James 2: 1-17
Mark 7: 24-30
Sometimes when we read the stories of Jesus we begin to build a picture of Jesus and his divinity. Somehow our picture can become quite distorted. We build him into a plaster saint only fit for our mantelpiece. We put a halo around his head and develop a picture of someone who could do nothing wrong.
Our gospel reading today I think gives a picture of a totally different Jesus. It shows us something of the human Jesus, of the Jesus who had feelings, of emotions that were stirred when he was tired, of someone who just needed to stop and breathe and thankfully someone who was human.
Let’s look deeper into the text and explore it further:
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.
Why didn’t he want anyone to know he was there? Surely as Saviour of the world he wouldn’t want to waste any chance he had to tell people about the Kingdom of God? Perhaps he didn’t want people to know that he was there because he didn’t feel it was the right moment to talk to them or perhaps he was just tired and wanted to be at rest? Whatever the reason, his plan went wrong!
Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.
Have you ever had one of the days when you feel so tired or busy or stressed out and all you want is to sit quietly and let others do the talking, let others minister to you and then someone needs you for something. I think this was one of those days!
There were two things that could have added to Jesus’ irritation at this moment:
- She was a woman – At the time of Jesus a patriarchal society dominated. Men ruled – women obeyed! We have to remember that Jesus was a Jewish man with many of the accepted attitudes of Jewish men at the time.
- To add insult to injury, not only was she a woman kneeling at his feet, but she was a Syro – Phoenician woman- A gentile. God had sent him to spread his news to the Jewish people- not others, or at least that is what he thought when he entered that room.
And the there was this amazing exchange with the woman:
She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’.’
Here we have a gentile woman desperate and vulnerable approaching Jesus. She knew the risks of approaching Jesus; she knew she may well have been abused, insulted, beaten and thrown out. She knew she would most probably not have been welcome but still she went in. She was taking a huge risk, but she was desperate! Many Biblical Scholars have looked at his words and concluded Jesus’ response was nothing less than rude!
Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
Was he really likening her to a dog! Again most scholars conclude ‘yes’ and the only way to understand it in our culture is to liken it to calling someone a ‘bitch’! It was most definitely an insult! But the woman was not to be deterred. She was expecting to be insulted. This would have been nothing new to her, hence her response:
But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs
Have you ever noticed that God often speaks to you through the most unexpected situations, often when you are off guard and through the most unexpected people? It certainly happened here to Jesus here. This is one of those rare examples when Jesus and his Father seem to be out of step with each other. One of the other examples of this was when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemene in Luke 22:
Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
Jesus was clearly challenged with the woman’s words, so much so that he said the most extraordinary thing:
For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’
So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
and that is all we hear of this story, a story of a woman desperate enough to do anything to help her daughter, the story of a child who was healed and most importantly the story of Jesus who realised that this woman was not a stranger, someone to be dehumanised and vilified and treated as nothing, but a person, a child of God, loved and cherished. It was a turning point where jesus realised his ministry was much bigger than anything he had possibly imagined!
So what can we learn from this story.
- The way we treat people matters- It is so easy to treat groups of individuals negatively, but it is when we meet individuals that we start to treat then as people, loved and cherished, and give them the respect that they deserve. A couple of examples: In the last week I have heard stories of people who have had their benefits sanctioned for two months because they were late for their appointment at the job centre. The reason – the room to report to was on the first floor. The lift broke down making them late. two months without any money meant that they had to totally rely on food-banks. Or the mother who has to fill in a long form on behalf of her severe autistic adult son to prove he is still unfit for work. She said ‘ He will never be fit for work, so why on earth do I need to have this rubbed in my face every year’ It’s a disgrace that people are are treated in such a harsh and degrading. The woman said to Jesus, ‘Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs – and we treat people like that. It’s a disgrace!We cannot help but have been moved by the stories of desperate people fleeing their homelands in extreme circumstances. Language such as ‘swarms of migrants’ is not helpful to anyone, it is degrading. These are people, loved and cherished by God. It is even more tragic that it takes a photograph of a dead child washed up on the beach to act as a wake up call to action. We send out messages to those seeking refuge in our country to ‘go away- the grass is not always greener on the other side’, we have no room. What are we thinking of, these are people who often come from extreme circumstances often preferring to risk their lives than stay in horrendous circumstances. where is our compassion? The woman said to Jesus, ‘Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs – and we treat people like that. It’s a disgrace!
- And what of the woman who turned Jesus’ mindset? The woman who out of desperation risked everything for the love of her daughter. With her pocketful of faith and no more than a pocket full, she came to Jesus. You see in this story I see the hand of God at work in that woman, and I believe that Jesus saw the hand of God in her too As he can with us if we let him. You don’t need great faith, just a pocketful!
In 1548 and 1549 Archbishop Thomas Cranmer composed the Prayer of humble access, the prayer we still use in our service of Holy Communion:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table (O merciful Lord) trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We be not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: (Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, in these holy Mysteries, that we may continually dwell in him, and he in us, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood. Amen.)
Whose property is always to have mercy- always!
If we walk the way our saviour walked, then we too should always show mercy and compassion. When we read about different groups of people in our tabloids or hear about them on the TV, we need to remember that these are all individuals, mothers, fathers, children. loved and cherished. Let’s not condemn them to eat the crumbs under the table, but sit among them and be agents of healing, like our Lord taught us. Sometimes that can be a very scary thought, because we lay ourselves open to our prejudices being challenged, but with God’s help we can be agents of change, not victims of propaganda. Let’s come to him with our pocketful of faith and trust in the fact that his property is always to have mercy.