“WHEN TRADITION MEETS TRUTH”
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When Tradition meets Truth
We’ve arrived at Mark chapter 7 this morning. Jesus’ ministry is off to a great start; he’s been exorcising demons, raising the dead and healing the sick. His disciples have been learning from him and so he sends them out to preach and to heal. Then we have a tragedy, John the Baptist, who is the cousin of Jesus, is killed. We don’t know how Jesus responded to this tragedy or how he grieved, as this is almost an aside thrown into to the text between stories of miracles and healing.
When we get to the story of the Syrophoenician woman, it can be hard to understand just what is happening. We have a desperate woman, worried about her child, coming to Jesus to ask him for help. Everything that we know about Jesus tells us he should help her. She has faith that he can help her, her daughter has a demon problem, and Jesus has been all about casting demons out. We’re a bit surprised when we read his response. Jesus gets a little snippy. Instead of offering his help he brings up her race and compares her to a dog begging for food under the table. This causes us to beg the question “What is happening here?”
I think the answer lies in the humanity of Jesus. At Christmas, we tend to talk a lot about Jesus being human; God born in the flesh, making his home among us, lowering himself to become fully human. It’s easy for us to think of God as a baby because babies are innocent and cute. It can be harder for us to think of Jesus as a man. We know he was perfect and that he never sinned but we also know that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are tempted. In Hebrews 5 we read that during his time on earth, Jesus had to learn obedience. He also told his disciples that there were things he didn’t know, things that only the Father knows. So we have these pieces of information that tell us about the humanity of Jesus – that he faced temptation, that there were things he had to learn and that some knowledge was kept from him. It’s helpful to approach the story of the Syrophoenician woman with this understanding that Jesus, though completely God, is still completely human.
The background of our text this morning is that Jesus is worn down. He’s just lost his cousin and now the demands of everyday ministry have made him tired. He’s being going from place to place trying to rest and each time he is followed by a crowd or sought out by an individual who wants healing or teaching or preaching. We read at the end of chapter six that wherever he went, people recognized Jesus and would rush at him. They would beg him to lay hands on the sick or try to just touch the hem of his cloak for everyone who touched him received healing. His fame has caught up with him and now he can’t catch a break. So what does he do? Jesus was very careful about cultivating a rhythm of rest and work. It seems that he’s too famous among his own people to rest so he gets away from them. He plans a retreat in Gentile-country. He goes to Tyre with his disciples, sets up in a house and settles in for some quality down-time.
It’s not too long before there’s a knock at the door. It’s a woman, and not just any woman, but a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician. This term Mark uses is referring to her ethnic and cultural background – she’s a Phoenician woman living in Syria. There is no reason that Jesus should talk with her. During that time, men didn’t speak with women who weren’t their wives and Jews didn’t speak with Gentiles. We read in Matthew’s account of this story that this woman is crying out for help and Jesus just ignores her. She keeps crying out and the disciples get annoyed and tell Jesus to send her away. But this woman is desperate. She knows Jesus has what she needs and she’s willing to beg so that she can get it. Lord, she cries out, help me! And then comes the part of the passage that’s hard for us to hear. Jesus tells her that he’s come to feed the children of Israel first, not the dogs. Did Jesus just call her to a dog? She’s asking him for help and he insults her. There are a lot of commentaries that try to soften the blow of this exchange by explaining that the word Jesus uses means a scavenging dog but the woman understands as a pet dog so, it’s not so bad.
There’s more going on here than just a playful banter. Jesus is showing his humanness. And part of being human is having bias. It’s true that Jesus was perfect and that he never sinned. I don’t believe that having bias is in itself a sin. Cultural bias is reflective of the society in which one is raised and we have these beliefs because it’s what we’ve been taught. Jesus was simply responding out of his humanness and out his worldview. After all, he grew up in a society that saw non-Jews as unclean and didn’t associate with them so as not to defile themselves. It could be worse, he’s not telling her no, just that’s she not his priority and that it’s not her turn yet. He’s also sticking to his mission which is to bring salvation through the Jews, God’s chosen people. Jesus is theologically correct in what he’s saying because this is what God has called him to do – to save the lost sheep of Israel.
The Syrophoenician woman doesn’t let him get away with it though. She takes his insult and uses it for her cause – even dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table. Give me a scrap God, just a morsel of your power. At this point, Jesus sees her and he sees himself. And this is the key to being perfect in humanity – that once you are made aware of your own bias, you correct it. For to be human is to be changed by our encounters with people, and when Jesus encounters this woman, he changes. He’s following tradition but she challenges him with truth. And Jesus tells her she is right and exorcises the demon from her daughter without even going to see the little girl. The woman goes home and we never even learn her name.
This is a pivotal moment in the ministry of Jesus. There’s significance to all of this happening in Tyre. We read about Tyre in the Old Testament. It is a city in Lebanon and throughout the Bible, Lebanon is known for its tall Cedar trees. When King David was building his palace, he used Cedars from the city of Tyre. King Hiram of Tyre also sent workmen to help with the construction of the palace. David’s kingdom was built from materials within Israel and with materials that were brought in from outside of Israel. It was built by Jews and Gentiles alike. The very thing that was happening in the kingdom of David is now happening in the Kingdom of God. This story in Mark shows us that Jesus’ ministry is widening to include Gentiles. We read about Gentile-inclusion last week with the Garasene man who was demon-possessed and we see it here with the Syrophoenician woman. The next account we read in Mark is of a Gentile man from Decapolis who is brought to meet Jesus because he can’t hear or speak properly. There’s no banter this time. Jesus doesn’t tell him he’s from the wrong country or call him a name. Instead, he shows great care in taking him aside from the crowd and touching his ears and his tongue and giving him the healing he longs for. The Kingdom of God is not just open to the Jews as some might have thought – it’s open to everyone.
This isn’t the last we hear about the city of Tyre. Later on in Acts 21, Paul is travelling to Jerusalem and he stops in Tyre. There’s a church there. He stays with them for a week and when he leaves, the disciples at Tyre and their wives and children all gather to pray for him. Somehow, between the time Jesus visits and the time Paul visits, a vibrant faith community has grown in Tyre.
What do we learn from the Syrophoenician woman?
This short passage has a lot to teach us about life in the Kingdom of God. We have two perspectives here, that of the woman and that of Jesus. So what do we learn from the woman in this story?
I think it’s significant that she is a Syrophoenician woman; not Syrian, not Phoenician, but both. She’s lived her life with a double identity in a culture that places great value on where you come from. Two distinct ethnicities exist within her and now she opens our eyes to the fact that two distinct backgrounds - Jew and Gentile – can live together in the Kingdom of God.
Something else significant about her is that she is desperate. Her child is possessed by a demon which might be hard for us to imagine but you can imagine having a child who needs help when you have no power to help them. She probably felt hopeless and then a glimmer of hope appears. She needs someone who can cast out demons and suddenly, this Jesus person she’s heard about, is in her town. Throwing aside all propriety and caution, she leaves her daughter at home and she runs to go see him. Jesus tries to ignore her but she won’t let him. Her persistence mirrors that of Jacob wrestling the angel in the Old Testament and insisting, Lord, I will not let you go until I get my blessing! Her faith mirrors that of the woman with a flow of blood who knows that if she just touches Jesus’ cloak, then she’ll be healed. The Syrophoenician woman knows the immense power that Jesus has and she wants some of it so that her daughter can be redeemed. She knows her need for God. We have this same need. We might not be possessed by an evil spirit but we all have our demons. We can continue to live with them or we can run to the One who heals. We can kneel down before him and say “I need you Jesus, I can’t do this on my own.”
Not only does she know herself and her own need, but she knows Jesus. While everyone else is wondering who this man could be, this woman is the only person in the gospel of Mark to call Jesus “Lord”. That’s the turning point for Jesus in their interaction. He tells her that what she’s asking for is not for her to have and then she calls him Lord. It’s one thing to ask for a Saviour. Who doesn’t want to be saved? But to make Christ Lord of your life is to let go so that he has control. To make Christ Lord of your life is to say “Not my will, but yours be done”. To make Christ Lord of your life is to come to him, desperate and in recognition of your need for him. This is hard. Most of us would rather be lord of our own lives. The Syrophoenician woman shows us that the Kingdom of God is open to everyone but it’s not for everyone. It is only for those who will make Jesus Lord over their lives.
What do we learn from Jesus?
In looking at Jesus we learn the importance of rest. Jesus has a rhythm of rest and work that we are all called to follow. Jesus didn’t rest from his work – he worked from his rest. He was very intentional in spending time with God alone first and then going out to do ministry. This is the rhythm that God calls us all to follow. It’s counter-cultural in that we’re used to working ourselves to a breaking point and then taking rest. We need to have that daily, monthly and yearly rhythm of rest if we want to live as Christ lived.
The other truth we see in this passage is that Jesus was offensive. For some reason when we read about Jesus being rude to the Pharisees or refusing to the answer questions of religious leaders, we’re not offended by his remarks. He’s taking on religious leaders with wit and wisdom and we can get on board with that. We get little snippets here and there where he’s not acknowledging his family or calling a Gentile woman a dog but we easily absorb those into the greater story because we know that Jesus is doing this whole God-human thing out of his great love for us. But when you carefully look at the life and death of Christ, you see that he was very offensive. He had to be. He came to turn a religious institution upside down. He came to turn a man against his father and daughter against her mother. He tells us in Matthew 10 not to assume that he came to bring peace, for he came to bring a sword. He lived in such a way that the God-fearing leaders of his time wanted to get rid of him. He challenged their interpretation of the laws of Moses and he challenged cultural and religious tradition. He ate with sinners, talked with women, even let a woman wash his feet with perfume. He spoke in parables and when people insisted he make a definitive statement on something, he would answer them with a question.
Even his death was offensive. He didn’t go gently into the good night, he died a slow, public and painful death. He died the death of a criminal, on a cross with a sign above his head naming him King over the people that had rejected him. This is our Saviour. This is the one that we choose to follow and to call Lord. This is Jesus.
Part of Jesus’ offensiveness is that he wasn’t afraid to do things differently. Jesus spent a lot of time differentiating religious tradition from the truth of the gospel. Tradition and truth have a habit of butting heads every now and then. Change can be hard, but there will be times that we need to change the way we do church in order to reach out to those who are hurting. That’s a question for us to ponder this morning. How much does tradition dictate the way we do church here at Blythwood? Are we relying on tradition or truth as we reach out to those who are hurting? Are we offending people? Now I don’t think we should leave here today with the intent to run around the city offending people, but we do need to leave with the understanding that having Jesus as Lord in our lives will make us different from those around us. It’s not about being radical or relevant. It’s about understanding that just as the Syrophoenician woman’s child was gripped by something evil, so too is our world gripped by sin. So too are we gripped by sin; by our own selfishness, by our own greed, by our own bias. Knowing this, what else can do but run to Christ and cry out Lord, have mercy on our city, have mercy on our church, have mercy on me.
Have thine own way Lord, have thine own way,
Wounded and weary, help me I pray.
Power all power, surely is thine,
touch me and heal me, Saviour divine.