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Sunday Message for 9 September 2018: “Speak Truth to Power”

Today’s message illuminates a different Jesus. Just when people have embraced a comfortable Jesus as a mental stereotype, something shatters the idyllic imagery and invites a deeper, more nuanced understanding.

The lectionary text (Mark 7: 24-37) reveals a story about a mother imploring Jesus in Tyre, at the Mediterranean coast. Scripture mentions that this mother of a possessed child was a non-Jewish Syrophoenician. The mother was desperate, and she came and bowed at Jesus’ feet, begging him to cast a demon that was ruining her daughter. Then something completely unexpected occurred. Jesus’ response revealed a harsh attitude: “He said to her, ‘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 past or present, people don’t like being called “dogs.” How could Jesus call a grieving mother a dog, suggesting that neither she, her daughter, nor her entire ethnic group were worthy? The quaint Jesus of the popular imagination vanishes instantly. We’re reminded 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 the children of Judaism: “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ “(Matthew 15:24).

Undaunted by Jesus’ insult, the mother kept her cool and gave 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 two-thousand years later because many of us have children for whom we’d sacrifice anything, especially for their health and wellbeing.

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 crying 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 having anything to do with it. It’s extremely rare that Jesus congratulated anyone primarily for a clever response, without also mentioning their faith.

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 rational arguments? The answer can be a resounding “Yes!” Consider two key Old Testament examples where God changed his mind as a result of brilliant human reasoning. Recall that 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. Moses reminded God that, aside from the carnage, killing the Israelites who had migrated out of Egypt 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 reason and moral arguments influence God.

Biblical commentators wrestle with what appears to be humans making compelling arguments that prompt God to change course. 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 such cases as with Moses and Abraham are either rare exceptions or that they are all planned, part of a divine strategy and that no person can really argue against God to change the divine mind. Some also claim that God only appears to have a changed mind when in fact that’s how it was planned just to make a biblical point. Such explanations seem to dodge the greater lessons of today’s lessons.

Another interpretation of the grieving mother’s situation is that she was being tested. The idea is that it’s not about God changing but it is about humans rising over their fears (even to the point of confronting God). Was Jesus intentionally testing the Syrophoenician woman? Was it just some scheme 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 with a giant qualification: even dogs are worthy enough to eat fallen table scraps.

The mother’s story illustrates her noble character and composure. Does this then suggest that we must surrender our pride? Must we be ready to beg, prostrate ourselves, or do whatever else is necessary to obtain God’s favor? The grieving mother may have been 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.”

Yet another possible lesson from the story is that if we keep cool and speak confidently we might get what we want the second time around. 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 we are destroyed. Yet, if the mother hadn’t stood-up to Jesus then her daughter may not have been healed and both she and Jesus might have parted company in anger. A key insight in today’s story is that even when desperate and risky, it pays to speak truth to power.

The story of the mother is strange, so much so that it can arouse psychological distress in some people. On the positive side, it’s good that peoples’ spiritual equilibrium is challenged by an odd story, one that shakes complacent sensibilities. As people struggle to figure-out what’s going on, the mental exercise can be productive. The mind is like a huge muscle that grows through pushing against resistance. Rather than walk away discouraged or dismayed, today’s perspective on Jesus invites people to grow by struggling with a peculiar incident.

God helps advance our spiritual maturity when we rise to the occasion and push through obstacles. This seems like a wonderful pattern promoting spiritual growth. Perhaps it’s God’s plan that humans build their souls through spiritual tests and exercises. When insults and difficulties arise, choose to stay calm, be mindful, and speak truth to power. Embrace the moment and build your character against all challenges. If you persevere, then that flat, monochromatic Jesus will leap into a vibrant, three-dimensional healer.

Manage yourself well under duress and you’ll be more likely rewarded with something greater than 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 and receive whatever healing you need from the Almighty.

–Reverend Hoxey