Sunday, September 9th, 2012
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 7:24-37
“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy table.”
This line, from the “Prayer of Humble Access,” the prayer that is offered by priest and people in the traditional Anglican liturgy, just moments before receiving Communion, is rarely used any more. It is thought that having moved through the liturgical journey of hearing God’s most holy word, professing our faith, confessing our sins and hearing the words of absolution, that it now seems inappropriate to return to lamenting our unworthiness. Yet, when we realize that these words are rooted in a particular story from the life of Jesus, and when we delve into that story, we begin to understand why we might wish to reclaim these words as an important moment in our liturgical prayer.
In the seventh chapter of St. Mark, Jesus goes into the region of Tyre, that is, gentile territory. Characteristic of Jesus’ modus operandi in St. Mark’s gospel, he wishes to conduct himself in secret. He does not wish anyone to know that he is there and so he slips into a house. But as is always the case, he does not escape the notice of those who have heard of his wonder-working power. A Syro-Phoenician woman, a gentile, whose daughter was possessed of an evil spirit sought him out. As any mother in distress might, she threw herself at the feet of the man who might prove to be the only hope for her ailing daughter. And what would you or I expect Jesus to do? Would we not think that he would rush to the daughter and cast out the demon? Would we not think that he would look with great compassion and empathy on the mother who was so deeply grieved and troubled? Would we not think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, would offer her words of hope and comfort? We would expect all these things, therefore, how amazed, and yes, how distressed we are to hear Jesus utterly dismiss her. How saddened we are that he offers not a word of compassion but a word of rebuke. How disgusted we are when we realize that he not only rebukes her but compares her child to a dog. To her plea to cast the demon out of her daughter, he dismissively and disturbingly responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!”
What are we to make of this? Oh, it would be so easy just to ignore this passage, explain it away as later interpolation, because the Jesus we love and serve would never have said, could never have said such a thing. Oh it would be easy to suggest that these first century words were offered in a different way than we understand today, and that they might have been heard in a different way than we would hear them today, but the reality is this: the historical distance only serves to starken the words, not soften them. In ancient times, dogs were not the lovely animals that we have domesticated today. They were not “man’s best friend.” They were scavengers who roamed the countryside and streets to devour whatever they could find that had been recently killed or thrown away. Some modern commentators have suggested that because Mark uses the Greek diminutive term for dog that perhaps Jesus is make a more pleasing comparison of the little girl to a little puppy. This is not so. His words are harsh. Why would he compare the Syro-phoenician woman and her child to dogs?
There is an old rabbinic tradition that those who were not schooled in the study of the Jewish Law, namely the gentiles, were often referred to as dogs. The woman is specifically identified as a gentile and thus, she clearly fits into this definition. While this perhaps increases our understanding of why Jesus says such a thing, it does not soften his words. Likewise, there is another clue to understand Jesus’ words that is found in his use of the word “first.” “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In several other contexts in Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses the term “first” to explain an eschatological reality, that is, how things are unfolding in the end times. For example, the strong man (i.e., Satan) must first be bound; or using his harvest metaphor, “first, the grain and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear.” In this sense, time unfolds in its proper order, certain things must happen first in order for the fullness of God’s plan to unfold and the kingdom to truly come. In this reading, the gospel must first be preached to the Jews, and only then will the gentiles “come to thy light” as Isaiah had pophesied.
Yet, even with this level of understanding, the words are still harsh and unforgiving. But let us turn for a moment from those harsh words of Jesus to the response of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Before we do, though, think for a moment what you might have done if you had thrown yourself at the feet of Jesus and he had rebuked you as a dog. What would you have done? Would you have left in sorrow? Would you have quietly slipped away, regretting how vulnerable you had made yourself, only to be abused? Would you wish that you had never even tried, and simply returned home to nurse your ailing daughter as best you could on your own? Perhaps we would have responded in such a way, but the remarkable thing is that this woman did not. Perhaps she was gripped by anger. Perhaps her resolve to see her daughter healed is what drove her to continue to press Jesus. Perhaps it was her sense of justice in the face of what she took to be his unjust rebuke. Whatever it was that drove her, she did not stand down. She faced him. She cleverly and adeptly transformed his parable, his metaphor, to her own just purpose. And what did she say? Her answer was brilliant, “My Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
The sheer and utter brilliance exhibited by this woman is remarkable. She did not demand a place at the table. She did not claim an honour beyond her place. She did not even ask for something unrealistic. She only stated the truth. Even the dogs are fed. “I may be unworthy,” she states, “but I still need to eat.”
The Syro-phoenician woman touched a truth that is universal. We all need the benevolence of others. None of us can get through this life under our own strength and power alone. We need others to help us, support us, encourage us, nourish us. Sometimes those things are offered lovingly, and sometimes they are offered resentfully, sometimes they are even offered unknowingly or thoughtlessly, like those who throw the scraps to the dogs. However this help comes, when we are starving, when we are helpless, we grasp at it wherever we can find it.
It is not enough to leave it here, though, for the Syro-Phoenician woman also touched another truth, and this is something that is true about God. She reminded Jesus that we have to do with a merciful God, not a God who expects us to get it right, to follow all the rules perfectly, or even to be a part of a chosen, select group. We have to do with a God whose property is always to have mercy. This is what she reminds Jesus, and this is the thing that touches Jesus’ heart, for Jesus knows she speaks the truth.
And when we consider this text in its context in the Gospel of Mark, we realize that this is where things have been moving all along! Remember that last week Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for ignoring the spirit of the Law by embracing oral traditions in contrast to the Law? Recall that he turned the purity laws upside-down by suggesting that it is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean but what comes out of them? Think back and remember that Jesus had just redefined the boundaries of who was at the table and who was not, and he had opened the doors and broken down the barriers. The woman who approached him this day did not ask him for a seat at the table, but only a scrap. Yet, her request resounded in his heart for she was actually asking him to demonstrate in action what he was known to preach, that God’s mercy is not simply for those who keep God’s rules, but for all; not for the perfect, the righteous, and the sinless, but for the sick, the outsider, and the sinner. She did not claim to be worthy, she simply asked God to be God and demonstrate his mercy upon her, unworthy as she was. She was a gentile. She had not kept the Law of the Jews. She was not righteous nor did she claim to be. She simply asked God to throw her whatever scrap he could that her daughter might be made well, for even a scrap from God is more wonderful and abundant than any scrap that is thrown from the table to the dogs.
If we allow ourselves to be transported from that moment so many years ago, we will realize that we are not unlike that Syro-Phoenician woman. We are gentiles by birth. We have not kept the intricacies of the Torah. And yet, do we not hope for God’s love and mercy? Do we not hope that he will look upon us not as dogs but as his children, too? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve done a single thing is this life that could ever make me worthy of God’s love, and if I have, it has surely been cancelled out by the myriad of mistakes I have made. But thankfully, we have not to deal with a God who asks us to be perfect before he loves us, before he offers us his mercy. The true sacrifice to God is a broken and contrite heart. The true worshipper is the one who recognizes their need to cleave to God, even for a scrap of his goodness, for even a scrap has the power to transform us beyond measure. Even a tiny morsel of God’s mercy makes me more worthy than I could ever be under my own power. At the same time it is the thing that keep us humble. We ever remember that it is not me, as St. Paul would later say, but Christ in me. It is not my strength but his, not my righteousness but his, not my life, but his.
Now we see the table is set. Surely there are those more worthy than me that will approach it. There must be others that have kept the commandments more thoroughly than me. Maybe there are. How often are we afraid to approach because we feel unworthy. So many people feel unworthy before God. So many people never approach because they feel that they will be turned away because they are flawed, broken, have sinned, made terrible mistakes. Yes, maybe by rights God should turn us away. However, when pressed, Jesus hears the words of the Syro-phoenician woman and she returns home to find that her daughter has already been healed. Even as she battled with Jesus, her daughter was being healed. Even as she struggled with God, God’s grace was already at work. Even as she sought God’s mercy, God’s mercy had already been poured out upon her daughter. Yes, we are unworthy, but that does not matter to God, because mercy is what God is all about, and so we approach with all our flaws, and cry out for mercy, for God is the same God whose property is always to have mercy.
c. 2012, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves