central America (I can’t remember what country). The missionary joined us in our home for dinner. He seemed uncomfortable with the dog in our home but things were going along pretty well until I, in my naiveté, took food off of my plate (it was a piece of fat from my roast, I didn’t want it) and handed it to my dog under the table. The missionary saw it. His face began to redden. He was angry and couldn’t understand how we would waste good food on our dog. It was, in his mind, a sin.
Likewise, to a good Jewish audience of Jesus’ day, it would have been a sin for Jesus (a Jewish rabbi and messiah) to waste the goodness and luxury of his healing grace on this unclean Gentile dog under the table.
And so, within this story, Jesus – clearly the protagonist and hero of Mark’s gospel – steps out of his leading role and takes on the role of antagonist leaving the role of protagonist open for this nameless Gentile woman who quite smoothly and aptly steps into it. The table has been turned. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus has consistently and cleverly bested the religious leaders when they have challenged and criticized him. They have tried to undermine Jesus’ position with slick theological arguments. But Jesus has always thwarted them with arguments that reveal the inclusiveness of God’s grace and generosity. Jesus has always won the day by proclaiming the spirit, not merely the letter, of the law.
But in this little exchange with the Gentile mother, it is the woman who steps into Jesus’ role as he steps into the role of the Pharisees. “There is a clear boundary here,” Jesus seems to say, “and you are on the wrong side of the line.” And the woman, quite cleverly, doesn’t dispute the fact of who and what she is. But, she asserts, all she really needs is just a crumb to be dropped from the table. Talk about trust! God’s goodness and grace, in the eyes of this woman, is so large, so inclusive, so abundant, all she needs is a crumb to do the trick.
Friends, in two weeks, we’ll launch our fall stewardship campaign entitled Setting the Table for Trinity: How Table Talk Shapes Our Hospitality and Generosity. This morning’s story lays the groundwork for our stewardship campaign and here’s why: as I’ve already noted meals are about relationships and community. They are tangible expressions of generosity and hospitality and grace. The meal stories we read about in our gospels aren’t just about food; they’re about the kingdom of God. The story of the Syrophoenician woman and all the meal stories we read ought to challenge us to consider how we feel and what we believe about the grace of God. Do we really believe everyone deserves it? Do we really believe it’s so abundant it can’t ever run out? Are we bold enough to ask for God’s grace in our own life and in the lives of those we love? Do we understand that – as self-professed Christians –our personal level of generosity communicates to others what we believe to be true about the availability and sufficiency of God’s grace?
Jesus is the protagonist and the hero of the gospel story. But he doesn’t hog the spotlight. He opened up his role to the Syrophoenician woman and he invites us too; to step into the critical role of proclaiming the good news that even the smallest crumb of God’s grace can save the life of anyone and everyone.
[i] See Mark 1:21-28
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