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St. John's Episcopal - Georgetown

Gospel Act II -- A Message for the Gentiles

SERMON – September 6, 2014

 May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, grant us a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of our hearts enlightened, that we may know what is the hope to which He has called us, and what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints.  Amen.

We read this morning from St. Mark’s gospel how Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” I found that a shocking statement when I first encountered it as a teenager, and today it sounds like a comment from one of our more intemperate Presidential candidates.  What on earth are we to make of such an extraordinary utterance?

Jesus is talking to a Syro-Phoenician (that is to say a gentile, non-Jewish) woman who has come to him in desperation seeking a cure for her demon-possessed daughter.  His first response is to say, in effect, that what I have to offer belongs to the children (that is, the children of Israel) not to “dogs” (that is, people like you).

Particularly in our age of political correctness and ultra-sensitivity to everyone’s individual dignity, Jesus’s response seems astounding.  It’s made all the worse by knowing that dogs were despised in Biblical times as unclean animals.  Outside this story and its parallel version in Matthew, there are only two references to dogs in the New Testament, both uncomplimentary, and almost all of the many references to dogs in the Old Testament cast them in an unfavorable light. The Greek word used in our passage, “kunaria,” is actually a diminutive and may mean “little dogs” or “puppies,” but I am not sure that provides much comfort when you think about it.

 The answer to this conundrum is, as usual, to look at the wider context, and in this case it is a very wide context that I would like to examine.  The New Testament is a drama in two parts.  The first part, what we might call Season 1, is the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, as narrated in the four gospels.  The second part, Season 2, which we might think of as beginning with the Resurrection, tells the story of how Jesus’s small band of disciples set about spreading the Good News after his death and how their missionary journeys, preaching and proselytizing built and sustained the first Christian churches. 

 We don’t focus much on Season 2 these days, and although no-one ever says so, I think the reason is that it is a story that rather embarrasses our modern sensibilities.  We are not very comfortable with evangelization. 

 Jesus’s ministry had been addressed mostly to the Jewish people.  Jesus was, of course, a Jew, as were all his disciples and most of the people that he interacted with.  He observed the Jewish festivals, read the Scriptures, quoted from them extensively and saw himself as the Messiah promised by the prophet Isaiah.  He came, as He put it, not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. 

 After the events of Pentecost, near the start of Season 2, Jesus’s followers, chief among them the disciples, expected that it would be Jewish people who would form the first Christian communities.  The Acts of the Apostles records that there was indeed a Jewish church in Jerusalem, under the leadership of Peter and James, the one known as the brother of Jesus.  But this church never prospered.  It was persecuted by the Jewish authorities, who eventually executed James by throwing him off the Temple Mount.  The congregation later decamped to Pella, a site now in Jordan north of the Dead Sea, and in the early 2nd century it seems to have faded away altogether.

 But while Jewish Christianity was struggling, the mission to the gentiles was going rather better, in no small part as a result of the indefatigable efforts of Paul, who as Saul of Tarsus had been a prime persecutor of Christians, but who became the driving force of early Christianity after he literally saw the light on the road to Damascus and devoted the rest of his life to preaching Christ crucified to both Jews and gentiles. 

 Why were the gentiles more receptive to the message of Jesus?  It wasn’t that the gentiles did not have a religion of their own already.  Most of them worshiped the traditional Greek or Roman gods in one form or another, making sacrifices and generally trying to placate them and earn their good favor.  But they took to Christianity because Christianity offered something better.  What was it?  In a word, it was salvation. 

 St. Paul taught them that there was only one God, and that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they were already redeemed into that God’s good favor.  It was true that they were expected to live lives of virtue going forward, but that wasn’t the life-giving thing.  The old gods had never offered people a belief that, in all their poverty, ignorance and human shortcomings, they were already acceptable to Him, that He loved them and treasured them for who they were.  That they did not have to earn His love. Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in language they would not have been ashamed to use, they could count themselves saved. 

 The fact that the New Testament is written in Greek, rather than Aramaic or Hebrew, is vivid testimony to the early success of the mission to the gentiles.

 Although there were exceptions, the message did not resonate so well with the Jews.  I think that they had a stronger sense of their own corporate relationship with God, the same God that the Christians professed to worship, in the covenant that God had made with Abraham, and they had their own scriptures, their own traditions, their own Temple. In short, they had Moses and the prophets. Perhaps understandably, many thought the Christians were heretics.

 It didn’t help that in making the Gospel accessible to the gentiles, the early Christians made a hugely controversial concession to them.  We read in the Acts of the Apostles how it was decided that gentile converts to Christ did not have to be circumcised or otherwise follow the detailed Law of the Old Testament.  This decision obviously did not make for better relationships with the Jewish congregations, and as time went by those relationships went from bad to worse.  In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, a catastrophe for the Jewish people that drove them to cling more closely to the Law to preserve their identity.  To many Christians the destruction of the Temple may have seemed like vindication of the new order.  Attitudes proceeded to harden on both sides – a process that led eventually to the poisonous relationship between the Christians and the Jews that characterized much of the second millennium and from which we are just now emerging.    

 The point of my explaining all this is that we need to understand that when the gospels, Season 1, came to be written some decades after the Resurrection, the events of Season 2 were well underway.  Each of the gospel writers told the story in a different way, emphasizing elements that were most persuasive and relevant to their target audiences.  And it is this process that I believe underlies the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman.  One of the things that Mark’s predominantly gentile audience was intensely interested in was Jesus’s views on the issue of preaching the gospel to the gentiles. 

 So what did Jesus think about spreading His message to the gentiles?  Jesus’s encounters with non-Jewish people always seem to me to be a bit enigmatic.  Whether He spoke to the woman at the well, or Pontius Pilate, it seems as though the parties are at least initially at cross-purposes.  Jesus certainly did tell his disciples, after his Resurrection, to go and make disciples of all nations.  He cited a Samaritan as an example of what it was to love one’s neighbor and, in our story today, he healed the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter.  But He seemed often surprised and impressed when His message resonated with people whom He might have expected to have no idea of where He was coming from.  He acknowledged more than once that the faith of gentile people could surpass what He generally found among the people of Israel.  In short, the gospels present Jesus as primarily speaking and preaching within the Jewish context of His time, but open, sometimes with a little prompting, to the, for the time, quite revolutionary idea that He was to be the Savior of all peoples.

At this point, we might pause for a moment to think about where we stand on preaching the gospel to the gentiles.  As we all know, this feels like a delicate issue for us. But, it is worth, perhaps, comparing our rather self-conscious approach with that of the men and women who first went out to spread the Good News, a process ultimately so successful that today, of the almost 7.4 billion people in the world, almost a third of whom are Christian, at least nominally. 

 How did they do it?  Well, they didn’t agonize over how much deference should be afforded to other people’s religion, or proffer the view that all religions are more or less the same.  They knew - they knew that they had something better and truer.  They went out and, often at great cost, told those of other faiths and none, that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was good news for all.  They told people that it meant that each one of them was acceptable to God, that the Son of God had, in some mysterious way, paid the price for their sins and that by His Resurrection, they too were raised to eternal life, that those who trusted in His love were redeemed, that they did not have to earn God’s love and acceptance by following specific rules of conduct, by eating the right food, by making the right sacrifices. The commandments were really quite simple, albeit not that easy to fulfill – you had to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.  Everything else depended upon and was secondary to that.

No other religious tradition spoke that kind of language, and it was hugely persuasive to people who for the most part had experienced very little hope in their lives, and whose religious traditions emphasized their own powerlessness and worthlessness in the face of the divine.

In practice it wasn’t all easy, and many people only half got the message.  Christians then, as now, often fell well short of the Christian ideal, and there were huge and bitter disputes that ran on for centuries about the technical details.  But the central message prevailed.  In the early 4th century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the paganism that had been central to Greek and Roman culture for more than a thousand years, slowly died out over the next couple of centuries, and Christianity assumed the prominence that has endured down to our time.  The Jews continued to be what they always were, a tiny minority surrounded by often hostile neighbors.  

So what of Jesus’s comment about throwing the children’s bread to the dogs or puppies?  I do not believe that Jesus intended to insult the woman, and the woman herself, with her merry and witty reply, certainly doesn’t seem to have taken it as an insult.  I am sure the Scribes and the Pharisees felt a lot more insulted.   Rather, I would suggest, it sounds as though Jesus is quoting a traditional saying, and I have a feeling that perhaps He said it with a wry smile.  And, of course, He is so impressed by the answer that He judges the woman to be worth a miraculous cure for her daughter. 

I also think that, as so often, the immediate context of the story sheds some light on what is going on.  In the preceding section of Mark’s gospel, which we read last week, Jesus had just explained that it was not the food that went into a person that corrupted him.  That was just something that was ingested and processed by the body.  It was evil thoughts and things like theft, murder and adultery that when they came out of a person constituted the true defilement. In a line that was left out of last week’s reading, St. Mark commented on this teaching with the words, “Thus, he declared all foods lawful.”  If you have been paying attention to me for the last few minutes you will recognize that we have here another comment on the Season 2 issue of preaching the gospel to the gentiles. 

I believe that today’s story, coming immediately after that story, really should be seen as carrying the point one step further, perhaps to its logical conclusion.  Jesus has just said that with regard to physical food, it doesn’t matter what you eat.  Diet does not have spiritual significance, notwithstanding what it says in the Old Testament.  In our story, He seems to say, that when it comes to spiritual food, the bread of life, it doesn’t matter who it is who is eating it.  The bread of life is available to anyone.  Jesus is really just setting up a straw man.  He immediately backs away from it when challenged and shows, by His approval of the woman’s reply and healing her afflicted daughter, that when it comes to eating the bread of life, ingesting true spiritual nourishment, even those who might be thought of as dogs, the lowest of the low, get to eat with the rest.  Just as there are no clean or unclean foods in the Kingdom of Heaven, we might understand Jesus as saying, so in the Kingdom there are no children or dogs either.

This I think we can claim is the attitude we try to take here at St. John’s: we offer Jesus’s body and blood to everyone, whoever they are, whatever their religious background, whatever they have done.  I have to confess that I did not find that approach easy to accept when I first encountered it, having grown up accepting and participating in a process that required baptism and confirmation as the price of admission to the Lord’s table.  But I have come to see that it costs nothing to be generous.  We shouldn’t try to decide who is a child and who is a dog.  God accepts all who reach out to Him, without distinction.  And in the same way, I think we should hang on to the idea that the message of the Gospel is not just for Christians or even Christians of our persuasion and culture. 

One last point.  The story that follows in the second part of the gospel reading today is about a man who was deaf and unable to speak properly.  Jesus said to him, “Be opened.”  And the man heard and spoke plainly.  Is it possible that the man is a metaphor for the gentiles – who before did not hear God and did not proclaim his Word?  When Jesus came, everything changed.  Now it was time for all to hear and to speak boldly, and Jesus Himself couldn’t restrain them.    

We can’t today, in our culture, proselytize as the early apostles did, but we can be open to sharing the Word with those we meet.  Perhaps, at the very least, each of us should have an “elevator speech” to explain to anyone who asks, anyone at all, why it is we go to church, why we believe what we do, why we count ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.  Every other group in our society seems pretty willing to tell the world what they stand for. 

And while we can’t perhaps match the bold outspokenness of the apostles in spreading the Gospel, in our actions we can certainly do better than many of our forebears who somehow persuaded themselves that their faith was compatible with slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, or the oppression of women, among many other evils for which they thought they found support in the text of the New Testament.  We just need to follow Jesus and his teaching, walking in His ways - and I might add that it will not hurt to remember the voice of Jewish Christianity that we heard in the letter of James this morning, reminding us that a lively faith needs a goodly complement of works for its fulfillment and consummation.

Loving God and loving one another in practical ways is still the best witness of all, to gentiles of all persuasions.

Amen.

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