September 9, 2012 – The Day Dogs Became Children
To hear the recorded version of this sermon, click here: The Day the Dogs Became Children
In my sermon last week I said that Jesus didn’t want us to waste our time trying to be “good” – because he had something much better for us. His plan for us is not to teach us to be good and to succeed at following all the rules. His plan for us is that we be healed of all that keeps us from having the abundant life he wants us to have. The big point I wanted to make was that sin isn’t really a list of do’s and don’t’s that we can measure ourselves and our neighbors by. Sin is the cancer we are born with, that kills us from the inside, that can be seen by the things we do and say and think. “Nothing that goes into a man defiles a man,” Jesus said, “But what comes out of a man – evil thoughts, and murder, and dishonesty, and greed – all those things are signs of the illness inside him. And it is that sickness of sin that makes a man unclean.”
That is why we speak of “original sin”, which is a very difficult thing to understand, I think. How can we say that a baby is born sinful? We look at a newborn baby – and I have a grandchild that is probably going to be born today, so I’m going to be holding a newborn baby very, very soon! – and we can see that a baby is pure and innocent, completely helpless and perfectly beautiful. What we mean – or at least what I mean – when we talk about original sin is that being born into this world, that brand new little person already has that seed of death inside her. It sounds horrible, and it is horrible, because the fall of man is the worst tragedy that has ever happened to us. Every new and perfect little child will suffer pain and illness, sooner or later, and often it is sooner, and as she grows she will show those symptoms of selfishness and anger and meanness that are part of being human. And without the healing work of Christ in her life she is on her own to deal with that illness throughout her whole life, and that illness will eventually be victorious and she will die.
And that would all be very depressing, except for one thing – that child, and every child, and that includes us, are NOT without the healing work of Christ. The illness is there, the whole world is suffering from the worst, most insidious, fatal epidemic imaginable: BUT the cure has already been found. The disease of sin, no matter how much damage it has done and is doing, is doomed to extinction. And that antidote of abundant and imperishable life is available for all. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have life, and have it abundantly. God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world – that is, Jesus didn’t come to ‘clobber’ everybody who wasn’t following the rules – but in order that the world might be saved through him.” He wasn’t here as the cosmic Judge – though judgment will come – but as the Great Physician who brought the healing that the whole creation needed.
Jesus was taking the idea of what everyone had always assumed it meant to be a good and godly person and turning on its head. Being “clean” or “unclean” wasn’t what we thought it was at all. He said, “There isn’t anything that can make you unclean from the outside.” And Mark tells us that in that short statement he was declaring, among other things, that all the elaborate rules about what foods a good Jew could or couldn’t eat and how they must be eaten – all those rules were finished. Jesus was declaring that all foods were clean. It was revolutionary. But there was even more to it than that, because if all those foods people had always looked upon as unclean were now proclaimed clean, what about all the people that they had always looked upon as unclean? If being children of God is not about “being good” and following the rules, how do we identify the children of God? How can we tell who’s “in” and who’s “out”?
That was a big deal, because the whole identity of the Jews was that they were the chosen people of God. They hadn’t always obeyed faithfully, but God had always called them back to himself, and they had suffered a lot as a people. From birth they had a strong sense of being the people of God, and being separate from the nations around them was part of that. God had called them to be holy, a people set apart for himself, and the Law was a part of that, because the way of life that the Law prescribed was a sign to the nations around that the God of Israel was completely different from all the other gods of the nations. His people were to be different, they were to live differently, because God was unique. It all had to do with the promise God made to Abraham, who was the first one he called out, away from his home and from his own people, telling Abraham that he would make a great nation of him, that he would be with him and bless him abundantly. But there was more. God also told Abraham that through him, Abraham, he was going to bless all the nations of the world.
And I think the Jews, so many centuries later, had forgotten that part of God’s promise. They had forgotten that the reason God had called them out and set them apart was so that in the end he could draw together all the nations, redeem them all, until every nation under heaven would confess the one true God. The end game was that no one would be “out” – everyone would be “in”. The promise in chapter 12 of Genesis is really important to us: God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” So, when Jesus started to teach that the separation between unclean and clean foods was no longer in effect, that he had made all foods clean, he was talking about a lot more than just food. He was talking about people, about all the nations that the Jews had so carefully and faithfully separated themselves from, the people they called “unclean” – in fact, they often referred to Gentiles as “dogs”, because dogs were unclean animals under the law of Moses.
You have to remember all that to understand what is going on in the story about the Syrophoenecian woman who came to Jesus for help. It is significant that Jesus had traveled with his disciples out of the territory of the Jews to Tyre, which is where Lebanon is today, to the home of Greek-speaking people who were not part of the “chosen people” of Israel at all. His presence there was a sign pointing forward to the spreading of the gospel beyond the boundaries of Israel to all nations. And that’s what makes his conversation with the distressed mother so important. Jesus’s fame as a powerful healer had obviously spread beyond the borders of Galilee, so that when the woman heard that Jesus was nearby she came to beg for his help, knowing that his people and hers were on no friendly terms. But she was desperate; her little daughter was very ill. The story says that she had a demon, and whether that was a way to describe an illness of which no one knew the source, or whether she truly had some kind of demonic presence, it doesn’t really matter, especially if we know that all sin and all evil have the same source. She had nothing to lose in coming to Jesus, so she summoned all her courage and begged him, falling at his feet. Who wouldn’t do that if the life of their child was at stake?
And Jesus’s reply seems very harsh, but it is important to listen carefully to what he says. He said to the woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t right to give the children’s bread to the dogs.” And there are two things to notice: first, he isn’t saying that the Gentiles are outside the bounds of God’s mercy. He only says, “Let the children be fed first.” And in saying that, he is pointing forward to the time when the gospel would reach beyond Israel to all nations. But second, when he uses the term “dogs” he doesn’t use the word that normally means “dog”, which was a real insult. He uses an affectionate word, one that was used for small dogs that were kept as pets. He is challenging the woman, but with affection, with a smile, you might say. And by her response you can tell that she understands. “Yes, Lord,” she says (and this woman is the only person in the whole gospel of Mark who calls Jesus “Lord”) “but even the little dogs eat the crumbs under the children’s table.” Her answer is full of determination – she isn’t giving up – and it is also very humble. She doesn’t take offense; she responds in the same warm, informal tone as Jesus has spoken to her. And you can hear his pleasure in what she has said. “For this statement,” he says to her, “you can go home. Your daughter is already well.” And of course she went home and found it just as Jesus had promised her.
This story is about the beginnings of the breaking in of God’s grace into the world. He hadn’t just come to hide out with his small band of special people, away from the corruption of the world. That would never have worked anyway, because the corruption, as Jesus taught, came from within. There never was any way of keeping pure by separating yourself. God’s plan from the very beginning was to reveal himself through Israel so that he could come to his broken, disordered creation and make it all well and whole again. When we forget that purpose we get ourselves bogged down in the miry mess of judging everyone around us so that we can see ourselves as the “good” people, the ones who are “in”. But when we remember that purpose, we can follow in Jesus’s footsteps, because we have been given his Spirit to reach out in compassion as he reached out to the Syropheonecian mother. And as we reach out, like Jesus did, we are drawing people into the kingdom with us, where they can find life and healing.
If we remember that we were born with that seed of death just the same as everyone around us, we should see that there is really nothing that separates us from them, nothing that makes us better than them. But there is something we have to offer them, because we have found the cure for the sickness that we are all suffering from – not by our own wisdom or goodness or strength, but purely and simply by the grace of God. And by the grace of God we can be messengers of hope to our neighbors and our family and our friends. We don’t have to be preachy. In fact, almost nothing is less appealing than being preached at, no matter how old or young you are. But people are desperate to find even the smallest crumbs of hope and life and health, and we can invite them to the table where those things are to be found. We can share the bread of the good news with them. We have the joy and the responsibility to invite the people we know to the table, and by that I mean to invite them into God’s family as beloved children. The good news we have is this. “We were dying, but Jesus gave us his life. We were lost, but he found us. We were blind, but now we are beginning to see. Come, and see with us.”