a sermon on Mark 7:24-37 for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached on September 9, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
In high school, many of my friends and classmates started wearing bracelets with four simple letters: WWJD. “What would Jesus do?” It was a pretty simple concept, an attempt to remind the wearer and anyone else who saw it that the difficult decisions in life could be addressed with this seemingly simple question and that the best response to any situation would just be to do what Jesus would do.
This is a great concept – and then comes today’s text. When I read this, I think this may be one of those rare moments when I think we ought to do what Jesus would do rather than what Jesus actually did! Now don’t get me wrong: Jesus started out actually trying to do something really smart here – he was trying to get away and rest and reconnect, and I can say from personal experience that that is a really wonderful and good thing to do sometimes. Jesus knew that he needed some time away from the pressures and stresses of his ministry in Galilee, time away from the draining work of teaching and healing that had occupied him for a year or more at this point, time apart from the difficult challenges of this work that his family just didn’t understand and his disciples kept misunderstanding. I can’t criticize Jesus’ time away one bit – my own sabbatical over the last two months was a very similar and very necessary moment for me, a time to step away from the stresses of this ministry and to recenter and reconnect with why I do what I do – so maybe we should do as he did and try to get away sometimes.
But then Mark tells us that Jesus “could not escape notice.” Word had spread about him well beyond his hometown, and even in a non-Jewish region people were seeking him out for his wise words and healing touch. One particularly persistent woman approached Jesus while he was trying to rest and get away and begged him to heal her daughter of an unclean spirit. This woman had little or no connection to Jesus or Judaism – Mark tells us that she was a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin, and I suspect she approached Jesus because she had heard of his healing powers that probably seemed more magical to her than anything else. I doubt that she came to him because she was convinced of his relationship to God or had been moved by his teaching. Whatever her reasons for seeking him out, Jesus was not happy to be bothered by her. He was trying to get away from the pressures of his healing ministry and rest and relax a bit, and the last thing he needed on his too-brief sabbatical was another controversy with the Jewish authorities brought on by an interaction with an impure Gentile woman.
So Jesus tried to get rid of her with some pretty strong words: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This does not seem like the same Jesus that we think we know, the Jesus we see pictured in our stained glass back here, the good shepherd who loves children and invites them to come to him, the gentle savior who offers a quiet and restful place to those who are weary and tired, the light of the world who comes to transform all people. No, Jesus here seems to me at least to be a grumpy and tired man who needed a break from a very demanding call – and who just couldn’t get away from the stress of life no matter how hard he tried.
This sounds very familiar in our world, really. We too can’t disconnect from the stresses of life – we’re tied to our work day and night, with calls and texts and emails dinging constantly, and there are very few places where we can go and not be found by someone who wants our attention for our work or our family or something. An article in the Times last year reflected on this tendency, and one overconnected tech executive noted, “The good news about technology is that you can be anywhere and still work. The bad news is that anywhere you are, you have to work.”
In the midst of this kind of world, I think it is easy to do as Jesus did and snap back at those who call out to us for help when we’re trying to slow down – but even when we need some time to step aside and disengage, there are ways to do it without being mean and angry about it, as I think Jesus was here. So this is that rare moment when I think maybe we shouldn’t try to do as Jesus did!
Instead the real one to emulate here might actually be this Gentile woman, who did not let Jesus’ initial grumpy and insulting remark be the last word but instead showed an incredible and faithful and yet frustrated spark and spunk in interacting with him: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus was impressed and moved by her persistence and quick response. “For saying that,” he said, “you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” She left, probably a bit puzzled that he could pull all this off without actually seeing her daughter, but she found her child well when she got home, and that’s all she really wanted. After this strange healing, Jesus gave up on his sabbatical and headed back toward Galilee, where he continued his ministry by healing a man who could not hear nor speak by instructing him to be opened – perhaps just as he had been.
These two remarkable healing stories are wonderful statements of the power of Jesus’ ministry here on earth. Nonetheless, I think the most remarkable part of our reading today for us is more this example of what Jesus did when he was interrupted in the midst of his larger purposes. Interruptions are actually pretty common in the gospel of Mark. On several other occasions, Mark tells us about times when Jesus was trying to do something and ended up getting interrupted along the way. He tried to go heal the daughter of a local Jewish leader and got interrupted on the way by an unclean woman who touched his cloak to heal her constant bleeding, and in the end this interruption set up a situation where Jesus raised the little girl from the dead. Jesus was also interrupted one day as he was teaching by a man who was lowered down into the house through a hole in the roof so that Jesus could heal him. These are just two of the more familiar examples, but there are plenty more. On the whole, it is fair to say that a lot of Jesus’ ministry as recounted in Mark happened in the interruptions.
If we can learn anything from Jesus’ actions here, we can learn the importance of responding faithfully in the midst of interruptions. We can avoid graceless, insulting, and angry words like those he offered to the Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin and instead try to be a little more gentle when we are interrupted. We can also remember that Jesus never ignored someone in need. He always took the time to stop and show them a glimpse of God’s healing mercy and grace, even if he was a little frustrated at first in doing so. And most of all, we can learn from Jesus’ particularly amazing ability to stay focused in the midst of all these distractions. While he certainly paid attention to these who needed his care, he did not let their very real needs distract from his broader ministry and mission.
This seems to be the challenge for us when we get distracted. How do we find this balance that Jesus found so well between paying attention to immediate concerns but also to the transformation of the world that will bring an end to all suffering? How can we be both gentle when we are interrupted and still stay focused on the bigger picture that is before us? And how do we lay the groundwork for a new and different future when we are consumed with much more immediate challenges? I think Jesus offers us a wonderful first step here when he steps away from it all, when he recognizes that he cannot do all that he is called to do without recharging and renewing.
I hope and pray that time away I’ve had on sabbatical over the last two months will be something like this for me and for us – a time for reconnecting and recharging that link with new experiences of amazing places and a good bit of rest to renew me for the service that we share. I also hope and pray that all of us can all find some time and space like this sometime, ways to balance the very real needs of the moment with the call to reflect and stay focused on our bigger call to join in God’s work of making the new creation real in the world here and now.
So may we remember what Jesus did well – and what Jesus could have done better – in his encounter with this woman, so that we might do as he did and find the rest we need along the journey, show the grace we are called to reflect toward others along the way, and stay focused on God’s call to us to join in the incredible work of making the new creation real in this world until Jesus comes to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.