The Disciples of Jesus’s day thought the Good News was for them and their people…but then something strange starts to happen. Jesus has compassion on those foreign Gentile dogs…
Sometime, probably in the 2nd century, a Christian author wrote these words:
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own… They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. …They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. (Letter to Diognetus)
It’s a bit unsettling, especially for us who have lived to see great Christian empires of the past.
This passage turns our expectations upside-down.
We live in our own country as aliens?
We endure life as foreigners?
Yet, this is precisely what the good news does. It introduces us to the kingdom of God in expected ways. Ways that shock us and turn our world upside-down.
A New Cast of Characters
The next few stories from the Gospel of Mark mimic stories we’ve already seen. People approach Jesus, receive healing, and are miraculously fed.
Yet, this time it’s a bit different. Previously, these stories took place in Jewish territory and– with one exception, the Gerasene demoniac – all the characters were Jewish.
Now, the tables of turned. It’s now the Gentiles (a.k.a. the foreigners) who approach Jesus, demonstrate faith, receive healing, and are fed.
But it begins with a strange story of Jesus name-calling!
Don’t Throw Food to Dogs
The story begins with an outsider, a Greek woman – a Syrophoenician to be precise – who approaches Jesus and asks to have a demon cast out of her daughter.
The fact that someone approaches Jesus isn’t unusual. In fact, you may recall the story of Jairus approaching Jesus to have his daughter healed.
However, what’s strange is the response that Jesus gives.
“Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27 RSV)
I don’t know about you, but this offends my sensitivities. I believe in a loving and caring Jesus and this response seems completely out of character.
For the Jews in Jesus’ day, however, dogs were seen as dirty animals; they weren’t loving pets. Like in many third world countries today, dogs wandered the streets with mangy hair. They gathered around local cafes hoping to grab some food that a careless diner may have dropped.
It seems as if Jesus has insulted this poor woman.
Turning Dogs Into Pets
For the Greeks, though, dogs were pets. Beloved animals that could be a “man’s best friend.” So, when I hear the woman’s response, I almost want to cheer for her.
But she answered him,
“Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat little kids’ crumbs.” (Mark 7:28 Edited RSV)
In her response, this brave woman has done something marvelous. Firstly, she’s changed “children” (τέκνον) to “little kids” (παιδίον).
Most translations don’t pay attention that two different Greek words are used in this passage.
The first word, “children,” is a technical word that refers to the descendants of Abraham. In other words, Jesus is referring to the Jews, those people who carried Abraham and Sara’s DNA in their blood.
When the woman changes Jesus’s word to “little kids,” she creates an entirely new image. Instead of casting food to dirty dogs, she paints a picture of puppies – family pets – receiving their due meal from the little kids of the family, who are eager to feed their beloved pets.
The Messiah’s Table Overflows
In other words, the image of dirty dogs suggests that the Gentiles may only share in the blessing of the Messiah if there’s enough left over.
But, when the woman turns the tables, we realize that the Messiah’s table is abundantly filled with food for everyone. It will not go lacking.
We may find the story strange, but I think Mark tells it as an illustration. It’s not a story of Jesus testing this woman’s faith. It’s a story of how Jesus is the Messiah who brings God’s kingdom to bear on all people, no matter who you are, Jew or Gentile (foreigner).
This is played out in stories that follow this one.
When a Gentile deaf man, who also has a speech impediment, is brought to Jesus, he is healed. Moreover, his excitement cannot be contained: he goes around zealously proclaiming this miracle.
Next, Mark tells us a story about the feeding of the 4,000. Here, Jesus goes ahead and feeds those “Gentile dogs.”
The point of the Syrophoenician story is played out: the Gentiles aren’t eating the scraps the Jews don’t want. The Messiah invites them to the table and they eat at the banquet and, sure enough, there is plenty left over.
Jesus’s open invitation to his messianic banquet doesn’t go unnoticed. Pharisees show up and demand a sign and we are left wondering: how could they not understand after everything Jesus has done?
Shame on them…but wait a minute…
I think Mark just led us into a trap!
If you’re like me, you consider yourself a student, a disciple of Jesus’s. The original disciples are our heroes, the saints we are to emulate.
But after jeering the Pharisees for not getting it, we find out that the disciples too don’t get it!
Now they had forgotten to bring bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “We have no bread.” And being aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? (Mark 8:14-17 RSV)
It’s a chilling realization that the disciples are just as deaf and blind as the Scribes and Pharisees. Worse yet, their hearts are hardened!
Those we thought were on the inside of Jesus’s kingdom gathering are shown to actually be…quite possibly…on the outside.
This isn’t good news for those of us who see them as saints to be imitated and followed.
It’s a wake-up call that shatters our expectations of what God’s kingdom looks like.
Jesus is warning his disciples that the Messiah isn’t just a great healer. He isn’t just a great prophet. And establishing God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” is more than a political revolution.
It’s about more than a “savior,” “prophet,” or “messiah” for the Jewish people.
To be the Messiah means great suffering. It is, at this point, that Mark starts to point us to the crucifixion. If the disciples want to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, they will have to embrace and emulate a suffering servant.
And, unexpectedly, it is precisely through the suffering of the Messiah that the kingdom is opened up to the world. Everything gets turned upside-down. The last become first, Gentiles become “little kids,” and everyone is transformed and fed.
Being Shaken Up by the Cross
I’m not sure if it’s divine providence or not that we get this passage in our Markan journey a week after our country has been publically debating who “gets in” and who doesn’t.
This sermon isn’t meant as a political one – but it should shake us up a bit.
It hits at our pride, which wants to say, “America is number one.”
It reminds us that being “great” is about following a suffering servant, not about power.
And it raises many more questions. Do we really understand what Jesus is accomplishing? Is his message the foundation of our faith and hope? Do we understand how the good news affects our lives in the here and now?
What is it about the disciples…about us…that would make him say:
“Do you not yet understand?”
It’s a long road to the cross and we still have a lot to learn.
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