Jesus Learns a Lesson

James 2:1-9, 14-17; Mark 7:24-30

Rev. Doug Van Doren


With whom do you generally identify in a story from the New Testament? Is it the one who gets it right? Is it Jesus? Is it the one who comes in need and is rewarded for his or her faith? Is it the Pharisees who generally come out as the bad guys? In the text from Mark today, if you identify with Jesus, you identify with the one who got it wrong - at least to begin with!

This has become one of my many favorite texts. It shows Jesus a little differently from how we generally imagine him. My guess is that the early church "cleaned up" this story a bit in order to show Jesus in a better light than I am guessing it originally showed him. Only a little better, however.

In reality, Jesus starts out here as a rude and insensitive cad. Of course, we can make all kinds of excuses for him such as people had hounded him all day; he was tired and couldn't deal with one more thing; he was human after all (some of us have such a high divinity that we tend to forget that?). None of those, however, is the real reason.

This woman, a non-Jew, comes to Jesus in obvious distress, seeking an exorcism for her daughter, and Jesus blows her off. The real reason is because she is not of the right religion and ethnicity. She is undeserving. She is unworthy of his ministrations; unworthy of God's care. In essence, he calls her a dog. (He may not have thought that was what he was doing in the analogy of giving the children's food to the dogs, but you can be sure that she did). However, in her wisdom, in her faith and desperation (I am not sure there is a big difference) she comes back at him, "Even the dogs eat the scraps." All of the sudden, it hits Jesus. He truly hears himself- what he really said due to the assumptions he has absorbed! This ungodly way of seeing another person is revealed to him.

Have you ever had that happen? I have. I finally stop and listen to what I have said, or how I have said it, and I am not always favorably impressed! Sometimes when I hear a person say something I think, "Do you ever listen to yourself? What you are really saying?" Sometimes we hear ourselves in our children or in the hurt we have caused another. This woman figuratively slaps Jesus upside the head. I am certain he was ashamed of himself.

Jesus, like all the rest of us, had absorbed the assumptions and the deep prejudices of his culture and community. He had absorbed the misunderstanding that the "chosenness" of the Jews meant they were the most important or only worthy ones; the only ones God cares about. He had absorbed the assumption that Gentiles were dirty, unworthy, not truly sisters and brothers, not objects of God's love and care. However, those cultural scales fell from Jesus' eyes when confronted by this real woman, this real need, and her real tenacity.

Jesus may have been ashamed of himself, but he does something about it. Jesus changes. He gives up his deep-seated assumptions that go so deep they are not usually even questioned.

I am reminded of many places in the Old Testament where God changes God's mind. In the giving of the law, when the people have gone after the golden calf, God is ready to wipe them out, but Moses (much to his later regret) pleads with God to not smite them all! And God relents. God is going to destroy Nineveh, but reconsiders when the Ninevites repent. God is willing to bargain with Abraham to not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if but a few good people can be found.

Contrary to our assumptions, maybe there is actually something Godly about changing one's mind; about reconsidering given new information and insight! Maybe Jesus' very divinity here is shown not in his lack of a consistent position, but rather in his ability to change. Maybe we see his divinity in his ability to be moved, to be convinced by this real person and this real need! There are several important lessons here:

If it can happen to Jesus, it certainly can happen to us. We certainly have absorbed societal assumptions, prejudices, and biases that are so deep as to almost be part of our bone marrow. Ah, but also if Jesus is our way, our model, we too have the ability to move past and to give up those things. We too have the ability to truly believe the testimony of another and to be moved by their humanity.

As humans we are natural imitators. Imitation is a great part of the way we learn. We tend to absorb and imitate the actions and assumptions of those around us, particularly cultural ones. Thus, your mother's admonition to choose your friends carefully!

Being part of the church is to more intentionally seek to be part of a community that is called to see things differently than our dominant culture does. It is to surround ourselves with a story and with people who encourage us to see the world as God intends it to be.

This woman saved Jesus from his ungodly perspective and assumptions. His eyes were opened. Are we open to such salvation from angels unawares?

I have learned so many things from faithful people:

·         I have learned about perseverance, about keeping the faith, from a woman whose only luck was bad luck but her faith continued to grow for she knew that only God knew the trouble she had seen.

·         I have learned about deep, tenacious faith, from Gay and Lesbian people in this place, sharing their stories of abuse and humiliation by the church. Yet they persevered, knowing in their gut, that it was not God but some churches that hated them.

·         I have learned of generosity from so many of you who share your money, your time, your gifts for the ministry, not only here, but also in the city and in far-flung places.

·         I have shared with you before that I learned something of the depth of rage caused by racism from a buddy of mine in seminary who stomped out of a worship service when something racist was said. We had been dealing with this issue, so when I went to him, in the fullness of my naiveté, and asked him why he did not stay and deal with it right then, he said, "I had only two choices; one was to leave and the other was to start throwing chairs."

·         I have learned of the devastating effects of poverty by a 10-year-old boy I worked with in Pontiac. He was one of the brightest and most gifted kids I have ever known, and one of the most angry - legitimately so. The chances of him getting killed or ending up in prison were 20 t