St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 16th August 2009
Have you ever been in a situation where you have just wanted to get away from it all? When the pressure has been too all much, when you’ve needed a deserted beach or lonely hillside just to get your thoughts together and feel human once again?
Well, if you have, I think you will understand why Jesus headed out of his familiar territory of Galilee and struck out some twenty miles north-west to the region of Tyre. After all, the previous few weeks of his ministry had been particularly stressful. He had heard about the execution of his cousin, John the Baptist, and he had had little time to digest the news before a crowd of 5000 people showed up. There was the pressure of the crowds themselves following Him wherever He went, eager to see the latest miracle or hear the most recent parable He had been teaching. And then, as we read at the beginning of chapter 7, that delegation from Jerusalem had turned up to observe exactly what Jesus and His disciples were doing, and note any possible infringements of the Mosaic law – a kind of first century spiritual Ofsted, if you will. It was not surprising that as Mark records in verse 24 He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it.
Because Jesus knew that very soon the pressures which were building up on Him would reach a critical point. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law would no longer accept His challenge to their authority and they would do whatever they could to silence Him. The crowds would realise He didn’t fit the bill of a national superhero who would boot out the Romans once and for all. And as He reflected on the death of his cousin John the Baptist, He knew – as He had known from the very beginning of eternity – His mission too would one day culminate in death, alone, rejected and humiliated.
It really wasn’t too surprising then that Jesus wanted to be on His own, to think, to pray and to spend time with His Heavenly Father. And His sense of isolation is only heightened by the fact that His disciples don’t appear to be with Him at this point. Not that they would necessarily understand what Jesus was about to go through, for, as we shall see in the coming weeks, they singularly failed to grasp what kind of mission Jesus was undertaking, and the cost it would involve. But the point is, Jesus is on His own, working out what it means to be the faithful Son of God, obedient to His Father’s will.
And then He is interrupted. I wonder, how do you react when someone interrupts you at just the wrong moment? You’re rejoicing you’ve finally found that deserted beach, when suddenly your phone rings with an urgent message, or you’re out walking on that lonely hillside, when you realise the person coming towards you is a neighbour you haven’t see for a couple of years, or some emergency breaks into your train of thought. It’s hard, isn’t it? But one thing I love about Jesus is that He seems to take all these interruptions in His stride, that He is never rude or offensive or brusque, that no matter busy He appears to be, He always has time for the person in need.
Except here. Because as we all know Jewish people saw the Gentiles as unclean, that they even referred to them on occasions as dogs. And what should shock us is that Jesus uses exactly this same language here “First let the children eat all they want…for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Not the sort of response you normally associate with Jesus, and one that seems quite out of character for someone we like to think of as so warm and accepting to those in need. So what’s going on? Is Jesus angry He’s been disturbed, in a bad mood because He’s been found out, or what? Why exactly does Jesus reply in this way?
To answer that question, we need to go back a few steps and put this passage in its context. We mentioned earlier how the Jerusalem delegation had come up to Galilee to check on Jesus’ religious credentials. You see, they had heard disturbing reports about this man from Nazareth that were going right against their notions of what it meant to be a good, religious person. For them, the way to God was open only to people who were good, upright Jews. And to be good and upright, that meant you had to observe all the ceremonies and traditions of the Jewish law, including things like ritual hand washing, avoiding unclean foods, observing the Sabbath. Being acceptable to God, in other words, involved conforming to a system, and if you were a preacher or a teacher telling others to overthrow the system, then there was bound to be trouble. You had to be one of God’s chosen people, and to do the right things, if you wanted to be blessed. That was non-negotiable. That was the law. And there was no worse offence that encouraging others to break the law. It could, in the most extreme circumstances, be a capital offence.
But Jesus knew as He spent time reflecting on His mission that His goal ultimately was to break the system. Not the full system of God’s law. After all, ethical commands not to commit adultery, or to honour your parents, were part of God’s eternal and unchanging will. But the ceremonial commands, and the manmade traditions that went with them, the ones that formed such a barrier to so many people finding their way to God, the traditions that were used to bolster the authority and privileges of the few, and leave the many feeling condemned and outside of God’s grace.
And although we might find the exchange between Jesus and this unknown women at first sight strange or bizarre, actually, in conjunction with the subsequent healing of the deaf and mute man, it sends out an important message as to the type of Saviour Jesus is going to be, and the Saviour that He is for us today.
First of all, Jesus really is Saviour of All.
What do we know about this person who came seeking Jesus’ help? First of all, she was a woman, and according to the religious traditions of the day, she was very much a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom. Secondly, she was a Gentile, born on the Mediterranean coast, in Phoenicia – the only reference to that region in any of the four gospels. And thirdly, if she had been in recent contact with her demon-possessed daughter she would have been ritually unclean. It would have been shocking for a good teacher of the law even to speak to such a person. But this is what Jesus did. His very act of talking to her sent out a clear signal that God’s blessings would no longer be restricted by gender or race or ritual barriers.
Now we might say with the hindsight of 2000 years that it’s obvious Jesus is Saviour of all. But at the time Jesus’ actions were truly revolutionary. After all, the Jewish people knew the great passages of the Old Testament which talked about the restoration of their fortunes. We read one of them, in our first reading from Jeremiah 31:1-9, where the Lord declares quite clearly and unambiguously I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son. Their special and privileged status among the nations seemed assured, and surely they would be the ones to receive God’s blessings, wouldn’t they?
Well, yes, but not exclusively. For again, when we read in that passage from Jeremiah about the Lord bringing them from the land of the north, and gathering them from the ends of the earth, who exactly are the people He is referring to? Jews, certainly, but this is the important point they missed, not only Jews. The restoration of God’s people would no longer simply involve a particular race of people, but people of all kinds who would respond to God’s call to come back.
And sad to say, this is a lesson which the church has had to learn again and again over the course of its history. There seems to be something deep within human nature that means we want to draw lines around who can and who cannot receive the good news of Jesus Christ. It might something as blatant as racial discrimination, and the story of how immigrants were not welcomed into Anglican churches in this country in the 1950s and 1960s is a shameful example of this. Or it might be something more subtle, such as keeping at arms’ length those for whom English is a second language, or don’t fit with our stereotype of what a good, respectable Christian should look like. Yes, it is obvious to say Jesus is Saviour of All, but to accept this statement challenges us at the very deepest level as to what it means for us to be God’s people and how we include those different from ourselves within the body of Christ.
But the fact still remains Jesus talked to this woman from Syro-Phoenicia in terms of children and dogs. So what positively can we learn from this exchange?
The short answer is that, secondly, we only know Jesus as Saviour by faith. But, again, before we can get to this point we have to take a brief look at the background to this dialogue. After all, Jesus Himself was a Jew, and He was very much aware that His mission, in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies, was to bring the good news of salvation to God’s people, the Jews. That is why He was born in 1st century Judea, before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman armies. That is why He spent His public ministry in this area, preaching and teaching to crowds who in the main shared the same religious and ethnic background. To put it another way, just as the Lord fed the Israelites with food from heaven in the desert, so hundreds of years later He came as the Messiah to offer the spiritual food of the gospel to the followers of Moses.
But in the same way that other peoples joined the Israelites in the desert and entered the promised land with them, so also was it that little by little people from other backgrounds heard and responded to the gospel. It could hardly be otherwise, for as we have seen, Jesus’ mission really was to be Saviour to all. But the question remained, on what basis could these outsiders be included in God’s people? The conventional wisdom of the day was that they had to become Jews, to learn all the laws of Moses, and even to undergo circumcision.
However Jesus Himself radically challenged this wisdom. There is no suggestion at all that this woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter had to submit to Jewish customs or rituals to receive the help she so urgently needed. And Jesus Himself was not going to force them on her. Because what He could see in this woman was a faith that would overcome all barriers of race, religion or gender. She believed Jesus had the power to save, and that ultimately was all that mattered. She could not and would not be denied that power because of any rules and regulations, for as she herself said to Jesus even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. The Gentiles, in other words, were taking in the spiritual food of the gospel, and it was impossible to deny them the good news that Jesus was offering.
And for such a bold and insightful reply Jesus lets this wise, but unknown woman go, with the assurance that her daughter has been healed. Because with her own lips she has articulated the wonderful and beautiful truth that needs to be repeated again and again across the centuries. That, no matter who you are, where you have come from, what your particular circumstances – even if the world labels you a dog – if you have the faith that Jesus has the power to save you, He will meet you with His mercy and His grace. Being a Christian, you see, is not about trying your best to please God, or adopting a certain religious tradition, or living in the right neighbourhood. It’s about humbly trusting Jesus as your Saviour and letting Him be Lord of your life. And that’s the good news we need to keep on sharing, because although it’s a very simple message, it’s one that keeps on getting misheard, misinterpreted, misunderstood. Again, there seems to be something deep within us that says we have to do something or be something in order to be accepted by God, and we lose sight of the basic truth that, as Paul says, in Romans 10:9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Full stop. End of argument. And if you have never approached Jesus in this simple, humble way, like the Gentile woman did, then there is something you need to do today.
Because finally, Jesus is the Saviour through the personal encounter. This is comes out strongly in both the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman at this house in Tyre, and the later encounter with the deaf and mute man in the region of the Decapolis. And what is so striking in this second healing is how Jesus quite deliberately leads him away from the crowd, from the prying eyes, and the wagging tongues. For unlike a few rogue evangelists of today, Jesus doesn’t want this man to be pressurised by the people around him, or made into a public spectacle. He wants the man to realise that his healing can only come about by the one-on-one encounter where he is free to make his own decisions, and respond in his own particular way.
And that is how Jesus wants to deal with each of us today. Because at the end of the day the Christian faith is down to our own personal decision as to whether we follow Jesus or not. Despite what some people think, you are not a Christian, because, for example, your parents happen to believe or you think you live in a Christian country. Such circumstances may mean you have heard about Jesus, and you may be aware of your need to believe in Him. But until you take on the responsibility yourself to come before Jesus and say you need Him in your life you will be no more a Christian than someone who lives in a part of the world who has never heard of Him, and knows nothing about the Christian faith.
But – and this is also an important point – making a decision to follow Jesus is not just coming before Him and saying you believe in Him. The life of faith begins there, but it carries on as a life of obedience for the rest of your days, doing what Jesus says, and just importantly not doing what Jesus tells us not to do. And this is the lesson those who witnessed the healing of the deaf and mute man sadly failed to learn. They carried on talking about Jesus even when He commanded them not to. And why this command to silence? Precisely because Jesus didn’t want to be seen as a crowd-pleaser, as a show-stopper, but someone who demanded faith and obedience from those He met on an individual, personal level.
And it is that same Jesus who calls us to follow Him today. A Jesus who is Saviour of all, who can be known by faith, and is longing for us to come forward and have that personal encounter with each and every one of us. So can I urge you the next time you have some time for yourself, when you finally discover that deserted beach, or the lonely hillside, or whatever space you can call your own, to use that time to come before Him in faith and trust and obedience. And whether you have never followed Jesus before, or have been following Him for many years, use that time to reflect on the riches of His mercy and grace, and give your life to Him in ever deep obedience.