“Yo, Dawg” (Mark 7:24-37)
The only time it’s okay to call someone a dog is when you might say, “Yo, Dawg. What’s up?” Or if you are fondly referring to the UW Huskies as the “Dawgs.” Otherwise, it’s usually an insult. When I was in high school, we would call the unattractive girls “dogs.” What jerks we were. I have since repented. Many of those girls, in retrospect, were actually very beautiful. They were kind. They were polite. They were friendly. Many of the ones who we called “foxes” were the ones who, in retrospect, were full of themselves … at least that’s the way it appeared. Inside, they probably had their own uncertainties and insecurities, just like everyone else.
But back to my original point: to call someone a dog or to do so by questioning their parentage is just plain wrong. So where does Jesus get off calling this woman in today’s Gospel reading a “dog”? What is he up to?
First off, consider where Jesus was. He had taken a trip to the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon. This was to the northwest of Galilee. It was full of Greeks … Gentiles. Maybe Jesus wanted to relax for a bit at the beach, get away from it all. He found a house to stay in, a respite from the crowds who demanded his attention. All of a sudden, a woman from shows up at his doorstep and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. But she’s a Gentile. Jesus is a Jew. Jews don’t have anything to do with Gentiles. And Jesus reflects the teaching of his day when he says, “Let the children [that is, the Jews] be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs [that is, the Gentiles].”
Ouch. That hurts, Jesus. Not cool. Some commentators have tried to soften the blow by explaining that Jesus used the word for a “pet dog” here, a domesticated animal that lives with the family. That may be the case. Even so, put yourself in this woman’s shoes. You are a desperate mother. You have approached this Jewish healer on behalf of your ailing daughter. And he blows you off by saying, “Nice doggy. Sorry. No can do. What I have to offer is for my people only. Now shoo!”
Why would Jesus do such a thing? Is he testing this woman, to see if she would persist? Is he testing the disciples who were with him, to see how they would respond to this woman who in the eyes of the Jews was marginalized, unclean, an outcast? I’m not really sure. What I do know is that Mark records for us a remarkable statement of faith: “Yes, Lord,” says this Syrophoenician woman, “yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Quite a contrast to the hypocritical Pharisees and scribes he had just encountered earlier in the chapter.
Now this woman could have responded to Jesus with vitriol: “How dare you insinuate that I am a dog, you pig!” That would have been a real zinger, considering how the Jews feel about pork. But no. Instead, she humbly admits that she has no right to come to Jesus and ask for anything. All she wants is some scraps, some leftovers. “Go ahead and feed your children first, Lord. And if there’s anything else you can spare, please let me have it. Even the scraps from your table will be powerful enough to heal my daughter.” And they were. Jesus sent her home to see that her daughter was no longer oppressed by the unclean spirit.
Following this, Jesus heads to another region full of Gentiles, the Decapolis, east of Galilee. Here he encounters another person, presumably a Gentile, needing his help. This man was deaf and had a speech impediment. His friends brought him to Jesus and begged him to lay his hand on him. They recognized the power of the touch of Jesus. Knowing this man cannot hear, Jesus tells him what he’s going to do with some sign language. He puts his fingers in the man’s ears and spits and touches his tongue to tell him what body parts he’s going to fix. He looks up to heaven to tell the man where his healing comes from. And with one simple word … “Ephphatha” … “Be opened” … the man’s ears were opened and he was no longer tongue-tied.
What can we learn from these two accounts? We learn first of all that the blessings of Jesus are for all people … for the marginalized, those deemed unclean by society, for the outcast. But really, when it comes right down to it, our sins have marginalized each and every one of us from God. Our sin makes us unclean. We deserve to be cast out from God’s presence forever. As sinners, we have no right to ask God for anything … not even for scraps.
But Jesus became marginalized, unclean, and cast out from God’s presence for us at the cross. Our God did indeed “come with vengeance” (Is. 35:4). The wrath of God over our sin was laid upon Jesus. And in this way he came and saved us (Is. 35:4).
In Holy Baptism we are brought into God’s family. We become his children. Yes, even his scraps are powerful enough to forgive, but he isn’t satisfied in giving us leftovers. As children, we are given a place at his table. He gives us an overabundance of love and forgiveness. This is also evident in the account that follows our text. In the Gentile region of the Decapolis, 4000 people were fed with only seven loaves and a few small fish. After all the broken pieces were picked up, there were seven baskets full left over. Jesus fed the 5,000 in the Jewish region of Galilee, and there was plenty left over. Jesus fed the 4,000 in the Gentile region of the Decapolis, and there was plenty left over. Jesus feeds you today with his Word and with his Body and Blood, and there will be plenty left over to feed on until the day when we see him face to face.
That leads me to my next point. There is plenty left over for you and me to share with those who need to hear the Good News of Jesus. The Word of Christ is spoken to you and is powerful to create faith to believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose again to give you eternal life. The Word of Christ was spoken to the woman…simple, straightforward, no magical incantation. It was demonstrated to the man … “Be opened.” The Word of Christ opens our ears to hear, to listen, to have faith, to receive the forgiveness of sins, to receive eternal life. His Word unties our tongues so we can confess his name. Oh, I know we still get tongue-tied at times. That’s why it’s important to be in God’s Word on a regular basis, to listen, to learn to confess and to speak the simple, straightforward, good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification.
And beware that we don’t limit our proclamation among those with whom we are comfortable. The Good News of Jesus is also for the marginalized, the unclean, and the outcast among us. The immigrant. The addict. The homeless. The mentally ill. Those with a prison record. St. James teaches us this in our Epistle reading today. Don’t show partiality, especially within the household of faith. Love your neighbor as yourself. A faith that has no works is dead. So take care of the poor and needy among you. Reach out to the outcasts, to those on the margins. Let them know they are loved with the same love with which Christ loved you. Let them know that Christ’s forgiveness is for them, too.
Unless things change, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that eventually anyone who confesses Christ will be on the margins in our country. It’s already that way in other places around the world, and our brothers and sisters suffer for it. Maybe you feel like you are on the margins here already for whatever reason. You feel like an outcast. You feel as if you are all alone. You are desperate like the woman in today’s text. You wonder if God is deaf to your cries for mercy and forgiveness.
You are not alone. Jesus is with you always. This community of faith is here for you … and if we have failed you in any way, then give us a chance to repent of that and reach out to you again. You are loved and forgiven by God the Father for the sake of Jesus your Savior. His ears are always open to your pleas for mercy and your cries for help (Ps. 28:2). “The Lord is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed” (Ps. 28:8).
That’s you, dear baptized child of God.
Yo, dawg. That’s the truth.