Thursday, 2 August 2007

Trusting Jesus

This is one of those very hard passages in the bible
In verse 27, Jesus answers the woman with what seems an incredibly offensive statement: "First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
He calls her a dog.
It was the term that Jews used for Gentiles (the Gentiles could be just as abusive when talking about the Jews). Some commentators say that the word that Jesus uses here is the word that means 'little pet dog', but even if that is the case, it doesn't really change things.
Jesus calls her a dog and says that the good things - God's salvation, healing and life - are for the children: for the Jews.
It is not politically correct.
The woman however,
  • does not seem to be offended

    Maybe she had not expected an answer at all. After all she knew that she was not only a Gentile, but a woman, coming to a Jewish rabbi. Most Jewish rabbis would not have even bothered to speak to her. At least Jesus speaks to her.
  • accepts the premise: she does not challenge the validity of Jesus' statement. Instead she answers, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
  • perseveres in her request: she is after all desperate

Most of us here are, I guess, of Gentile descent. We are not Jews. And this passage is particularly for us

It is, as Tom Wright points out in his commentary, a highly political incident. It is not simply the story of how a Gentile woman throws herself on Jesus' mercy, gives a witty reply and receives the answer to her prayer. There is something much more radical happening.

In Mark 7:1-23, Jesus has effectively broken down the divide between things that are clean and unclean. It was a very physical divide, and being ritually clean was one of the very visible ways that Jews separated themselves from Gentiles. The Jew refrained from doing things that would make them ritually unclean, and they observed rituals that made them clean. But Jesus, in Mark 7, states that ritual cleanness or uncleaness is irrelevant. He says the real difference is not between those who are ritually clean and those who are ritually unclean, but between those who are clean on the inside and those who are unclean on the inside. In other words he has gone quite some way to breaking down the divide between Jew and Gentile

Now he has left Bethsaida and gone to Tyre, a Gentile region, because he needs to be on his own for a while. But this Gentile woman comes to him, and she tells him about her daughter who is possessed by, and the word that Mark uses is, an 'unclean' spirit.

So what will Jesus do. Will he remove that which makes her daughter unclean on the inside? In other words, has Jesus come to totally abolish all distinction between Jew and Gentile.

And the disciples would be waiting to see how Jesus answered the woman. How far would he go?

Would he send her away -
Or would he heal her daughter - abolishing all difference between Jew and Gentile?

He does neither. Instead by his answer

1. Jesus affirms the priority of the Jewish people

When he says to her: ""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.", he is saying very clearly that there is a difference and that he has come first for the Jewish people.

It was Abraham, a descendant of Shem (hence the word Semite), who was chosen by God to be the father of a people who would be God's representatives in the world and bring God's blessing to the world. (As an aside, it is interesting that God chose a family through which to bless the world, rather than a people who lived in a particular place.) And it was to the Jews that the word of God was given - the word of God's presence and guidance and protection and blessing. It was to the Jews that the laws were given - good laws, laws that enable people to live. It was to the Jews that the warnings were given - warnings that if they strayed from God, if they were unfaithful, then disaster would happen. It was to the Jews that the sacrifices and priesthood were given, so that they could know that they were forgiven and that God would hear them when they prayed. And it was to the Jews that the promise of a messiah, a deliverer, a saviour was given - who would come and usher in the Kingdom of God and its reign of healing and peace and love.

And in her answer, "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs", she is recognising that - as Jesus put it - salvation comes from the Jews. She realises (and many of the Jews did not realise this) that she is kneeling before the Jewish messiah.

And as Christians we need to remember that to seek Jesus, to kneel down at Jesus feet, to seek his mercy, is to kneel down before the word of God that came to the Jewish people; it is to receive the history and the legacy of the Jewish people as our history and legacy. It is to receive the Old Testament as the word of God

A Jewish lady was in this church last year and she looked up at the star of David window above the entrance to the chancel. And she asked, "That is a Jewish symbol. Why is it in a Christian church?" And my answer was that as Christians we believe that Jesus is the descendant of David, not just in biological terms, but in terms of the promise. He is the one who was the child who God promised to David who would reign for ever and who would bring in God's Kingdom.

So we do need to remember that the people who God first called to be his children were the physical biological descendants of Abraham through Sarah. We need to remember the very special place that they had in the plans of God, and that they still have in the heart of God. There is no place for anti-semitism, or anti-anybodyism for that matter, in this world. But there is particularly no place for anti-semitism in the church, and it is to our shame that there have been times when the Christian church has led the persecution of the Jews.

So Jesus affirms the priority of the Jewish people

2. Jesus extends the mercy of God to all people

Jesus answers her request. He removes the unclean spirit from within her daughter. In other words he is saying, 'the Jews have priority; I am the Jewish messiah; but now God's mercy extends to all people'.

But notice why Jesus grants her request.

It is not because she gives a witty reply; it is not because she somehow deserves Jesus to answer her request. It is because she throws herself on Jesus' love and mercy. She realises that what she will receive from Jesus will be complete gift.

And we need to remember that what we receive from Jesus we receive as complete gift.

We have done nothing to deserve it.

The cry of the woman, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." has become part of our communion service: "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy .."

The woman could have said: "But I'm also a child of God and so I deserve the good things". That is how she would be told to answer today: stand up for yourself and for your rights. But she knows that before God she is not worthy to receive anything; before God she has nothing that she can demand. She is completely dependent on the mercy of Jesus.

It is a very difficult thing to be helpless. And before God we are helpless. There is nothing we can demand, and there is nothing we can offer.

I do not know what it is that we are crying out for: it might be for a sick child, or a child who we have lost. It might be for someone who is the grip of something that is destroying them - something or someone that cannot be removed by medicine, or education, or psychotherapy. It might be for a desperate longing: for a reconciliation with someone, for a partner, for a child, for a particular job, for peace. It might be that we are in a pit that is so deep we simply cannot see any way out: a financial disaster or marriage crisis. It might be that we have messed up and are in deep trouble - maybe nobody else knows about it. It might be for forgiveness, for meaning in life or intimacy with God.

I do not know. What I do know is that before God we are helpless; we have no right to receive anything, but that because of Jesus, whoever we are - Jew or Gentile - we can cry out to Jesus to have mercy.

And I also know that because of Jesus, the Jewish messiah, the saving mercy of God extends to all people. He will answer our prayers. Sometimes immediately and wonderfully, as in this case. Sometimes we may need to exercise faith. And sometimes he may answer our prayers not as we wish, and in very painful ways for us, but ways that actually are for the ultimate best.

There is one more thing that I would like to say. I spoke earlier about us as Gentiles having no rights before God. But because of Jesus death we do now have one right: the right to become children of God. In other word, although we are not worthy to even gather up the crumbs under God's table, we have been invited to come up and to sit at the table - not as servants of God, not even as friends of God, but as children of God.

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