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Sermon, September 5, 2021 – Pentecost 15

Just a Crumb

This morning’s Gospel brings us two different healing stories they occur outside of Jesus’ home territory, one of them will affect the course of the Church’s history. 

Today’s Gospel passage includes two healing stories in Tyre and Decapolis — Gentile territories historically hostile to Jews — illustrating that the reign of God cannot be contained by cultural and social biases and boundaries.

When Jesus arrived in Tyre, he sought privacy; but reports of Jesus’ fame had spread, and “he could not escape notice” (7:24). Thus, when a local woman, a Syrophoenician Gentile, bowed down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal her daughter of an “unclean spirit” (v. 25; cf Mt. 15:21-28), Jesus initially harshly denied her request. He had come to feed the children (Jews) and not the dogs (Gentiles). Dogs were unclean animals, and to be called a dog was an insult. But the woman continued to press her case, replying that even the dogs are allowed leftovers. She did not challenge the priority of the Jews but pointed also to the claims of the Gentiles.

Jesus gives in to the woman’s argument, declaring that her daughter had been healed “for saying that” (v. 29). The deliverance took place instantaneously and from a distance. When the woman returned home, her child was healed and lying in bed. This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus was “bested” in an argument. In her persistence and expectant hope, this unnamed woman stood her ground and used Jesus’ own words to her advantage. The dogs under the table were already sharing the children’s bread. Soon they would cease to be dogs and become children alongside the others.

The focus here is not so much on exorcism itself as on the establishment of a basis for the mission to the Gentiles. Jesus’ actions had broken down boundaries of geography, gender, ethnicity, and religious purity in order to extend the Kingdom of God to all who would receive it.

It’s not fashionable to cower before the Divine Presence. That’s good in one way. For generations, cowering I’m not worthy became an excuse for not taking risks on behalf of the Gospel and acting on behalf of justice and peace in the world.

On the other hand, there’s a kind of arrogance in current cultural Christianity that postures, “I’m forgiven once and for all, so my exploitation of others in search of my abundance and personal salvation doesn’t count.” … Both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross suggest that the closer you come to mystical union, the more is at stake with sin and temptation. The closer you come to mystical union, the wider the sphere of love of God and neighbor. And, while Divine Presence may be more profoundly intimate, the concept of God may be more profoundly remote and incomprehensible.

I grew up with the “Prayer of Humble Access” from the Methodist Hymnal and comes from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer which imprinted on my soul an allusion to the Canaanite woman. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table.” I loved this prayer as a child, an adolescent, a young adult. And while I deeply appreciate the liturgical reform that erased it from the communion service, I hope I still approach the table once in a while with awe and fear of God.

The Canaanite woman shatters Jesus exclusionary mindset. But she also appreciates what she was asking for. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk. 7:27-28).

She did not cower before Jesus. Nevertheless, I know that from time to time I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from beneath the table. I hope I am continuing to learn when to repent quietly alone and when to act boldly in the world. —Suzanne Guthrie in Soulwork Toward Sunday (9/2/2012).

The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov (the “possessor of the good name”), was a hero of the poor and oppressed. His flock consisted of Eastern European Jewish peasants in the early eighteenth century during the pogrom years. The Baal Shem Tov and his later Hasidic disciples rejected elitism and the intellectual squabbles of rabbinical schools, teaching that the simplest people and prayers were God’s favorites. The Baal Shem Tov claimed that “The lowest of the low you can think of, is dearer to me than your only son is to you.”

Our Gospel today also rejects elitism and opens the door to healing to those who come with the most basic needs and prayers. It begins with Jesus coming face to face with a Gentile woman pleading for the healing of her sick daughter. The woman, perhaps despite identifying with the “lowest of the low,” has heard about Jesus and musters the courage to come to him and beg him to cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus seems to “put her in her place” by speaking of it not being right to give children’s food to “dogs.”

But Gordon McMullan comments in Reflections on Mark’s Gospel (Enniskillen, N. Ireland: Clogher Diocesan Publ., 1983) that although “these words sound harsh and unresponsive,” it may help to know that “the word translated dogs is one that Jews frequently used in reference to Gentiles and reflected the normal state of racial and religious division between Jews and non-Jews.”

He continues: “Possibly, in employing this well-known language of Jew about Gentile, Jesus was purposely using terms that the woman would understand as refusal to help. There was also explanation in the words of Jesus, for He was saying that God’s salvation was through His chosen people and until that mission to the Jews had been completed it must remain His chief involvement.”

Or, it might also have been a testing of the woman’s character and spiritual strength. If so, she excelled in her response. She gave back in kind, demonstrating assertiveness and persistence on behalf of the child she loved and wanted to see made whole.

Whatever the slant of our reading of it, this passage makes us uncomfortable. We are challenged to consider how often we ourselves disregard the “simplest” and the “plainest” prayers — petitions that reach all the way down to the disenfranchised and desperate people that populate our own world. And we are perhaps wondering which prayers we simply neglect to hear.

This lays the foundation for the Church’s position of inclusiveness because it gives us our place at the table, along with ALL of our brothers and sisters – no matter what differences may appear. Therefore, instead of scrounging for crumbs, we feast together as one great human family.

Amen.

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