& Mark 7: 24–37
When I look back on my Sunday School education as a kid, the overwhelming message I got out the experience was “God is nice. So, you be nice too.”
I don’t know if any of you received a similar message at some point. Maybe some of you are even teaching your kids this message today. I want my son to be nice, after all. But part of growing up and moving forward into adult spirituality, involves confronting whether this statement, “God is nice,” really captures the full picture of God. Is the God of the Bible a nice God? An always-nice God? To steal a phrase from Douglas Adams: Is God “mostly harmless?” Or is the God of the universe and the God of our hearts, a God who turns lives upside down for the sake of a vision of a better tomorrow? And can that be accomplished by niceness? By a nice God? Nice disciples?
We live a not-always-nice existence, in a not-always-nice world, full of not-always-nice people. I’m sure you’ve met a few them, right? Even I’m not always nice. Sometimes we’re just having a bad day. And there are some folks out there who are just confirmed meanies acting out their own inadequacies and fears on the rest of us. But sometimes, even the sweetest among us, find ourselves in situations where there’s no nice option, no easy answer, where the mantra “God is nice, so I’ll be nice, and everything will be nice for everyone” falls down the stairs with a THUD so loud that all we can hear afterwards is a devastating silence. Can niceness fix racism? Can niceness fix the trafficking of children? Can niceness fix global warming? Thud. Thud. THUD!
Sometimes we realize that the best or the most moral outcome we can hope for requires us to be not-so-nice. We’re going to have to be loud. We’re going to have to be demanding. We’re going to have to set and hold boundaries. We’re going to have to challenge someone, pressure them, push them, overthrow them for the good of everybody. And while it might be for the best, it ain’t gonna be nice.
In our Scripture reading this morning nice-nice Jesus isn’t very nice. I mean, Beloved, it’s more than that—he’s downright nasty. An unnamed Gentile woman—meaning she wasn’t of Jewish origin like Jesus and the disciples—asks for healing for her little daughter and Jesus tells her that it isn’t right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs. Which is an awful thing to say to a woman lying at your feet begging you to heal her little girl. What if Jesus said the same thing to you? What if God answered you this way when it was your own child you were praying for? “Sorry, no dogs allowed.”
Not only is it nasty, it’s also confusing. I mean, isn’t this the same Jesus we’ve been following along with all year? The Kingdom of God is like a sower throwing seed, he said. The sower THROWS THE SEEDS ALL OVER THE PLACE. They land where they will land—scattered indiscriminately! And if they find fertile ground, the seeds will grow! Jesus, what did you think was going to happen when you told a story like that?
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a seed—a mustard seed—a seed that only an idiot would plant in their field, a tiny seed that takes over the farm you thought belonged to you with great bushy weeds and gives your land away to the birds—to the pests. Jesus, what did you think was going to come of telling a story like that?
We want another story like that here, don’t we? We want nice Jesus back. We want a story about some bozo who refuses to treat people equally, and Jesus floats over to him and says, “God is nice, so you be nice too.” But that’s not what we’ve got.
Instead, Jesus travels for days without explanation to Tyre, a Gentile city, and hides out in a house wanting no one to know he’s there. The sower puts his bag of seeds in the closet, locks the door, puts on a sour face, and waits. Jesus is hiding. But this Syrophoenician woman finds him. Jesus insults her, refuses her, turns her away. He is not nice, and that troubles us deeply. But, thank God, the Syrophoenician woman has discovered a faith that empowers her to be step beyond niceness and into Gospel truth telling. The power within her that told her to seek Jesus out now stands in opposition to Jesus, challenges him, won’t take NO for an answer. She rescues Jesus with his own Kingdom. And she shows us the way.
Whether he knew it before or not, the Syrophoenician woman shows Jesus that the Kingdom of God looks in part like this: A woman, a Gentile (a non-Jew), a Syrophoenician Greek living in TYRE (Tyre, of all places, that despised city, seat of Roman imperial economic and military power, beachhead of colonialism and oppression—TYRE!), a woman living in Tyre who because of her nationality should never have heard the Good News, a person who because of her religion should never have known of such grace and such healing, a person who because of her gender should not have spoken like that to a man. To this unnamed woman belongs the Kingdom of God because she has heard the Good News that God is with us so powerfully and grown the seeds so fully that she is empowered to stand up to challenge Jesus to recognize her place at God’s table. She has heard and she will not be still. She will not be deterred. She will not be quiet. And it is in her action— standing up to Jesus—that the Kingdom of God is more fully realized. She shows us the way.
Then what happens? A man who is deaf and unable to speak—though he is disadvantaged in hearing—has heard, in the truest sense, the Good News. And that Good News heals him so that he’s opened up—transformed from a person who could not speak into a person who cannot shut up, cannot stop talking zealously about the Good News, cannot be stilled, deterred, or quieted. Even though Jesus ORDERS him to tell no one, the spread, the opening, the Good News cannot be controlled.
Jesus, what are you teaching us here? That even you aren’t entirely in control of what the Kingdom is doing? Even you can’t quiet what you’ve opened? Even you can’t turn away what you’ve invited? You’ve scattered the seed and even you can’t control where it lands. It has begun to grow and even you can’t control its takeover of your fields. What if we felt the same way about our religion? Our church? Our ministry and our resources? Maybe Jesus is offering us another opportunity to follow him—Jesus who lets the oppressed, the marginalized, the outsiders (the people not here yet) change his mind, Jesus who thinks twice about slamming a door shut when someone sticks her bold foot in his holy way.
The Syrophoenician woman demonstrates to us more about what James means when he says, “Can faith save you? Faith without works is DEAD.” Christianity takes more than private belief. Sometimes, we need to stand up for what we believe in. Jesus doesn’t say to the Syrophoenician woman, “Your faith has healed you!” He says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Being a Christian is not about being nice or feeling nice or believing that God is nice. Being a Christian means taking the Gospel or the salvation or the love or whatever you call that seed growing like a weed inside of you and translating it into activity in this world. And for us, as a church, to translate the very nice feeling of love that we feel inside of us into love on the outside of us will require us to have goals, and a vision to reach to reach those goals, and the persistence to live out that vision. And that is challenging. And when God challenges us, is God being nice? Thank you, God, that you are not always nice.
One way of reading the Syrophoenician woman’s response to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” is to see it as a sort of consent, “Sure, sure, we’re dogs, the kid’s a little dog, now will you heal her?” But I think there is a fundamental Kingdom of God, good soil, not-at-all-nice, faith-with-works, pushy-field-of-weeds challenge in her words. Jesus says that the one true God, the only true God, the omnipotent, all-powerful God favors his people to her exclusion. An astute theologian, the Syrophoenician woman challenges the logical flaw in this belief.
If your God is truly so powerful, she says, and there is not so much as a little crumb of mercy left over for my little daughter, then your faith in your God is foolish. If you think you have bread, but you have no crumbs for me, I do not believe that you really have the bread you claim to have. The Kingdom of God that I have felt growing inside of me, she says, cannot be contained—it scatters and spills and is thrown down in the places you would least expect it. Send me away with nothing, and you will have nothing, and you will have wasted the Kingdom potential here in this moment.
Beloved, where are the crumbs? Where are the seeds? Sometimes I wonder about myself—am I sharing my bread adequately? Am I vacuuming up even the crumbs? Have I sealed the pouch of seeds inside of me to keep them safe and secure in faith? Or am I scattering them? Am I willing to take the risk of discipleship—of throwing what I have been giving to the winds? And am I willing to follow those seeds—to follow them into rocks and thorns and scorching sun? Am I willing to follow them into a Kingdom of God that is so much bigger than me?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations