Listen!
Psalm 146 | Mark 7:24-30
I guess if you were to make a list of adjectives that you would apply to Jesus, “racist” probably wouldn’t be amongst them. And yet here he is, in Mark’s gospel, meeting with a gentile, a Syrophoenician woman, in desperate need of help for her afflicted daughter, and basically calling her a dog – by contrast with the Jews, Jesus’ people, who are the children.

And we can try to dress it up, talk it away – I’m always fascinated to hear how take the Bible most literally tie themselves in knots trying to explain how Jesus was testing the woman, or perhaps making a joke with her, or how he knew what she would say and was just using the opportunity to teach a lesson to the disciples.

Anything to avoid the simple reading of the text: that Jesus, at this point in his story, didn’t think that gentiles were important to God.

And Mark – who goes to great pains in his gospel to demonstrate that the Kingdom that Jesus came to declare was for all, Jew and Gentile alike, has no difficulty in sharing this story with his readers. Mark, it seems, wasn’t embarrassed about the fact that Jesus, at this point, needed to learn something from a Samaritan woman.

Do we find that hard to accept? That Jesus needed to learn something? Have we forgotten the core truth of the incarnation – that God became a person, with all the limitations of humanity that go with that?

For in the end, which is more appealing, which is more an image of who we are called to be – a Jesus who always knows everything right from the start, or a Jesus who is able to learn, and to learn even from a woman, even from a foreigner.

So let’s rewind a little, and see how we came to be where we are….

Up until this point in Jesus’ ministry, he’s been working amongst the Jews. He came out of the desert (in Mark chapter one) and began his ministry in Galilee.

He’s had one short foray in Gentile territory – he crossed the lake to the region of the Gerasene people. The text suggests that he wasn’t actually heading there as a sort of mission, more a retreat, a chance to get away from the crows. And maybe you remember that story, it’s the one where the legion of demons is cast out of a madman and into a herd of pigs, who promptly drown in the lake, much to the distress of the locals, especially, presumably, the owners of the pigs.

And when the madman, now sane, wishes to follow Jesus, Jesus refuses to allow it – sends him off to his own people instead. And the people of the region beg Jesus to leave – to go back to the place he came from.

It’s not exactly a sort of “welcome to your ministry amongst the gentiles”. Nothing there to suggest to Jesus that the people outside of Israel would welcome him and his good news of the Kingdom.

And then we come to the start of Mark chapter 7, when Jesus starts to get into arguments with the teachers of the Law – he heals many people, but the Pharisees have a go at him because his disciples don’t wash their hands in the prescribed way before eating. And the first half of Mark 7 is really Jesus ranting against their petty minded reading of the law, condemning the scribes and Pharisees for keeping the letter but disregarding the spirit – and at the same time, declared all foods clean; fundamentally breaking, denying, one of the pillars of Judaism.

There’s more than a hint here that Jesus is starting to be disillusioned with the understanding of God that the religious leaders of his people were offering.

And then we get to today’s text:

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre

Tyre was 30 miles away from the sea of Galilee. You’d have to ask Kit, or one of the Cartophiles to be sure, but I’m guessing that’s a couple of days, maybe three days, of walking. And it’s far enough away to really change the character of the place. Because Tyre is on the Mediterranean coast, it’s a port town, and as such it’s a much more cosmopolitan place than Galilee – by this time it was the capital of the Roman province of Syria-Phonecia. A good place to go if you were trying to get away from the Jewish authorities. A step out into the wide world, out of the provinces and into the relative anonymity of the big city.

But even there, Jesus could not escape notice. His reputation was bigger than that, and a gentile woman came to seek his help. And her faith gets him. For though his first response is exactly what you might expect of a Jewish Rabbi, a man from Galilee born and bred, a student of the law of Moses passionately committed to calling his people back to the worship of the one true God; his first reaction, to turn away the foreigner, the woman who is not from the people of God, that reaction has just enough of a question in it, just enough uncertainty to open the door to her faith.

Let the children be fed first, he says, it isn’t right to give the children’s food to the dogs

OK, she replies, but don’t even the dogs get to eat?

And it clicks into place. The children of Israel have rejected him, cast the bread of life aside, and the dogs of the gentiles have come to eat the feast that the children have cast aside.

And Jesus’ ministry to the people of Israel is blown wide open, into the ministry to the people of the Kingdom of God.

And the thing is, despite the sort of stereotypical understanding the old testament as portraying a provincial God of wrath and anger, by contrast to the New Testament God of universal love and fellowship, this revelation, this insight that Jesus seems to get in the face of the Syrophoenician woman whose little daughter was sick, was already there in the law and the prophets, in the wisdom of the people of Israel. We read it today in the psalms:

The Lord watches over the strangers;
Upholds the widows and the orphans.

There’s no question but that God, as portrayed in the understanding of the authors of the Old Testament, favoured one people over another, but as I’ve often noted before, there is also a counter-current within Old Testament law and (especially) the prophets; a voice which insists that God is the God of all, not just of us.

The Lord watches over the strangers.

The strangers. The foreigners. The other. The homeless. The Syrian toddler drowned fleeing war, the Afghani mother in a refugee camp, the asylum seeker on Nauru referred to only by a number because “there are too many called mohammed”.

The Lord watches over the strangers.

Maybe it took the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman for Jesus to get what the psalmist meant. Maybe it takes something of the same for us.

The Lord watches over the stranger.

But what do we do to those who are different, those who don’t fit our mould, speak our language, follow our customs?

The Lord watches over the stranger.

Amen.

One Thought to “The Lord watches over the stranger”

  1. Ted

    Timely conclusion, it seems nothing has changed in more than 2,000 years.

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