‘Taking the children’s food and giving it to the dogs?’ A sermon for Adel Parish Church, 14th Sunday after Trinity, 2021
Mark 7: 24 – end
‘Let the children be fed first, for it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
If we didn’t know this story – and were asked who said that – I don’t think Jesus would be our first thought.
It’s an uncomfortable picture of Jesus. He seems to refuse to heal a child; he refers to non-Jews as ‘dogs’, a common insult of the time but not what we expect of Jesus.
Of course, we only have a written account. It may have been, as some suggest, light-hearted banter, spoken with a twinkle, by Jesus to a confident woman, able to cope with it. Jesus who already knew he’d heal the child in the end. A story put there to show Jesus comes to save all – Jews and Gentiles.
But…in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has already healed Gentiles. And this story follows his warnings about hypocrisy…words and actions not matching up.
Could it be that Mark is showing us Jesus wrestling with the very sin he’s just identified? That feels a dangerous thought. Our picture of Jesus is often someone who suffered temptation yet remained ‘without sin’…an example of a perfect human. But maybe we haven’t really thought about what that means.
Perhaps Mark uses this encounter to make us think. We talk about Jesus being fully God and fully human…is it possible to be fully human and without sin?
In the 4th century, the human/divine nature of Jesus was hotly debated…some suggesting Jesus had a human body – with a completely divine nature…kind of God dressed up as human. This was eventually dismissed as heretical – and there’s a great quote from this time, ‘what is not assumed is not redeemed’. In other words – Jesus became human to save humanity – any bits he didn’t become aren’t saved.
We know, from experience, that it’s impossible to be human and not sin…did Jesus save sinful humanity by becoming sinful humanity?
I may well be heretical here – but I don’t think faith’s ever harmed by thinking seriously about it!
So let’s assume this is Jesus in a very human moment of physical and mental exhaustion. He’s travelled around, besieged by the sick and desperate, healing hundreds. We know that when he healed, power went from him…so think how drained he must have been. He’s aware his time is limited, and that his mission is first to God’s people the Jews.
And just as he finds a space to be quiet, to relax, he’s accosted yet again. And because he is truly human, he snaps. He can’t heal everyone; the way forward is challenging…just now this woman and her child are not his main concern.
But the woman too is desperate. And seems to grasp that in the end he comes for all people, saying, ‘even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs.’ If we take the story at face value – Jesus listens to her and changes his mind.
As humans we have a built-in tendency to look after our own, be wary of strangers, prefer ‘people like us’…as Christians we know it often leads to sin – but it’s hard to overcome.
Wouldn’t a truly human Jesus have this same in-built reaction? Add in exhaustion, and the knowledge that his message was first to God’s people. Perhaps it all combined…so that asked to use some of his precious remaining energy on what seemed like a distraction, he answered less that graciously.
This, for me, is what a truly human life lived in total obedience to God looks like. Here is someone who has the sinful tendencies I struggle with – but who despite exhaustion overcomes them.
This is a saviour who makes sense to me, he can redeem my life – because in a way, he’s lived my life. We’re made in the image of God, with potential to live as God intended. But however we understand ‘the fall’, we also live with the reality that we’re sinful…however hard we try – we won’t be perfect.
This reading shows us Jesus knows how that feels; and how he overcame it.
I suspect I’m not alone at feeling tired at the moment. There’s the prospect of dealing with yet more weeks of uncertainty, in our lives and work places. There’s the possibility of having to find more alternative ways to worship and share God’s love. We have friends and family who are struggling.
We can feel that just managing our own life is enough – and if someone comes needing support, we just haven’t the energy.
Then there’s the exhaustion and paralysis brought on by watching unfolding events in Afghanistan. We’re horrified at the fate of women; of those whose professions now make them a target. But we worry that money sent might end up in the wrong hands; we struggle with the thought of a mass influx of refugees. Where would we find the resources?
As someone said to me (someone with an important – but very poorly paid job), ‘How will my wage ever go up if we care for all those too?’
In that scene of the exhausted Jesus, fearing his resources couldn’t stretch to the outsider who pleaded with him, there’s a picture that both reassures and challenges me.
Perhaps even Jesus felt like we do now. If so – he knows how we feel. He knows the need to conserve what we have for ourselves – lest we become overwhelmed. Human energy is finite. Sometimes we cannot help others until we have helped, or been helped ourselves.
If Jesus became sinful humanity in order to save sinful humanity…we can offer him our weariness – knowing it can be redeemed.
But if we feel able, we can also offer him our fear that resources, personal or national, can’t stretch any further. Praying that as he found the strength to reach out to the gentile woman – so we might be given the resources we need, or find the way to share them more fairly, so they can overflow to others in need.