(This is a sermon I preached around twenty-five years ago in the beloved Wabash Christian Church which I was privileged to serve for ten and a half years. We’ve all come a long way since then, but I still feel this sermon has a needed message for the present moment in our nation.)
Jesus was tired–dog tired. He had healed the sick, taught stubborn disciples, preached to the multitudes, argued down religious leaders, and walked every dusty road in Galilee. He wanted peace and quiet. He wanted to be left alone. So, he left Jewish Galilee and went into Gentile territory. Surely none of the Jews would follow him onto this unclean turf. It was time for some serious R&R. He snuck into an anonymous house and hung a “do not disturb” sign on his bedroom door. But to no avail. His rest was disturbed by the voice of a determined woman–a Gentile woman no less. Her daughter was sick and demon possessed. And she wanted his help.
Now we need to realize that according to the social standards of that day, this woman’s approach to Jesus was a triple affront to his dignity. First of all, she was a Gentile pagan approaching Jesus the Jew. Secondly, she was a lone woman improperly placing herself before Jesus the male. And thirdly, she was an uninvited guest intruding upon Jesus’ attempts to find a little solitude. She violated the rules of hospitality. Now in our rat-race, rude society that doesn’t mean squat. But in Jesus’ day, maintaining the rules of hospitality was a sacred duty. But this woman didn’t care a plug nickel about any of this. Her daughter was sick and needed help,
The woman fell at his knees and begged him to heal her daughter. As we shall see in a few moments, this was a woman of incredible nerve. She had spunk. I doubt if she was much in the habit of kneeling before anybody. But she was desperate.
Jesus’ reply shocks us. He told her that the children (the Jews) had to be fed first. And it was not proper to give to dogs (Gentiles) what was intended for children.” (The Greek words for “dogs” implies diminutive dogs—perhaps today Jesus would have said, “puppy dogs.” But what he said was still an affront. “Dog” was a common word used by Jews for Gentiles.)
But this woman could give as good as she got. She seized on his reference to dogs and basically said, “Yes, you are right. The children should be fed first. But everyone knows that the dogs sniffing under the table are allowed to lap up the crumbs falling from the children’s plates.” And Jesus, surprised by her reply, responded, “For saying that, you may go. You will find your daughter healed.” In other words, with that kind of reply–that kind of nerve–that kind of spunk –that kind of verbal parrying, you win.” Now if we compare Matthew’s version to Mark’s we find a different answer from Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith. It shall be done as you want.” Matthew was more comfortable with that reply. And frankly, so are we. We don’t like the idea that a smart mouth and a quick wit won the day. And we certainly don’t like the idea that a woman–a pagan at that–won an argument with Jesus. But whether we like it or not, it’s there. We can try to interpret it away. And frankly, that is what most commentaries, sermons, and Sunday school lessons try to do. But this morning I want us to be honest with this text and see what we might learn.
Once again, we must remember the importance of context. All the verses in chapter 7 leading up to our passage deal with debates between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. And in these arguments Jesus challenged the prevailing Jewish purity codes. These codes separated people and things into two categories: those acceptable to God and those unacceptable to God–those people and things which are clean and those which are unclean. Jesus basically said that the external standards held so dear by these religious leaders meant nothing compared with what was in a person’s heart.
So, we move from these debates to the verbal parry between Jesus and this Gentile woman. And this woman used the same technique to win her argument that Jesus had used against his opponents. And I would suggest that this woman’s courage/wit/nerve opened the eyes of Jesus to how vast his mission really was.
Jesus understood his mission to be to the Jews. It was not a matter of God not caring for the Gentiles. It was simply that Jesus was called by God to deal with the lost sheep of Israel. We have indications that Jesus thought that what he was beginning would someday bring salvation to the Gentiles. (Such salvation was promised in the Hebrew Scriptures.) But that would come later, beyond the confines of his life. But now on pagan territory a Gentile woman no less enlarges his vision. He realizes that she is using the same argument that he had been using back in Galilee. All his ministry he preached the incredible grace and love of God reaching out to all people–pious and sinners, outstanding citizens and disreputables, franchised and disenfranchised, somebodies and nobodies. And now this woman is asking him to expand that vision of God’s grace and love to include her little daughter not in some sweet by and by or according to some predetermined dispensation but at that very moment. “Sure, Jesus. The food is meant for children. But that doesn’t mean that your loving, gracious Abba God wants everybody else to go starving. That can’t be what you are saying, Jesus. Is it?” And Jesus got the point. There were enough crumbs of God’s grace left over for her daughter.
I would suggest that this was a transforming moment for Jesus. It’s important to notice that when he left her, he did not go back home. He went directly to the Decapolis, a network of ten Greek (Gentile) cities and carried out his liberating message there. Sometimes the Bible takes our breath away! Now what might this passage say to us?
Once again, we see in the Gospels how God’s grace and love are extended to those who are outsiders–the unclean; sinners; disreputables; those who are racially and ethnically different; those who are not supposed to belong. Now why do I keep making this point?
Two reasons: it’s on virtually every page of the Gospels and from the looks of our congregation and most mainline Protestant churches, we still haven’t got the point. Is God’s grace and love restricted to middle-class, white, English-speaking, heterosexual, non-challenged, educated, cultured, “lived-in-Wabash all of my life” people? Who are the “Gentiles” in our midst? And do we believe that the amazing grace we sing about is also for them? And when will we as a church start acting (not by what we say but what we do) like we believe it’s for everyone? Or are the “Gentiles” of our day destined to receive what is the crumbs left over after we have been provided for? Or perhaps some of us don’t even believe they deserve that.
And secondly, have we forgotten that we are Gentiles? That in a sense, this woman is our mother pleading for us to be included? And now that we are among the insiders, can we dare restrict immigration into God’s Kingdom?
What scares me about this passage is this: if Jesus, the Son of God, needed his vision of God’s grace enlarged, then how much more do I, a sinner and scoundrel, need such a shaking of my foundations? Do we really know how amazing God’s grace is? Amen.
I want us to play a numbers game. In Mark 6, the chapter before our passage for today, we find the famous story of Jesus feeding 5000 people in the Jewish countryside with five loaves and two fish. There was so much to eat that there were 12 baskets full of food left over.
In Mark 8, the chapter after our passage for today, Jesus feeds 4000 people with 7 loaves and a few fish while he is in the region of the Decapolis (Gentile territory.) And there are 7 baskets full of food left over.
Now remember that 5000 is a multiple of 5, the sacred number of the Jews (Pentateuch) and 12 is the number of tribes in Israel. So, God’s grace and goodness are for the Jews.
The number 4000 is a multiple of 4 representing the four corners of the earth. And seven is the base number in the number 70 for the seventy nations of the world outside Israel. So, God’s grace and goodness are for all the nations/Gentiles. The table of Jesus had expanded. What about ours?
We know what our commission is–grace, amazing grace, God’s grace for all the world. Amen.
You have been fed by the hand of God. Not crumbs but grace piled upon grace has been your nourishment. Now go and do likewise ever conscious of God’s smiling face. Amen.