Pastor Roger Barkley explores the challenging question of why Jesus called the Syrophoenician woman a “dog” – a clear racist slur at the time. Along the way, he explores our response the Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and how national church leaders are using their positions to intensify tribalism and mistrust.
Jesus Is Called-out for Using the “D” Word
Mark 7:24-30 October 7, 2018
Jesus Is Called-out for Using the “D” Word
Mark 7:24-30 October 7, 2018
The passages leading up to today’s reading from Mark 7 saw Jesus’ healings and teachings attracting ever larger crowds, as well as increasing hostility from the religious establishment.
That’s why he needed some R-and-R and so headed to the Phoenician seaside town of Tyre.
But he no sooner starts to unpack his bags than a local woman barges-in with an urgent demand that he free her daughter from an unclean spirit.
Their exchange is one of the most challenging in the New Testament as Jesus comes across as rude, uncaring and a bit of a racist.
Mark 7:27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
His flippant response to a desperate woman is not the kind of pastoral response we’d expect of chaplain Jani Ito, who preached here a few weeks ago.
But it gets worse, because the word “dog” was a racist insult that a Jewish man of the time might hurl at a Gentile.
It’s the kind of language that was chanted in Charlottesville last year.
So, how do we reconcile the Jesus we see in this passage with the Jesus we sing about, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight”?
If you’re confused, you’re not alone.
Commentators to try to explain it away with some questionable hermeneutic maneuvers.
For example, they may soften the translation of the demeaning word “dog” to “puppy”.
This makes it sound like Jesus is being affectionate, not insolent.
You know, like “sorry little pup, but it’s just not your time yet.”
But frankly, whether “puppy” or “dog,” it’s still an obnoxious thing to call a panicked mom who’s begging for your help.
Another way to rationalize Jesus’ snarky attitude is to say that he’s merely testing her faith.
But, honestly, why does this desperate woman, who’s already demonstrated great courage and faith by coming to Jesus alone, bowing at his feet, and begging him for healing need further testing, let alone in such a demeaning way?
These word games may prop-up our comfortable images Jesus but they rob us of a deeper understanding of Jesus and what it means to follow him.
So, here’s the rub: if we allow the text to honestly speak for itself, then we are up against a basic question that challenges our faith:
Did Jesus Christ, Son of God, actually change his mind about what is right, and even change his mind about how expansive the Kingdom of God really is?
To unpack this question, let’s start by remembering that one of the foundational tenets of the Christian faith is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.
That is the central affirmation of the Christian faith and part of our ancient creeds.
Among other things, being fully human means that Jesus experienced all of life as we do: he suffered pain, felt temptation, and died a real death.
At the same time, being fully divine means that Jesus is the Son of God who brings healing and hope to the world, and whose sacrifice brings salvation for all who believe.
But his divinity does not mean that he somehow floated above the human experience only pretending to experience the joys and traumas of human life.
No, Jesus was actually tempted in the desert, he actually needed to rest, and he actually suffered an excruciating beating and crucifixion.
Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and to take this basic affirmation seriously, we have to allow the human Jesus to learn and to grow.
That means, for example, that the teenage Jesus actually learned the family trade from his family – right?
Either that or Jesus was born as the most proficient carpenter in all of history and was just faking it every day as his dad taught him how to cut a straight edge, and make a dovetail joint.
So, if Jesus needed to learn his woodworking skills just like every other carpenter, then isn’t it logical that he also learned about his own expectations of ministry while doing them?
As a Jewish man raised in a Jewish village of the first century, he started-out with the same assumption that everyone else in his village held: that God cared less about Gentiles than about His own chosen people.
But at the same time, being fully divine, he was able to quickly see beyond the prejudices that we struggle to get over.
Okay, but since Jesus was fully divine, we next must ask if God can actually change His mind.
If God is all knowing, then can God be persuaded to change course?
Well, actually the Bible has several accounts of God being persuaded to change His course of action.
One example was in Exodus 32 when God has run out of patience with the rebellious people that He’s led from slavery.
They had just unveiled a golden calf idol to worship and an exasperated God announces to Moses that He’s going to destroy the lot of them.
But Moses intervenes with a three-point argument of why they should be spared, and God relents.
Just as Moses confronted the Lord to save his people, the Syrophoenician woman confronts Jesus to save her daughter.
Mark 7:28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
A subtlety lost in translation from the Greek is that when Jesus speaks of “children” he uses the word teknon which refers to biological children.
That’s the racial slur: your people are like those dirty, scrawny animals we see going through the garbage on the fringes of town.
But the woman responds with the word paidion which includes children of the entire household, including servants and slaves.
And with that, Jesus reverses his opinion and grants the healing of her daughter.
Now notice that Jesus doesn’t say that her faith was the deciding factor.
Pointedly, this is not a “your faith has healed you” incident, this exchange was not a test of faith.
This is what Jesus says:
Mark 7:29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
Jesus applauds the case she has made – she’s won the debate and changed his mind and it becomes a turning point in his ministry.
It’s no coincidence that shortly after this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus crosses to the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee, the place where Jews feared to tread and feeds people there, now incorporating both Jews and Gentiles into the New Community of Christ.
What we witness here is Jesus taking a giant step beyond simple compassion.
You see, when Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, he heard not only the truth of her reality, he also faced the brokenness of his own culture’s reality.
Can you think of any ways that this incident might apply to us, today?
The famous WWJD bracelets – What Would Jesus Do? – challenge us to do as Jesus does.
Usually these are talked about as reminders to be nice, polite, and to keep certain moral standards.
But I challenge us to go deeper and do more:
For us to follow Jesus, we must do as he did with the Syrophoenician woman: hear the reality of oppressed people, and then also face the brokenness of our society and the assumptions we’ve inherited about what is right.
Even our cultural assumptions that led to their oppression.
That’s what Jesus did, but it’s not what we are seeing from many of our church leaders.
It’s not enough that our political leaders fuel our conflicts with name calling and divisive half-truths, even national leaders of Jesus’ church are ratcheting-up name calling and the demonizing of opponents.
One example: last week, Franklin Graham, whose father was a model of morality and civility, called people who questioned Judge Kavanagh’s qualifications “God haters”.
I don’t care what your politics are, or which side of the Kavanaugh debate you took, I just don’t see how those kinds of accusations help deliberations, bring healing to our polarized country, or model the real message of Jesus.
Rather it is another example of how recent politics have weaponized Jesus.
That is using his church to fuel tribalism, which is contrary to everything Jesus taught.
And part of the tragic fallout of all this is that increasing numbers of people want nothing to do with the church.
What can you and I do?
Other than campaigning for and contributing to candidates we feel represent our ideals … on a daily basis, not a lot.
I have friends, though, who are essentially consumed by their frustrations and fears.
Some have joined the name calling.
That is neither healthy for them nor helpful for national healing.
On a daily basis, what we can do is personal ministries of compassion.
Michael Barrett prepared a list of ideas of where you could spend a few hours a week doing what Jesus actually taught about.
And of course, there are lots of ways to help right here in our own church.
The point is, Jesus spoke to the part of each person’s soul that is wired for doing compassion.
He wants that part of our soul to come alive both for the sake of the needy and for ourselves.
Beyond the daily acts of compassion, there are times when the example of Jesus in today’s narrative calls us to do something more.
In World War II, Bulgaria was allied to Germany, by a formal agreement made in 1941.
This agreement allowed German military bases inside Bulgaria, in exchange for returning to Bulgaria lands that had been in dispute between the two countries.
Members of the Bulgarian government who wished to implement Hitler’s “final solution” planned to begin the first phase by deporting all the Jews from those returned lands to Germany’s concentration camps.
When parliament minister Dimitar Peshev, heard of this plan he gathered other representatives and marched into the office of the Minister for the Interior, and pressured him to rescind the order, which he did.
But the telegrammed order was not received in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, where Jewish people were herded into the school auditorium, to await deportation by train to Germany.
Hearing of this, Metropolitan Kyrill, the head of the local church acted immediately.
He sent a telegram of protest to the king, threatening to lie across the tracks in front of the first train to leave with Jews.
He then went to the school but was barred entry by the police.
Announcing that he no longer felt bound by immoral laws of the government he would act according to his conscience as a minister of Christ.
Kyrill climbed the school fence promising the Jews gathered there “Wherever you go, I’ll go.”
Some time after, the order not to deport the Jews arrived at Plovdin and they got to return to their homes.
Meanwhile, Nazi sympathizers railroaded a vote to expel Dimitri Peshev from parliament.
With that, the Gestapo pressured the king into an order that Jews be expelled from cities into the Bulgarian countryside.
Their strategy was to stir up anti-Semitism in the country that would allow the deportations to go ahead.
It was at this point that Father Stefan, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, came into his own.
He convened a meeting of his church’s Synod which unanimously condemned the order to move Jews into the countryside.
The government made plans to go ahead with the deportation anyway, scheduling it for a day of national holiday, hoping that the deportation would go unnoticed among the day’s festivities.
But Father Stefan would have none of this.
As head of the national church it was his job to officiate during the celebrations.
Standing on the steps of the cathedral, a large crowd lay before him including the prime minister and other members of the government.
He tossed his ceremonial speech aside, and strongly condemned the persecution of the Jews and called on the government to resist the influence of the Nazis.
The Prime Minister rose to denounce him and called on the priest to stop interfering in political matters.
He said that the deportation to country areas would proceed, but Stefan was unbowed.
In the face of threats to arrest him he offered to baptize all Jews who wished to, meaning they could not be deported to Germany.
But the government refused to recognize the baptism certificates and ordered the police to close all the churches.
Father Stefan stood firm that his Churches would ignore the order and remain open for worship and that they would continue to preach the message of Jesus.
Fearing a public backlash, the government eventually backed down.
The churches remained open until the end of the war and tens of thousands of Jews were allowed to remain in Bulgaria.
We are called to daily acts of compassion and sometimes disciples of Christ need to risk and stand for justice in the face of nationalism.