Mark 7:24 – 30: Back When There Wasn’t Room in Jesus’ Circle


A sermon preached on September 9th, 2012 based upon Mark 7:24 – 30.

Every Sunday we say “there’s always room in the circle.”  When I ask the kids why this is so? they know the answer.  Jesus makes room in the circle for everybody.

But this morning’s story is troubling, because initially there wasn’t room in Jesus’ circle for the Gentile woman who came to him seeking a healing for her very sick daughter.   She falls at his knees to make her desperate request, and Jesus says, “It’s not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.  “

The children in this case are the Jews.  The “dogs” are this woman and the rest of her Gentile kind.  There’s no way of softening this.   In those days, dogs weren’t cute pets.  They were dirty, flea-bitten scavengers that would eat anything they could get their mouth on.   Not a nice thing to be called.   Jesus’ words are rude.  Cruel.  Racist.

When we considered this story at Bible study this past Wednesday, there were folks who were ready to have this story tossed out of the New Testament.  Who can blame them?  They aren’t alone in this desire.  As you may know, Mark’s Gospel was written first.  It served as a basic source for Luke and Matthew.   Luke chose not to include the story at all.   Matthew includes it, but he changes it a bit so that Jesus doesn’t come off quite so bad.  Matthew brings the disciples into the interaction  Jesus is having with the woman, having them be the ones who wanted to tell the woman to “get lost.”  Matthew makes it read like some kind of object lesson Jesus is doing on behalf of the disciples.

But Mark felt compelled to include this story as unseemly as it reads.  It seems likely that the story was based on an actual event.

Let’s put the story in context.  Jesus has left Galilee to travel far into a Gentile region.  Tyre is on the seashore.  Jesus seems to be taking a vacation at the beach.  This makes sense.  He’s been through a stressful time.  Jesus needs some down time.  He doesn’t want anybody to know he’s there.

I thought of Bill Gripp, who went to the beach recently with his family.  How would Bill feel if one of his customers got a hold of his cell phone and called him while he’s lying there on the sand soaking up the sun.   “My basement is flooding!  I need you to come and save me!”  Bill would not have been pleased.

On top of that, there was a long-standing hostility between Jews and the people who live in the region of Tyre.   The people there were probably better off than the rural Jews among whom Jesus lived in rural Galilee, and probably looked down on them some.  There were likely incidents of violence between the two groups as there always are along these kinds of hostile borders – instances of Jesus’ own people being wounded, even killed at the hands of Gentiles.

None of this leaves Jesus off the hook.  It does, however, present him as being very human, like you or me.   We can relate to this very human Jesus — that much is true.

There are certain unexamined assumptions all of us carry around with us.  The truth of these assumptions go unquestioned, because we’re not even aware we’re holding them.   They are so fundamental to the way we see life that they become to us like the air we breathe — like the water in which fish swim.

To some extent we need these assumptions to go unchallenged, because they give our lives order and stability.  But some of these assumptions aren’t based in truth.   They are barriers that ultimately need to be overcome.

When look backwards in history, it becomes easy to see some of the collective assumptions once held collectively in societies.   There was a time when everybody knew the sun revolved around the earth… that slavery was simply a part of the established order of things… that certain races were inherently inferior… that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote or hold positions of authority in the world.   Sensitive, moral people would raise questions about whether slaves were being treated humanely,  or whether women were being abused in their homes.  But the basic assumptions about their lot in life were never questioned.

Forty years ago most people saw being gay as something inherently shameful.   We’re living in a time of transition where this unquestioned assumption has been questioned, and for many people,  left behind.  A day will come when pretty much everybody will look back and wonder how it was that people – and especially people in churches – could refuse people the right to live the life in which their biology oriented them.

But in the midst of them, these kinds of assumptions resist examination tooth and nail.  To call them into question initially is highly unsettling.  There is an inevitable ‘push back’ against those who would raise questions.  Think of Galileo daring to suggest that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe, and how he paid severely for doing so. Every human rights movement has faced violent opposition.  People don’t like having their underlying assumptions in life challenged.

Growing up as a Jew in those days, Jesus shared in the unquestioned assumptions that were a part of their racial identity, and which sustained them through centuries of severe persecution.  They were God’s chosen people, they alone were the “children of God,” called apart from other peoples to live a holy life.  They alone had received the gift of the Torah that revealed what God required of people.  They were blessed, and in God’s time they would be a blessing to the world, but for now their focus was to live as a holy people, and that required keeping their distance from the unclean Gentiles.

This was the lens through which Jesus had always seen life, and so it was only natural for Jesus to assume his mission was only to the people of Israel.  This assumption, as familiar as it was needed to be given up in order for Jesus to fully embrace what God was doing through him, and this remarkable Gentile woman who came to him that day was the agent through which Jesus was changed.  Humbly, gently, but firmly she pushes against Jesus’ assumption that there was a scarcity to the grace available through his ministry.

The Jesus we get in this story doesn’t embody the kind of perfection we’re accustomed to associating with him, but he does manifest a quality that is quite extraordinary, and one that is especially important to honor in the present age.   He embodies the willingness to have one’s point of view changed.

Children are open to change, but when we become adults, we commonly settle into a world view that becomes largely set in stone.  Maybe this had something to do with why Jesus said that unless we turn and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of God.

The kinds of assumptions I’m talking about are, by definition, hard ones to identify.  These assumptions are simply taken for granted, like the water the fish swims in.  Every one of us hold unquestioned assumptions which stand in the way of our fully experiencing the kingdom of God.   There may be about who we believe we are and what we think we are capable of, both positively and negatively.  There are assumptions we cling to about our families or our workplaces that keep us from seeing what’s truly happening, and the possibilities there that may exist.

There are also assumptions that we share with multitudes of people that stand in the way of solving the world’s most pressing problems.  It is expressive of where we are in our society that the polls tell us that with two months remaining before the presidential election, only about 5% of us have not made up our minds about who we will vote for.  Only one out of twenty people is still paying attention to the “debates” with the notion that they might hear something that will change their minds.

This past Friday at our little weekly gathering of men I decided to have us venture out into risky territory.   I announced that the topic of the day would be politics.  There are great moral dimensions to policy decisions that are before us as a nation, so they warrant discussion by people of faith.  But political discussions evoke strong emotion and easily descend into shouting sound bites at one another.

Our little group we ranged the spectrum:  conservative, moderate, liberal.  I had us begin by each saying where we would place ourselves on the political spectrum, and to tell the story of how we came to that place.  As I did so, I realized that how I view politics has a great deal to do with where I have lived and the people I’ve hung around.  If I’d had different experiences with a different set of people, I’m sure my political views would be quite different.   This simply points out that our political viewpoints are based far less on the objective analysis we often assume is behind them and far more to do with where we just happened to land in life.  That in itself is a rather humbling recognition.

I was pleased and proud of our group that we managed to hold a discussion that was civil.  Nobody got too intense.  That is, until David, who had been fairly quiet up until then, spoke.   With some passion David pointed out that our country faces some pretty enormous problems which, if not addressed, have the potential of taking us into a great abyss.   For instance,  there is the debt crisis with its potential to cast the whole world into a great economic depression.   There’s also the reality of global warming and the threat it poses to our planet and our future on it.  The only hope we have as a nation and as a world is if people can learn how to work together to solve these problems.  That means having people with different points of view willing to talk to each other, and to be open to the possibility that these conversations might change the way we see things.  If we can’t learn to do this, David pointed out, the future is really scary.

This is why the Jesus we see in this story is one we desperately need to embrace in this age.  Here is Jesus willing to question one of his basic assumptions as a result of a conversation with another person – a person coming at life from a very different direction.  Here is Jesus willing to be changed, opening up the circle of his grace so that now there is room for all people.

When we realize what has happened here in this story, we see what follows in a new light. Mark tells us that Jesus went from Tyre to the Decapolis, a region inhabited by both Jews and Gentiles.   A deaf man who cannot speak is brought to Jesus to be healed.  No mention is made of whether he is a Jew or Gentile.  It doesn’t seem to matter now.   He puts his fingers into the man’s ears and says, “Be opened!”  And suddenly the man can hear and speak again.  As we read this, we sense that we, too are being invited to be opened up to the great expansiveness of God’s grace.

The healing of the deaf man is followed by the story of Jesus performing for the second time in Mark’s Gospel a miracle in which thousands of people are fed by a few loaves and fishes.   Before I truly appreciated what had taken place in Jesus’ encounter with the Gentile woman, essentially repeating the same story never seemed to make much sense.  Why report Jesus doing essentially what he’s already done before?   This is what all three of the other Gospel writers seem to have concluded.  They cut the second story from their versions.

But the significance of this second story is the setting.  In this story the crowd of people surely included both Jews and Gentiles.  All are fed at the Gospel table.  And once more, afterwards there was plenty of bread left over.   Not just crumbs, but full loaves.   There’s always more than enough to eat at the Gospel table, and there’s always room at the table.