Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Good News For All

James 2:1-17 and Mark 7:24-37

 Jesus is taking to the road.  He is leaving Galilee and Judea for “pagan territory.”  He is going first to Tyre and Sidon, the region called Phoenicia, which was to the north of Galilee, and then to the Decapolis, a Greek word that meant “ten cities,” to the southeast of Galilee.  

All told, this journey would be at least 200 miles, and depending on how much time they spent in these various cities and towns, this would be at least a couple of months, and perhaps as much as half a year.  Why so long a journey into regions that were not heavily populated by Jewish people?  

Well, this was after Jesus had begun to experience a lot of resistance from the Jewish leadership.  And it was before his appointed time to go to Jerusalem.  So perhaps this was something of a “peaceful interlude,” a chance to get away and spend some time nurturing his disciples before the trials to come. 

Maybe Jesus was “planting seeds for a future harvest.”  We know, of course, that the gospel is a message for all nations.  The disciples didn’t understand that yet.  Maybe Jesus is establishing a personal connection with these non-Jews so that they will be more ready to hear the gospel when the time comes.  It might also be something of a foreshadowing of that revelation that the gospel is a universal message.  Perhaps after God revealed that to the disciples, they were able to look back on this time and say, “We should have seen it all along!”  

Maybe it was a combination of these purposes.  But for certain, its placement in Mark’s Gospel is no accident.  At the beginning of chapter 7, which we looked at last Sunday, we hear Jesus talking about cleanliness and food.  Jesus declares all food to be acceptable now.  And here at the end of chapter 7, Jesus declares all people to be acceptable as well.  

Jesus goes first to Tyre and Sidon.  These were the chief cities of ancient Phoenicia, a culture built around sea trade.  The Phoenicians were the first people to learn how to navigate by the sun, moon, and stars.  For a while, they monopolized trade in the Mediterranean world.  Tyre and Sidon were once places of great wealth.  They were also places of great sin, especially sexual immorality. In that way, they were very much like Corinth, also a center of trade and sexual immorality.  

In the time of David, Phoenicia was an ally of Israel.  But soon after, the relationship fell apart and they became antagonistic toward each other.  The most famous Phoenician of the Old Testament was Queen Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab.  He is remembered as one of the worst kings of ancient Israel, and a lot of the credit for that goes to his wife.  But the widow of Zarephath, the woman who sheltered and fed Elijah in the time of Ahab and Jezebel, was also a Phoenician, so you can’t paint everyone with the same brush.  

News of Jesus’ arrival in the region reaches a woman whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit.  She comes and begs Jesus to help her daughter.  Jesus initially seems to reject her plea by saying, “Should I feed the dogs before the children?”

Now first of all, Jesus is not saying that she, a Gentile, is a dog.  He is making an illustration.  The Jews did not keep dogs as pets in the first century.  In Jewish culture, dogs were nothing better than foul scavengers, hanging around the city dumps.  But the Greeks, and the cultures influenced by the Greeks, did keep dogs as household pets.  And that’s what Jesus is talking about here.  He says literally, “Should the children eat before the ‘little’ dogs.”  The Greek word for dog here is a “diminutive” form of the word.  And when you used the diminutive in Greek, you used it as a term of endearment or affection.  This illustration would not have worked with a Jewish person.  But it did work with her because she was from a different culture.  Jesus was a master at meeting people where they were, something we should try to do as we share about Jesus.  If we use language that is too “churchy,” too “Christianese,” with people who have no understanding of it, we’re not likely to be able to communicate our message.

I think Jesus was testing her.  He was looking for faith.  And she passes the test.  She says, “Even the little dogs are allowed the crumbs that fall from the table.”  And I think that means, basically, “It would only take a crumb, only the smallest measure of your power, to heal her.”  And Jesus says, “You have answered well.  I have healed your daughter.”  

From Tyre, Jesus goes further north to Sidon, about 60 miles from Galilee.  Then he turns south and east to go to the Decapolis.  There, a deaf man who could hardly speak was brought to Jesus for healing.  

Jesus takes him away from the crowd.  He is not a magician, performing his tricks to be seen by the crowds.  As Jesus heals him, he performs a series of rather strange

actions:  putting his fingers in the man’s ears, touching the man’s tongue with spittle.  It seems that Jesus is telling him in the only way that he can understand what he is doing for him.  Once again, Jesus meets the man where he is and communicates with him in a way he can understand.  As for the spittle, well, apparently in the 1st century world, spittle was often associated with healing.  I know, I know, gross.  Then Jesus says in Aramaic, “Ephphatha,” which meant “be opened,” and the man was healed.

Why is this journey remembered?  What was so significant about Jesus making a trip through Gentile territory that the disciples recorded it in the Gospels?  I think it’s because the disciples looked back on it and saw the first hints of a universal gospel message that they eventually embraced.  

But I’m sure it was uncomfortable at the time.  The disciples all knew what it was to live in a multicultural world.  The Roman Empire may have been the most multicultural society that existed until the 20th century.  They all knew what it was to have dealings with Gentiles.  But, like most Jews, they probably never spent months of their lives living and traveling among Gentiles.  Jews just didn’t do that!  

We’re probably all at least a little bit uncomfortable in the presence of people who aren’t like us.  When we are with people of a different culture, a different race, a different language, a different social class, or people who live a different lifestyle than we do, we are probably all at least a little bit uncomfortable.  

But Jesus died for them, too.  And so prejudice, discrimination, favoritism, these things are incompatible with faith in Jesus.  

Unfortunately, the Church has sometimes been willing to overlook this one command of God.  The Church has, at times been willing to cooperate with colonialism, a way of thinking that treated non-Europeans as less than Europeans.  We’ve been willing to cooperate with slavery, segregation, and anti-Semitism as well.  And we’ve been willing to treat this one command of God as less important to keep than many other commands of God.  But as James reminds us in verse 10, the one who breaks one command of God is no less guilty than the one who breaks every command.  

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