|Today’s scripture readings:
James 2:1-10, 14-17
After marriage equality became the law of the land a few years ago, I realized I wanted to work harder to be a better ally to other groups who have experienced oppression or discrimination. I was always so grateful for straight people who stood in solidarity with LGBTQ people and advocated for us when we needed extra support. And I came to realize that now, as a white person, as a male, as a Christian, I need to show up as an ally for others—for people of color, women, people of other faiths—for those in other groups who need some support themselves.
One of the things I’ve learned in trying to be an ally is that it’s really easy to make a mistake. I always mean well. I’m committed to justice and I really do want to be in solidarity with people who need my help. But my own privilege is so deeply ingrained in me that sometimes I do things or say things that are racist or sexist or otherwise somehow offensive without even realizing it. Or sometimes it’s that, despite my best efforts, I’ve absorbed the biases of the culture around me and unwittingly made them my own, and I find myself inadvertently embodying the prejudice I claim to reject. So, sometimes I fall short. I’ve learned that if I really want to be an ally, I have to be prepared to own up to these kinds of mistakes. I have to be prepared to be called out when I mess up.
Getting called out feels terrible. But I’ve been taught that when allies are called out, our job is to fix the problem, move on, and do better. Fixing the problem means acknowledging we’ve messed up without making excuses, getting defensive, or pretending it didn’t happen. And then we should move on, taking some time to examine how we allowed ourselves to mess up in the first place, and making an intentional decision to do better next time. We should be grateful to the one who calls us out because they’re helping us do better, helping us more fully embody the values we claim to hold dear. When we make one of those ugly mistakes, and when we get called out for saying or doing something that is out of sync with our commitment to embody love and justice, that’s our task: fix the problem, move on, and do better.
That’s what Jesus does today. He makes an ugly mistake. He gets called out. And then he fixes the problem, moves on, and does better.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is called out for calling a Gentile woman a dog and refusing to help her sick daughter. It’s a shocking passage because the Jesus in this story isn’t at all like the Jesus we’ve learned about who is infinitely compassionate and whose love transcends the boundaries we’ve created to keep us apart. He might saythat his mission is to redeem all of humankind, but in this story we have a Jesus who, despite his best efforts, embodies all the biases and prejudices of his culture, which shunned outsiders and treated them as inferiors.
Over the years, Bible scholars have bent over backward to explain Jesus’ behavior in this story. Some have just called it “fake news” and said this is an “inauthentic” story—something the Gospel writer included but which didn’t actually happen. Some have said Jesus was just exhausted. After all, the story does say that Jesus went away to this foreign land and didn’t want anyone to know he was there; maybe he was just frustrated that this woman was interrupting his vacation. Others have said the word “dog” isn’t as harsh as it sounds, that Jesus meant something more like “puppy,” which sounds a lot cuter. But most scholars agree: the word is “dog,” and “dog” is what it means. It would have sounded just as insulting to people back then as it does to us now.
I think the reason we want to explain this story away is that we want to imagine that Jesus was born perfect and was perfect forever. We’ve learned that Jesus is God and so we think Jesus must embody God-like perfection. But this story reminds us that Jesus is also fully human. This story imagines that, like all of us, Jesus made mistakes, got called out, and learned new things as he went along.
That’s not exactly unprecedented in scripture. There’s that great story in the Old Testament where God has just liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and then they decide that, instead of worshiping God, they will worship a golden calf of their own making. God gets angry and threatens to destroy them all—to wipe the slate clean and start over. Moses pleads with God not to do it, and the story ends, “And God’s mind was changed about the disaster God had planned for the people.” Moses called God out. He reminded God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God’s mind was changed.
In today’s story, it’s this outsider woman who calls Jesus out and changes his mind. The woman is a “Gentile, of Syrophonecian origin,” which means she lived outside of Israel and worshiped a different God than the people of Israel. In fact, she is descended from the ancient enemies of the Israelites. Even more, she is a woman who has the audacity, in that highly patriarchal culture, to start a conversation with a man. And on top of all that, she has a daughter who is possessed by a demon, which means she would have been shunned by nearly everyone. When she comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter, he replies that his mission is to his own people, the Israelites who are the children of God, not to outsiders like her. But she calls him out. She says, “Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs.” It’s like she is holding up a mirror for him to see what a disconnect there is between his mission to heal and his refusal to help her.
After he is called out, Jesus does what good allies have learned to do: he fixes the problem, moves on, and does better. He can’t argue with her; he immediately understands that she’s right. He doesn’t make excuses or get defensive. He doesn’t double down on his wrong-headed remark. He acknowledges his mistake and heals the woman’s daughter. And then he moves on. Literally. He leaves the region of Tyre and goes even further into Gentile territory. It’s as if, having been shown that his mission is supposed to encompass outsiders, he is determined to find moreoutsiders, like he’s making up for lost time. Or maybe he’s going out of his way to get some more practice building relationships with people outside his own community.
Whatever the case, he goes further into Gentile territory and finds a man who is deaf and has trouble speaking. Jesus pulls him aside, put his fingers in the man’s ears, touches his tongue, and says, “Ephphatha. Be opened.” The man is healed. But you sense in this story that, really, it is Jesus who has “been opened.” Called out on his closed-mindedness and challenged to reconsider his purpose, Jesus has been persuaded to adopt a bigger vision for mission that embraces outsiders, strangers, and even enemies.
Today is Rally Sunday, the beginning of our program year. It’s the first day of Sunday School and the Sunday Forum between services. We welcome back the choirs. Confirmation kicks into gear in a few days. Our building is about to be a lot busier than it has been over the summer—on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings and every day in between. But it’s important for us to remember that the ministry that happens in this building is only preparation for the ministry we’ll do out in the world the rest of the time.
In the weeks ahead you’ll be hearing a lot more about one of our five guiding principles: “Rooted in generosity, we share our building and our resources.” We share what we have because our ministry isn’t just about those of us who gather week after week in this building. Our ministry is about following Jesus out into the world. That’s why, at the end of worship each week, we turn to face the cross as it leads us out of this sanctuary. What happens here opens us up so we can go into the world and open up others. Our mission is going out from this building, looking around, and finding out who needs us, what they need from us, and how we can use what we’ve got for their sake—how we can meet those longing for mercy and say to them, in the name of Jesus, “Ephphatha. Be opened.”
Loye Bradley Ashton, “Mark 7:24-37: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Douglas R. A. Hare, “Mark 7:24-37: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Amy C. Howe, “Mark 7:24-37: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Mark 7:24-37,” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3761.
David J. Lose, “Pentecost 15 B: What the Syrophoenician Woman Teaches,” on …In the Meantime, 2015, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/08/pentecost-15-b-what-the-syrophoenician-woman-teaches/.
Andrew David Thaler, “On being an ally and being called out on your privilege,” on Southern Fried Science, November 19, 2013, http://www.southernfriedscience.com/on-being-an-ally-and-being-called-out-on-your-privilege/.