Sunday Message for 5 September 2021: “Speak Truth to Power”

Today’s message illuminates a different Jesus, someone whose behavior shatters the idyllic imagery and invites a deeper, more nuanced understanding.

Mark 7: 24-37 reveals a desperate mother in the coastal city of Tyre imploring Jesus. The mother was a non-Jewish Syrophoenician who bowed at Jesus’ feet, begging him to banish a demon from her daughter. Then something completely unexpected occurred when Jesus responded, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7: 27).

Few people who think they know Jesus would predict such a response from a loving Lord and Savior. Whether ancient or modern, people don’t like being called dogs. How could Jesus call a grieving mother a dog, suggesting that she, her daughter and her non-Jewish ethnic group were unworthy? We’re reminded here that Jesus was a Jew sent to the Jews (the “children” spoken about in the previous verse). Jesus wasn’t obligated to spread teachings or healings outside Judaism. Indeed, Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel“(Matthew 15:24).

Undaunted by Jesus’ insult, the mother kept calm and marshalled a brilliant response: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). This is remarkable. How many people could keep cool under terrible duress while also knowing that a spiritual leader had refused to help their sick child? The mother’s situation makes sense to us two-thousand years later because we have children for whom we’d sacrifice just about anything.

The mother might have hurled an insult back to Jesus and thereby given him a taste of his own medicine. Or she could have run out of the house proclaiming that “Jesus is prejudiced and he discriminates against non-Jews!” Rather than reacting or being immobilized by fear, the mother kept calm and spoke truth to power, hence changing Jesus’ mind: “Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter’ ” (Mark 7:29). It’s hard to overestimate the significance of this event. Jesus granted the mother’s request solely because of her words, with no mention of the woman’s faith or anything else. It’s extremely rare that Jesus congratulated anyone, certainly not for the power of their words against his own.

Today’s story teaches that Jesus accepted the challenge of someone speaking truth to his power. The mother’s cleverly-worded reply had won the day. Dare we think that God is affected by the power of our words and arguments? The answer can be a resounding “Yes!” Consider how both Moses and Abraham changed God’s mind dramatically (Exodus 32:9-14 & Genesis 18:23-33). In both cases, God wanted to annihilate people but was convinced to do otherwise. Moses reminded God that, aside from the carnage, killing the Israelites who had fled Egypt under Pharoah’s bondage would damage God’s reputation. In the other case, Abraham argued that it would be immoral for God to destroy everything in Sodom & Gomorrah since there were innocent people who did not deserve indiscriminate death. There we have it, two magnificent precedents of how reasonable arguments changed God’s course.

Theological pundits wrestle with what appears to be humans making compelling arguments that prompt God to change. Such instances don’t seem to fit neatly into schemes of polite, orthodox theology. Some who deny the role of arguing with God conclude that cases as with Moses and Abraham are either rare exceptions or that they are all planned, part of some obscure, complicated divine strategy and that no person can exert definitive influence over the divine mind. Some misguided apologists also claim that God only appears to have changed when in fact that’s how it was planned, as if nothing was changed because it was all an elaborate scheme.

The story today about the grieving mother need not cause an argument about whether God changes or is affected by human reasoning. What is more at stake is humans rising over their fears (even to the point of confronting God). Was Jesus intentionally testing the Syrophoenician woman? Was it just some device to highlight her patience and to have her gracefully accept her inferior ethnic status?  It’s clear that the mother had started her conversation with Jesus by begging, and she further humbled herself by tacitly admitting that she and her ethnic group were dogs, but she also gently reminded Jesus that even dogs are worthy enough to eat fallen table scraps.

The mother in today’s story illustrates her noble character and composure. Must we likewise be calm and carry on when God seems to be rejecting us? The grieving mother may have been dismissed as a dog but she didn’t bite back. So, what are you willing to do with this story? Has God said “NO!” only for you to consider arguing your way out of it? We don’t usually think of God as being steered by human wisdom. It’s awkward to consider that we can radically change things such that God’s “NO” turns into a “YES.”

Consider that if you keep cool and speak confidently then you might be more likely to get what you want. Don’t have the stomach to confront God? You’re not alone. We’ve been conditioned to not talk back to God lest God get angry and judge us. Yet, if the mother hadn’t stood-up to Jesus then her daughter would not have been healed and both she and Jesus might have parted in anger. A key insight in today’s story is that speaking truth to power can be a good strategy even when the situation looks bleak and desperate.

The story of the mother is strange, so much so that it can arouse psychological distress in some people as they wrestle with the implications and ramifications. On the positive side, it’s good that peoples’ spiritual equilibrium is challenged by an odd story, one that shakes complacent sensibilities. As someone struggles to discern what Jesus and God are saying, the mental exercise can build spiritual and emotional strength. The mind is like a muscle that improves by working through problems. Rather than walk away discouraged or dismayed, today’s perspective on Jesus invites people to grow by struggling with a peculiar incident, one that doesn’t fit a comfortable pattern.

God helps advance spiritual maturity when we rise to the occasion and push through obstacles. This seems like a wonderful way to promote spiritual growth. God’s plan is for people to build spiritual health through life’s challenges and exercises. When insults and difficulties arise, choose to stay calm, be mindful, and speak truth to power. Embrace even the harsh moments and build your character through your measured response. If you persevere, you could get what you want despite initial rejection.

Manage yourself well under duress and you may be rewarded with something greater than mere table scraps. What you’ll gain are not bread crumbs but nuggets of soul gold. And while we’re at it, let’s recognize the power of bold mothers, sharp rhetoric, and a bit of doggy name-calling that have made it all possible. God bless you as you seek blessings from the Almighty.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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