Summary: Mark 7:24-37 expository sermon on the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman, even the dogs eat the crumbs under the children's table.
Preaching in a different pulpit Sunday, filling in for a friend. This is a re-work of a sermon from earlier this year.
Bread for dogs. 9 September 2012, Mark 7:24-37, Trinity 14
We are going to specifically look at a couple of the themes emphasized in this portion: bread, being filled completely by the Kingdom. The first encounter in this section is with a nameless woman, referred to as a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin that has a daughter possessed of a demon. This is a very important encounter, which continues the work Jesus has been doing – breaking down the barriers between Jew and Gentile, unhinging the massive set of Jewish purity laws, and the encounter serves as the passage that interprets the balance of what you heard last week in the feeding of the 5000.
First, a note about translations. You can rely on any of the mainline bible translations for your personal reading and devotional work. However, if you are engaged in a bible study or serious work to figure out a passage, and don’t understand the original languages, the best path to understanding is to consult a number of translations. You can easily do this on the internet – I use http://www.biblegateway.com/ which has 30 different English translations, including the two I use most often – the New King James version and the English Standard Version. The reason looking at several translations is important is that different translators take different approaches to the text, and you can miss subtle clues that are important to understand what is happening.
This encounter with the Gentile woman is one place where the translation we’re using – the New Revised Standard Version – has some differences. Here’s what I mean. The woman begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter, and in the NRSV Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In the New King James version, this is what Jesus says, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” Did you hear the difference? In the NRSV, the children are fed first, in the NKJ they are filled first; in the NRSV the children’s food is thrown to the dogs, in the NKJ it is the children’s bread that is thrown. Given what is going on in the wider story, this change in translation is pretty important –because we’ve just come from the feeding of the 5000, fed with bread, and everyone ate until // “all were filled”; the next encounter in Mark is the feeding of the 4000, fed with bread and everyone ate until they were filled, followed by a dialogue with Jesus about the yeast of the Pharisees, which the disciples interpret to be a criticism of their failure to bring bread. Bread and filling, which are missed in the NRSV translation…
Before we proceed, I want to emphasize that in these feeding dialogues we have to hear the gospel working on several levels at once. These bread stories are talking about bread, and people eating until their stomachs are filled, but they’re also talking about panis angelicus the bread of Angels, or the Body of Jesus. As the people sit and eat the miraculous feast, they are also partaking of the body of Christ in the same way that we do when we gather for communion. This is important to keep in mind as we talk about this rather bold Gentile woman.
This encounter with the Gentile woman sounds quite harsh – after pleading her case before Jesus, we hear what sounds like a rebuke coming from the Lord of love and peace…basically that the bread of Jesus is not to be wasted on the dogs that are the Gentiles. This insult should not be minimized, and some preachers seek to explain this away by saying that Jesus was being ironic, or that his mind was changed by her faith…which both miss the mark. If you look at the context of chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel which you heard last week, Jesus is in the midst of a series of teaching points about the Jewish purity regulations.
These purity regulations were immense and difficult to maintain…and the problem with becoming impure is that you were restricted from public functions, or even being near others until you restored your state of ritual purity. When we moderns hear these terms, we often start to think about being dirty – we wash our hands after we clean out our cat’s litter box for example to restore cleanliness, but this is not the sense of the purity rules. What happens when one becomes impure in Jewish thought is that you are placed out of the right place and out of right relationship. Worse, if you happen to touch others, they too will be rendered impure. Impurity is dangerous because it exposes you to forces beyond your control, and most serious of all, it makes you an outcast. So we hear repeatedly in the healing narratives that lepers ask Jesus to make them clean, that is to make them pure so they can return to their families.