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Sermon for Ordinary 23

Sermon Ordinary 23 - Mark 7:24-37

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

When developers wanted to build private housing in 1934 in Cutteslowe in Oxfordshire near to council houses they decided that it would be easier to sell the private houses to nice middle class people if they were separated from the homes of the working class people who already lived there. So it was that a wall was built in the middle of the road to separate the council houses from the private housing. It was Nicknamed ‘Snob Wall’. Apparently it was knocked down twice, once by a steamroller from the council in 1938 deliberately and once in the second world war accidentally by a tank. But both times it was rebuilt.

Eventually it did come down, it was removed in 1959. However all of this has been brought to light again this week because Oxfordshire Council has decided to resurface the road. They only resurfaced half the road, they did the part in what was the nice middle class area and not the council area ! Naomi Langlais, who lives on the working class side of the street, said neighbours had

'long joked about 'class war' on the street…… ‘It is just so weird it stops at the exact spot that used to occupy the wall, half way down the road.’

This class war divide is not something new, read the book of James with our reading this morning and we read about the problems which the early Christians had and how they discriminated against poor people

For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? For James, being a Christian meant that you respected all people and you did not give special attention to the wealthy,

The differentiation of people by virtue of where they live is nothing new. When Corinne and I started lived on a council estate in Merseyside in my first ministry post people were astonished when we told them our address, we lived in a geographical area where nice people would not go. People asked whether if they came to visit they would be attacked or have their car stolen.

As human beings we are very good at creating barriers and divisions and looking at ways to categorise people into good people and bad people. Sadly the deciding factor in determining who is in and who is out has to do with how much like us people are.

Think about it yourself, think of ten best friends, is it like looking in a mirror? Usually they will be people like you. Dividing people up like this is bad enough, it is much worse when we try to make God the image of ourselves as well. We imagine that God shares our likes and dislikes.

This brings us to the lessons we can learn from our passage in Mark’s Gospel this morning, which is also recorded slightly differently in Matthew. Luke leaves it out altogether perhaps because it is not an easy passage, lets see why.

As we have seen from our council friends in Oxfordshire, where people live is important. In Mark’s Gospel where people live is important too. The Jews were a very close group of like minded people. They all looked alike, thought alike, shared a common history, culture, religion. They defined people by those who were Jews and those who were Gentiles. The Jews were the chosen people and the gentiles were not chosen not loved by God in the same special way. Consequently the deaths of Gentile people were obviously not of the same importance as the death of Gentiles.

Today Mark makes a point of telling us that Jesus goes to places called Tyre and Sidon. These independent city states were in an area known as Phoenicia. A woman he meets there is called a Syrophonecian. So she is a Greek woman from Sidon in the area of Phoenicia. Matthew describes her as a Canaanite which marks her out as a pagan, a complete contrast to the people of God.

Jesus has gone north, he is now in what we know as Lebanon. Jesus is in Gentile country, it is as if he has gone over that wall in Oxfordshire and he has gone from the nice people to the down and outs. Jesus is no longer looking at people and seeing his own reflection, these are different folks, with different ways of doing things.

To give you some of the history of this region of the cities of Tyre and Sidon it was Greek, it was called Phonencia after the Greek word Phoinkes meaning 'purple'. It was a term given to the region by the Greeks because the people of Phoenicia developed purple dye from a sea snail (mollusc) in the Mediterranean Sea called the Murex. Thy were the ‘purple people’ who developed this very expensive purple dye - the colour for Rome. But they didn’t only make it - they shipped it all over the world.
New Testament Tyre and Sidon were prosperous Roman port cities, they had great harbours and the Phoenicians learned to navigate by the stars so that they travelled not only all over the Mediterranean but also as far as Britain where they discovered the tin mines of Cornwall, tin was important because it was needed to make bronze. . They supplied cedar trees for the temple of Solomon, floating them down the coast of the Mediterranean to Joppa. These were a people who developed the alphabet we have today, the Phoenician town was called biblos!

Matthew describes her a Canaanite. She is the opposite to the Jew It stresses her as a pagan, a completer contrast to the people of God. Tyre and Sidon were in the land known as Canaan, the land which the Jews God had promised to Moses for the Israelites. Remember there had been ethnic cleansing of cities in Canaan as the Israelites took over Canaanite cities.
King Ahab had married a woman from Sidon, do you remember what she was called ? (Jezebel). You may remember her run in with Elijah because she refused to adopt the religion of her husband and brought her own worship with her. Elijah seized 450 of her priests and led them out to the Wadi Kishon, where he slaughtered them and left them in a mass grave (1 Kings 18:40). Today there would be an international outcry and Elijah would be indicted on war crimes and taken to the Hague, but in those days these were gentiles, Canaanites, they came from Phoenicia, so their lives were considered unimportant. Subsequently she was killed when General Jehu threw her out of a window and she was eaten by dogs.

2 Kings 9:34
Then Jehu went to Jezreel. When Jezebel heard about it, she put on eye makeup, arranged her hair and looked out of a window.  As Jehu entered the gate, she asked, “Have you come in peace, you Zimri, you murderer of your master? He looked up at the window and called out, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked down at him. “Throw her down!” Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot. Jehu went in and ate and drank. “Take care of that cursed woman,” he said, “and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter.”  But when they went out to bury her, they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands.  They went back and told Jehu, who said, “This is the word of the Lord that he spoke through his servant Elijah the Tishbite: On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs will devour Jezebel’s flesh. Jezebel’s body will be like dung on the ground in the plot at Jezreel, so that no one will be able to say, ‘This is Jezebel.’”
So this morning it is against this background that the story is set and we need to understand this if we are to understand the short conversation which Jesus has with this unnamed woman, a woman identified more by what she wasn’t than by what she was- she was not a Jew. A gentile woman living in Canaan, the area from which Jezebel had come.

The episode begins with Jesus entering a house and wanting to be left alone. This is not an unreasonable request, a bit of peace as he has a moment of rest in this retreat by the sea. But this now famous Jews could not go unnoticed and a the woman shows up. The reason she comes is because her little daughter is ill. we don’t know what it was, unclean spirit seems to mean different things to Mark, whatever her condition she was a Gentile, a foreigner and a daughter of the ancient enemies of Jesus’ people. If we were looking for qualifications for Jesus to break take time out of his holidays this woman had little going for her. Nevertheless we are told she begs Jesus to make her daughter well.

There isn’t a lot of dialogue, the response which Jesus makes is this

‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Is Jesus downright rude? Does he really call her a dog ? Calling somebody a dog is not nice. Chukka Amuna told Jeremy Corbyn yesterday to ‘call the dogs off’ and John McConnel the shadow treasury sec said it was wrong to call party members ’dogs.’ How fresh and contemporary ! It is always wrong to refer to somebody as a dog. I have read that at the time the Phoenicians had dogs as pets and the word means puppy. So most probably Jesus was not thinking of wild dogs but dogs which came into the house. This would make more sense of how the woman responds to Jesus.

But think for a moment how that woman would have felt. her child was sick. If you have ever had a sick child you will know how she felt. When you child is sick you will do anything and if somebody refuses to help that is shocking.

The words of Jesus to a frightened woman appear insulting and cruel. Theologians and preachers have struggled with these words of Jesus and they have suggested different things some to try and get around the fact that Jesus sounds downright rude.

The response of Jesus makes clear, perhaps by using a saying of the day, that the Jews, ‘the children’ have first claim on him, only when they have been fed can the little dogs come and eat. Jesus is saying that the Gentiles will get their gospel opportunity later; Israel comes first. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus begins by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24) his response is to appeal to the limits of his mission, his call to serve his own people.

This is a radical suggestion, that God will break through the barrier of division of peoples, but not yet.

Is Jesus really that rude?

It might be that Jesus was tired it might be that he was angry that he had been recognised and could not get any peace.
He might have just trotted out a well known put down.
It has been suggested that Jesus, doesn’t really mean to call her a dog, he is only speaking ‘tongue in cheek’. I am not sure that lightens his words, because a woman is ‘begging’ for the healing of her daughter is it kinder to think that Jesus decides to indulge in playful irony?
It is perhaps kinder to think that Jesus just didn't think that he could do it !

It is all part of the struggle to understand why Jesus behaved in a way that every other Jew would have done at that time.

Normally when Jesus makes these clever statements that is it and the person goes away with their tail between their legs. On this occasion the woman is having none of it, she is not asking for herself, her daughter needs help! This woman is at her wits end. If your child is sick and you ask somebody for help and they refuse, you never forget that. The woman does not lash out at Jesus, call him names and say how lacking he is in compassion. Instead she goes along with the canine metaphor

‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’

If you have a dog who likes the human food more than they like doggy food then this will become immediately understandable to you. The woman is thinking about what happens when children eat. If it is pets that are in mind they love it when children eat because bits go everywhere. The woman believes that such is the power of God which lies in Jesus even a scrap will be sufficient.
The woman believes that Gentiles need to be included in what Jesus has started, and she wants it now.

Jesus credits the woman for her logos, not her pistis. Does this woman help Jesus to understand that his mission is to all people, all need grace ?
Jesus has just been shown by Mark to change the purity laws and declare all food clean.
Now Jesus redefines who receives grace and most importantly when - ie Now

The woman is out of order, but well-behaved women seldom make history.
So why did Jesus liken the woman to a dog ?

Was Jesus testing her to tease out her affirmation of faith ?
Was he just fed up at being disturbed again ?
Was he of the opinion that he must go to the Jews first ?

Does this woman pass the test or win Jesus over ?

We cannot know exactly what Jesus was thinking, however what is clear its that his actions show that after speaking with the Syrophoenician woman Jesus agrees that God’s love and healing power know no ethnic, political, religious or social boundaries.

We are told that Jesus praises her logos - words but she also shows faith because we are told she trusts Jesus at his word

“So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone” (Mark 7:30).

So what is there in this for us

Today is a warning to us all. There is a resurgence of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia in western culture -- quiet often religion is wrapped up in this. Jesus makes clear that these walls which we build have no place with God. We are all included in his gift, no matter what our nationality, ethnicity, or social status. God's beloved children come from every tribe and language and nation. God’s kingdom bursts open at the seams any vessels in which we try to contain it.

Today is also a reminder that none of us are God’s favourites. We all come to God’s table only by grace and we need to be reminded that God’s table is a much larger table than we can imagine.
The good news is that as this woman reminded Jesus, even the crumbs from the table would be enough for our healing and salvation.

This woman also gives us a wonderful example of faith. Jesus the woman's logos ("reasoning") but says nothing about pistis ("faith") but she shows great faith as well. Jesus gives the gift of healing to the woman’s daughter without saying any healings words, no home visit, just tells her it has happened.

Jesus makes us the same promises and we must show the same faith to trust in him and take him at his word.

Immediately after leaving Tyre, Jesus' work goes a new way. He cures a man who cannot hear and can barely speak, then feeds 4000 people. Those events occur, apparently, in the Decapolis (Mark 7:31-8:10), a region populated chiefly by gentiles. Although Mark doesn't call attention to the ethnic identity of these people, it seems Jesus takes the Syrophoenician mother's wisdom to heart. The timeline has been accelerated; gentiles receive blessings, too, even now. The woman's persistence benefits more than just one little girl.


The purple dye manufactured and used in Tyre for the robes of Mesopotamian royalty gave Phoenicia the name by which we know it today (from the Greek Phoinikes for Tyrian Purple) and also accounts for the Phoenicians being known as 'purple people’ by the Greeks (as the Greek historian Herodotus tells us) because the dye would stain the skin of the workers.

Phoenicia as the birthplace of the alphabet, stating that it was brought to Greece by the Phoenician Kadmus (sometime before the 8th century BCE) and that, prior to that, the Greeks had no alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet is the basis for most western languages written today and their city of Gebal (called by the Greeks 'Byblos’) gave the Bible its name (from the Greek Ta Biblia, the books) as Gebal was the great exporter of papyrus (bublos to the Greeks) which was the paper used in writing in ancient Egypt and Greece.

“little dogs” (kunaria)