God’s Love Isn’t Just for a Select Few

Jesus was tired.

Mark tells us that Jesus set out and went away into a different region—the area of the Gentiles—to get away. He’d just had that long conversation with the religious leaders about his disciples not washing their hands. He’d been teaching and healing and feeding people all over the region of Galilee, and he set out to a place where he might escape notice.  But that didn’t happen.

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Because a woman was tired and desperate.

Her daughter had an unclean spirit that caused the girl to be a completely different person than she always had been. We don’t get the gory details, but in a similar healing for a dad and a son we learn that the spirit convulsed the boy, forcing him to fall into the fire, and that the spirit tormented the boy day and night.  Imagine the pain that mother felt, the hopelessness of not having her daughter in her right mind, of doing harmful things to herself. 

The woman was so very tired of having to withstand all this and she just wanted her daughter back. So when Jesus quietly slipped in to town, she tracked him down in order to see if he could heal the little girl.  She discovered which house Jesus had entered, came before him, and knelt down.  And that’s when Mark tells us that this woman also happened to be a Syrophoenician. A Gentile.  An outsider.  She lived close enough to the Jewish territory to hear about this Jewish rabbi who made people whole and restored them to their communities. So here she knelt before him begging him to heal her daughter when all he wanted was some R & R.

He replied, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

That truly is as harsh as you think it is.  Jesus tells that desperate and tired woman no, he can’t heal her daughter, because she’s not the right ethnicity.  She’s not a Jew.  And, in fact, she’s at the same level as the dogs running around in the streets.  Oh, I’ve heard sermons and read commentaries that soften this a ton—Jesus was just being playful, he really meant “puppies,” there was a sparkle in his eye. But that isn’t what the text says.  Mark tells us Jesus hid away to a foreign region trying to escape notice, but it didn’t work. He’s tired and, it seems, a bit cranky, and he poorly responds to this poor woman who just wanted to have her daughter back. Because she wasn’t a Jew, and Jesus had come to the Jewish people.

And frankly I don’t really like this Jesus.  He’s a bit too human.  If he wants to get in a quarrel with the religious types like me as he did last week, that’s fine. We have multiple degrees and standing behind us, we can hold our own and probably need to be taken down a notch or three.  But this poor foreign woman who just wanted her daughter to be restored? Calling her a dog because she wasn’t born into the right community?  Are you kidding me Jesus?

If I’m honest, part of the reason I bristle at this Jesus is because I never want to respond in the same way.  When I’m tired and wanting a break after a hard week, and I head out of town to just get away, I long to be left alone. To be able to recharge.  But that doesn’t mean people don’t have serious pastoral needs on my sabbath, and need to search me out.  This response from Jesus is just a bit too human for my liking.  Like the times in your life when the refrigerator goes on the blink after you’ve already discovered  the car needs a major repair and it’s that week when you have ten events for the kids.  You’re fried.  And then a friend calls to tell you she’s been diagnosed with cancer.  We want our best selves to show up at those moments, to realize that this person in front of us is more important than the other things in our lives. That the whatever we needed can be postponed for just a bit longer because this person needs us.

We wouldn’t dare to say, “You know, I’m having a really hard week. I’m sorry but I just can’t hear this right now, I can’t do anything for you.”  “Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t right to take their food and give it to the dogs.” 

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Jesus could be tired and cranky all he wanted, but that woman was having none of it.  She was making sure she got what she came for.  “Sir,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

And with that line the air is broken, and Jesus comes to his senses and sees the woman right in front of him for who she really is, a child of the living God no matter where she was born.  “For saying that,” he tells her, “you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” 

I grew up in Michigan in the suburbs near Detroit.  I still have family there, and on one of our trips the last few years, we went to the Henry Ford Museum. It’s dedicated to both the rise of the automobile and the importance of the assembly line.  But in addition to things you’d expect like the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and a Model T, the museum had a section called “With Liberty and Justice for All.”  As we wandered around that area, we came upon the Rosa Parks bus.

Ms. Parks was tired.  She had worked all day on December 1, 1955 when she boarded the bus in Montgomery, Alabama heading toward Cleveland Ave. When a white man boarded the bus with some others a few stops later, the bus driver came back and asked for her seat in the designated colored section since the white’s-only section was full—something he could legally do.  She just slid in closer to the window, but that wasn’t good enough. The law stated that no blacks could sit in the same row with a white person , even across the aisle from a white person.  He asked her to move again, and she said no. He then called the police, and she was arrested.

After reading the account, we climbed onto the bus and sat in her row. We couldn’t believe the mistreatment of this woman who just wanted to sit in the seat she had paid for.  It wasn’t until later that I discovered her explanation of what happened.  “People always said that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Each Sunday we declare the words of the Nicene Creed and proclaim that Jesus—true God from true God—was made man. And I think we expect him to not be like us as humans who get tired or feel pain. That somehow because of his divinity he rose above all that. But that’s not the case.  He was also fully human.  He looked a hurting woman in the face and told her he couldn’t heal her daughter based on her ethnicity.  But because she wouldn’t give up, he realized that he couldn’t contain God’s love. Love is generative. It’s going to keep growing no matter what we intend for it.  It’s isn’t meant just for a chosen few.  It’s meant to bring life to the world.

And we can’t stop it either.  We are called to embody that love and treat all people with respect and dignity.  That’s the baptismal promise Vivianne will make this morning as we welcome her into Christ’s body the Church. We want both for her to know and for us to remember that every person is worthy of Jesus’ healing touch and message of love and that she, like us, is being sent out to share that love.

I think our founder, Joseph Burnett, was on to something when he made his bequest at our founding.  He said this church should be free to all, but I want to change it slightly.  It’s not just this church, but rather the astounding love of God that is free to all, with no distinctions to wealth, color, race or station.  Let us show that love and pursue justice not just for ourselves or those who look like us, but for every single person.  Jesus realized that you can’t just dole out God’s healing love to a select few. That life giving love is meant to change the world. May it change us so that we can be agents and evangelists for the One who desires us all to experience healing and love.  Amen.