Sermon 090609: Innocents in the Hands of Grumpy God

Most times when I preach, I start out with a funny story in order to get everyone engaged and interested, and to get you on my side. Today, I’ll start with a bit of a confessional, which might be less likely to put you in my corner.

I live in Capitol Hill in Seattle, which is a great neighborhood for a lot of reasons – there’s a great music culture, lots of restaurants and stores within easy walking distance, a couple of great thrift stores, and as I found out a few weeks ago, a huge ongoing dodgeball tournament for all ages that happens every Friday night at 10. (Seriously – Angel and I saw little kids and old ladies and everything in between playing in a park one night when we were out late getting some ice cream. Apparently they do it every week.) It’s a fun, vibrant neighborhood.

Capitol Hill is also, as many of you probably know, a center for Seattle’s homeless population – and particularly my little section of Capitol Hill. Angel and I live in a little condominium apartment directly across from the main office of Sound Mental Health, which draws a big segment of that population and means that most days either on the way to the car or the grocery or work, somebody asks me for spare change, or to buy a ‘Real Change’ newspaper to benefit folks living on the street. My confession is that most days I either try to avoid eye contact with these particular neighbors, or I push them off with a ‘sorry’, or a lie about not having any change.

I bring this up because it’s what I thought about when I read the first story in today’s Gospel reading, where a Syro-Phoenician woman falls at Jesus’ feet begging him to heal her daughter. Shockingly for anyone who knows anything about Jesus, his response is to push her off – insult her even – saying “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”. Pretty rude words from Jesus here if you ask me, even if he does change his mind after she comes back with a clever, faithful response.

A few things help to make Jesus’ response a little more understandable – for one, he was probably pretty grumpy because we are told basically that he was on vacation and trying to have some time for himself, and this strange woman came barging into his house. I’m guessing this sort of thing happened to Jesus a lot, and got kind of old after a while. That’s certainly no excuse, but it also helps to know that, at the point in history when this story was recorded, Syro-Phoenicians were said to have carried out history’s most brutal Jewish persecutions. A roughly equivalent situation today might find a Neo-Nazi woman barged into a famous and busy Rabbi’s vacation home begging for help at dinner time. It wouldn’t be shocking for most of Mark’s early, primarily Jewish readers, that Jesus would initially respond harshly.

Having said all that, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that this is one of the few places in Scripture where it seems that there’s no real pious justification for Jesus’ behavior – I mean, Jesus really did call this begging woman a dog and suggest that she should leave him alone when she just wanted help for her child. Whatever the reason, this isn’t the kind of behavior most Christians have come to know, love and respect from Jesus! In fact, the one who it seems we should emulate here is the Syro-Phoenician woman, with her obvious wisdom and faith. Going back to my confession about being dismissive of people in need myself, Jesus here looks a bit too human to me: his words are a bit too lacking in compassion, and his response to the situation is a bit too much like our own responses might be! All of this, by the way, is not at all the kind of thing you like to say when you’re in my position, trying to come off as a pious and spiritually insightful preacher.

Having said all of that though, I’d like to present you with three points of reflection on today’s readings.

1) The first point, which might be the least helpful for you, is that today’s reading illustrates that understanding God’s Word to us in Scripture isn’t always a straightforward process. As someone who likes to understand things and have clear justifications for events as they occur, I found Jesus’ behavior in today’s passage confusing, surprising, and ultimately frustrating. But then if I’m honest, I’ve been doing this religion thing for 29 years now, and there are some days when I would be surprised if this pursuit of God was anything but confusing, surprising and frustrating. Difficulty in understanding of course doesn’t let us off the hook if we’re to be people of faith, which is why it’s important to move on to the next two points:

2) The second point is globally applicable, and was probably the original intended ‘main point’ of today’s Gospel reading: This wasn’t just a reading about Jesus’ miraculous healing ability: the point was that Jesus broke down some of the most profound international political and religious barriers of his day. For Mark’s original Jewish readers, Jesus’ healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman (whatever the holdup), as well as the subsequently recorded healing of a Gentile man, would have been interpreted as a rejection of some of their most entrenched racial prejudices. After all, in modern terms we would be talking about the Jewish Jesus healing a German Nazi’s sick child. So, as Mark’s readers would have understood, the Christian religious calling is to peace, forgiveness and service for even our most hated enemies. This passage, I think, was intended as an ancient “Martin Luther King” kind of story, where one who comes from a persecuted race demonstrates his compassion and moral superiority, and indeed connection with God, by healing those whose ancestors persecuted his own people.

3) The final point is the one, I think, that hits us right where we are. That is that this story of a very human Jesus (kind of grumpy in fact) reminds us of that old message of the Incarnation – that the God Christians believe in is present and active in the real world – not sitting on some fantastical heavenly throne. I personally often tend to think of God as being somewhere transcendent, apart from the struggles of my own daily life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you do too. The message here is quite the opposite – it is a very “real” story where God incarnate is just as annoyed with daily hassles as we are, and where the Son of God is just as instinctually angry at those from our personal “enemy tribes” as we are. This is good, because in the world we live in, people are racists and annoying beggars, and they’re tired after a day of hard work, and people have wronged us many times before and we just don’t want to deal with them and we have sick family members who just need some help! So, any God worth his salt better be able to understand that and empathize, and better be able to provide us with wisdom for how to respond in this very real world! Jesus does that here – after an initial harsh reaction, he rectifies his mistake and helps this woman. This passage reminds us that God is indeed that kind of God – he’s experienced the complexity of human life and is well aware of our situation – and he’s present to provide healing.

So, to conclude by pointing back to my opening story about the beggars around my house, like Jesus in this story, every day in our real world, we personally run into people begging for help, or run into situations that present us with difficult moral decisions. Like Jesus, we find it annoying and can instantly think of a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t put in the effort to help – and most times, honestly, we don’t. And unlike Jesus, we’re usually not easily swayed to change our behavior. But the calling, ultimately, for those of us who decide to live our lives as serious Christians, is to remember that this messy reality is the place where God is at work. Our own annoying neighbors and persistent beggars and troubled teenagers and obnoxious relatives and historic ‘enemies’ are the ones we’re called to heal – whatever our confusions, frustrations, or annoyances.


RC said…
Good words, Tim!
Michelle said…
Perhaps another thing to ponder is that Jesus doesn't help the lady until He's addressed sin in her life. It's almost like He's calling her a hypocrite. "You want Me to heal your daughter, but you treat her like a dog." He wants her to make a change in her life as well. However, I wouldn't apply that to the image of the poor. I hate when Christians' excises for not helping the homeless or the poor is "Well, it's their fault because of their sin, etc." Jesus didn't exactly call us to only help the righteous. :)