Friday, September 15, 2006

Love Behind Enemy Lines

Mark 7:24-37

In the story of Jesus' encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman and the story of a deaf man from the pagan region of the Decapolis that follows it, we have examples of Jesus’ love going behind enemy lines into pagan territory and reaching the foreigners beyond the boundaries of Israel.

Jesus treats the Syro-Phoenician woman quite rudely and there seems no getting around that fact. This is even clearer in Matthew’s version (15:21-28). Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what the woman said when she made her request but Matthew tells us that she cried out “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly” and that when Jesus heard this he “did not answer a word.” So the first thing he does is ignore her.

The next thing he seems to do is disqualify her whole race from receiving the benefit of his ministry. When the disciples urge him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us,” Jesus seems to disqualify her whole race when he answers “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

He has ignored her; he has racially slurred her; and now he just comes right out and calls her a dog. Matthew tells us she knelt before him (Mark says she begged him) and cried out “Lord, help me!” and he replied, “It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.”

The amazing thing is that none of this deterred her. She just flat out contradicts Jesus in Matthew’s account when she says. “Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” What incredible tenacity! What holy stubbornness! What great faith! And this last thing is what Jesus ultimately commends her for. Jesus said to her, in Matthew‘s account, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. Her faith was in her answer as Mark’s account makes clear, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Do you really think Jesus was rude and uncaring toward this woman and that he needed to be convinced of her plight before he would have mercy on her and her daughter? Of course not. This woman was driven by love for her daughter. Sure she was a Syrian - a Syro-Phoenician - a Gentile dog, but Jesus knew that a pagan mother’s tears over her tormented daughter were seen by God just as surely as the tears of a Jewish mother. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” That cry went up to the ears of a merciful God and was answered.

The deaths of Islamic children in southern Lebanon are as painful to the father heart of God as the deaths of Jewish children in northern Israel. God doesn‘t take sides in politics. He’s not half so interested in whether Israel has a right to defend its borders or Hizzbolah has a right to exist in Lebanon. He sits in the heavens and laughs at the schemes of men but he weeps at the blood of children and the tears of mothers. Larry Huch, a Texas pastor and a regional director of Christians United for Israel, was recently defending Israel's right to self-defence at a rally in Washington, DC. In his speech he said, “We will not turn the other cheek.” What the…? Run that by me again. “We will not turn the other cheek?” Now we all feel that way sometimes - that the teachings of Jesus are hard or even impossible to obey, but to come right out as a minister of the Christian church and say it? “We will not turn the other cheek; We will not obey the teachings of Jesus. We will no longer see the Sermon on the Mount as our code of conduct or even as our ideal.” Now hopefully Pastor Larry said this in an unguarded and unconsidered moment caught up in a flush of political rhetoric, engaging his mouth before his brain was in gear. But this is what happens when the racial or political definition of a person makes their blood more excusable to spill. Makes their mother’s tears less keenly felt because they are our enemy’s tears. Makes their father’s deaths more acceptable because after all he was a terrorist and deserved to die.

Jesus was not rejecting this woman or her race, though he seemed to be at first. He was a master psychologist. He knew how to bring out the best in a person’s faith. He strung her along for awhile so that she could exercise her faith and demonstrate the earnestness of her request. Might he sometimes do the same for us? We pray and he seems to ignore us. We plead and his silence seems like an insult to us. We intercede for our loved ones and the heavens seems shut up like brass. What do we do? Go away dejected? Nurse a grudge against him? Or are we like this woman? Insistent. Not easily dismissed. Worrying the Lord night and day until he gives us what we want for those we love. Do we have in our prayers the honesty and the courage and the integrity to contradict God, not to take “no” for an answer? When Jesus seems to say to us as he said to this woman, “It is not right…” do we just give in and say, “oh well that’s it then“ ? Or do we say as she said, “Yes it is Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” OK I’m a dog; I’m unclean; I know I’m a stranger to the covenants and promises of Israel. I know all that. But I’m a mother and I have a sick child, and I will take whatever crumbs you toss my way to see her get well again.

Our dog Ami sometimes jumps up on a chair while we are eating dinner and looks longingly at what we are eating hoping for a handout. She closes her eyes, as if in closing her eyes we won’t notice she’s there. This is her passive approach. But if that doesn’t work and she’s particularly hungry and what we are eating is meat-based, she may adopt her more aggressive style which is to utter a little growl that says “gimme food” and make a little snapping motion with her mouth as if to say “…and stick it in ’ere!” Of course she runs a big risk in adopting this more aggressive approach, because while we may be willing to accept her presence at the table with her eyes closed she is very likely to be roused on and sent away if she tries this more aggressive stance. But if she’s hungry enough it’s a risk she’s prepared to take. This Syro-Phoenician woman seems to have a similar strategy and to run a similar risk. She approaches Jesus and calls out for mercy but when he seems to ignore her and dismiss her she gets more insistent. When he says, “It is not right to feed the children’s food to the dogs” she growls back and snaps out, “Yes it is. For even the dogs eat the food that falls from the table.” Jesus sees great faith behind her aggressive petition and her strategy pays off.

When this woman went home she found the demon had left her daughter and she was once again in her right mind. And it was all because of the compassion of a loving God and the insistence of her faith against all the odds that she would be heard. Lord give us such faith!


Christop said...

I was just thinking about how countercultural it would have been for Jesus to admit that a pagan, Gentile woman had beaten him in an argument. He treats her a lot differently to how he treats the Pharisees and the scribes, when they try to prove him wrong.

Ludicrousity said...

Wow Glen. When you blog, you really blog! Great stuff, good food for thought there.


Share |