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?
In my own family, we have two favourite expressions. If one of us does something stupid (usually me) we get called a 'plant-pot'. Don't ask me why...it just works. "You plant-pot!".
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.
Certain words have the power to wound...for all sorts of reasons. Which is why it is quite 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 people of my race can come to this church. What Jesus said was, on the face of it, a racist statement.
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: 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 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 happy to preach to non-Jews, happy to heal them. 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 - 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 Jesus was up to in the earlier pages of Mark's Gospel? Do you remember how the crowds followed him 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 all the wrong reasons by the crowd, accompanied by disciples who only partially understand.
At the beginning of this particular story – about the Syro-Phoenician woman, 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 retreat...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 a 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 the 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 turned his own metaphor against him. 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 in itself to hold a wrong opinion. But it would be sinful to continue steadfastly holding that opinion in the face of revealed truth. When strong science, or the Holy Spirit, reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply wrong, we sin when we refuse to change our mind – to repent, to turn around, to face in the new direction of truth.
Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong. It’s good to recognise that we are all human… 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 whole family of 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.
Finally, I need to say this: there is a final sharp irony about this story being read on this particular Sunday. The Syro-Phoenician woman came from an area of the Middle East which is broadly the same as modern-day Syria. As we sit in comfort around our Sunday dinner tables today, perhaps we will spare a thought for the modern-day Syrians…including those who are walking from Budapest to Germany at this very moment, and those who have set off in leaky tubs across the Mediterranean. Could it perhaps be said of us, the children of Europe, that we are in danger of only throwing scraps to the poor ‘dogs’ of Syria?
If that is indeed what we think, in the face of all the teaching of Scripture about welcoming the stranger and giving protection to the alien in our land, then we sin. And God help us if we treat the children of Syria like dogs.
Let me conclude by letting the words of the the Letter of James ring in our ears: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace:keep warm and eat your fill', and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, it it has no works, is dead."