"Open up to Love": Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B

"Open up to Love": Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B

Sep 09, 2018

Passage:Mark 7:24-37

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Pentecost

Category: Love, Grace, Civility

Keywords: civility, hope, love, reconciliation


Our politicians today have seemingly lost the ability to be civil. Name-calling and false statements seem to be the norm. Our Gospel from Mark, however, gives us a glimpse of what happens when Jesus "calls someone a derogatory" name. What are the circumstances? What happens? What are the lessons for us?


In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In our country and in our world today we seem to be moving into unprecedented levels of public incivility and name-calling.

Where we used to have public discourse, now we simply have people making this accusation, quickly countered by that accusation.

The height of this state of affairs is characterized by giving derogatory names or labels to your political opponent. If you can make a negative slur or catchy put-down stick and get repeated, then you've won!

I'm afraid that for us Christians, one of the net effects of this "insult politics culture" is that we might be tempted to participate in this pattern of negativity.

I want to be clear: We CAN be political creatures--supporting candidates and ideas--in fact we SHOULD do so.

But when we fall into the trap of repeating slanderous and just downright mean characterizations of people--we take away the essential thing that connects us all...the fact that we are all beloved children of God.

We are all intended to build God's kingdom of love here on earth.

We are all intended to love one another, first and foremost.

But when we listen to today's Gospel from Mark, we do have a potential problem when it comes to this proclamation about how we Christians need to act.

Jesus himself appears not to act the way I say we're supposed to act.

In fact, we hear that Jesus even resorts to a type of negative name-calling and put-down for a woman who seems to be annoying him.

Let's take a look at today’s scripture and see what's going on.  

Jesus has just finished his big conflict with the Pharisees and Scribes, teaching them about the nature of clean hands and hypocrisy (we talked about that last week).

Jesus is pretty exhausted. He's ready for some rest.

He heads north to the remote coastal town of Tyre. There, he figures no one has ever heard of him.

In the time of Jesus, there are a few Jews in the city of Tyre, but they are in the significant minority. Basically, the population there is made up of Greeks, Phoenicians, Syrophoenicians, and a few others—what the Bible calls Gentiles.

The Jews living in the town of Tyre have been treated badly by the Gentiles. The Jews there are the farmers, the servant class, the disenfranchised--basically the bottom of the social ladder.[i]

So Jesus heads up to Tyre, trying to “get away from it all.” But right away, he is disturbed by someone. His rest is interrupted.

A woman—a gentile woman—from the neighborhood comes to his door. Now, remember, the fact that she's a Gentile woman in Tyre, means that she's part of the surrounding power structure. She’s one of the folks who is living well.

In the meantime, Jesus' fellow Jews are suffering in this area.

So, here's Jesus, who was only here to try to get some anonymous rest. And standing in front of him is this Gentile woman interrupting him.

She walks in the door. She immediately bows down at his feet. Then she asks for something from him.

Evidently her daughter is ill. This daughter of privilege has some unclean spirit. The woman at his feet begs Jesus to cast the demon from her daughter.

 Jesus, who is exhausted is in a quandary. He’s here in this place where even the Jews, to whom he feels he has been sent by God, have not heard of his activities. These Jews have been suffering at the hands of these Gentiles.

But here’s one of these Gentiles asking for his help.

Jesus answers her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”

How do we reconcile this?

Jesus is calling the woman a dog?

Perhaps it's not so bad? I've heard some Bible commentators try to say, "Well, Jesus was just trying to compare her to a little puppy... You know cute and needing to learn!"

But that's just a hopeful reading here--trying to make Jesus not sound so grumpy. We don't like to hear about a grumpy Jesus, do we?

Jesus is our Lord and Savior.

But it's our creedal belief that Jesus is both divine and human. Fully Divine and fully human.

 As we look at Jesus' response, there’s no question that Jesus is challenging this woman.

Jesus, in his all his human expression, is exhausted and impatient and suspicious when this encounter occurs. He clearly uses inflammatory, insulting language. To compare someone to a dog in the first century was pretty similar to what it would be like now—but maybe even worse, because they didn’t even really have dogs as beloved pets the way we do now. Dogs were just lowly scavengers.

But even in his human weariness, Jesus faces this woman with a primary concern for people who are being treated unfairly. As he’s standing there in Tyre, talking to this Syrophoenician woman, he’s probably got some resentment about the way the Jews have been treated in that region.

But, he's also making some assumptions about the woman being one of the possible perpetrators of the mistreatment, simply because she is a Gentile.

We hear Jesus pour out his anger and frustration at this woman--but it's really his anger and frustration about the inequalities of society.

But we are really hearing here...underlying everything... his compassion for the children… the Jews… who are the downtrodden, the oppressed, and “the least of these” in that region.

Jesus' first reaction is to have compassion.

But the Syrophoenician woman holds her ground. She immediately answers Jesus by saying: “even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

This response changes everything.

Jesus comes to a new understanding of who she is. Jesus changes his mind about her.

Jesus tells her: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter."

Essentially, Jesus comes to agree with her. God’s healing grace is for her daughter. God's healing grace is for everyone.

So what about Jesus calling her a “dog” in the first place? Does that mean that if we feel really justified we can be uncivil--like Jesus was? Or, better put, was Jesus like our politicians who let us down in the area of civility? Is Jesus just one more example of a leader who talks the talk but doesn't "walk the walk"?

Of course, I'll say that's not the case!

Here’s what makes this story different from what we hear every day on the news from our leaders and politicians:

Jesus listens to the woman.

Jesus sees her humanity.

Jesus hears point of view.

Jesus repents--He turns--he changes his approach.

He moves from a place of grace to a place of greater grace.  

Jesus responds to her need with God’s mercy and God's healing.

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is in a process of discerning his identity as the Son of God. This encounter with the Syrophoenician woman helps to open up for him a new understanding of what that means.

When Jesus arrives at Tyre, exhausted and looking for escape, he thinks he’s supposed to serve only the Jews first.

This Gentile woman helps him to see that God’s healing grace can be for all people, here and now. Jesus realizes she’s right. He opens his ministry of reconciliation and grace to everyone.

When Jesus returns from Tyre, he goes to the region of the Decapolis—another Gentile region. He encounters a man who cannot hear or speak. He tells him: "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened."  In this encounter, Jesus is talking to us. We are to “be opened.”

When we encounter each other, we are to “be open.” When we have discussions about political issues, or social issues, or religious issues, we are to “be open” to each other.  We are to respond to the needs of the downtrodden. We are to bring hope to the hopeless. We are to make sure that all know they are loved by God.

Of course, when we have our very human discussions about this world with each other, we may disagree with one another. But the key to civility and to actually being Christian is to follow Christ’s example when he encountered the Syrophoenician woman.

In this exchange, Jesus stood up for those in need, but he also listened to her. When called to account by God to be open and to be loving, Jesus responded immediately.

Today here at St. Andrew's we are having our Rally Day. We celebrate the many ministries and opportunities for all of us to "be open" to God's love and God's grace in this world. I invite you all to explore the St. Andrew's Way of  discover how God is calling you to engage in new ministries.

Together, we build God's Kingdom of love for ALL people. Amen.


[i] Jane E. Hicks, “Moral Agency at the Borders: Rereading the Story of the Syrophoenician Woman,” Word & World

Volume 23, Number 1, (Winter 2003).  Available at