Pentecost 15 Mark 7:24-37
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Today we heard read Mark’s account of an exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman who wanted her daughter healed. The woman is a foreigner. Initially Jesus responds to her pleas by not answering. He tells his disciples that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. The woman continues to plead. Jesus tells her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” ‘Dogs’ is a derogatory name for Gentiles. She responds, “"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
The dominant metaphor in this exchange is the household. Jesus is within the house of Judaism, looking after its children. The woman, Justa [i], is outside the house. She is a foreigner, a Gentile. Jesus is an insider. Justa is an outsider. The insiders are called children. The outsiders are called dogs. The outsider wants something from the insider, and the insider doesn’t want to share it.
Time and again conflict has arisen between religious insiders and outsiders who are religiously other. The Church wants to maintain its boundaries, determining what is right and wrong, and only granting admittance on its terms. It claims divine approval for its borders, its power to determine what is holy and what is not, and its power to admit outsiders or not. It is a formidable institution.
But time and time someone insignificant, someone different [maybe due to race, class, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation], someone brave and foolish, comes to challenge the institution’s boundaries. ‘Please sir, I’m in love and want to get married. I don’t want to hurt anyone, or hurt their marriages, or make a fuss in even the slightest way. I just want to marry the woman I love. Here in church, before God. Oh, and I’m a woman too.’ St Matthew’s has had four such requests already.
The so-called ‘dogs’ want some crumbs from the ‘children’s’ table. What would Jesus do?
In the world of male honour Justa bests Jesus in the argument. By losing to a woman he is shamed. Yet in the eyes of the early faith communities Jesus manifests the greater virtue of hospitality by responding positively to the challenge to open wide the doors of his metaphor.
Justa brings to the words “house” and “children” the words “table” and “food”. This was the primary site of conflict for the early church. As Luke Timothy Johnson says, “We are obsessed [today] by the sexual dimension of the body. The first-century Mediterranean world was obsessed by the social implications of food and table fellowship.” [ii] To let the ‘dogs’ in to the house of Judaism was unscriptural, ritually unhygienic, and contrary to culture.
Interestingly the same gender marriage opponents also argue on the basis of Scripture, bodily boundaries, and culture.
Justa the Gentile takes the household metaphor of eating and widens it in order that both children and ‘dogs’ are fed from the same table. She believes that the table of faith in the God of Jesus can sustain both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus for his part opens his mind to her truth, and grants her request.
Hospitality requires more than simply inviting others to dine with us. It requires a hospitable heart and a generous mind. It requires us to accept that the others, the ‘foreigners’, are different from us and may never believe or act exactly the same as us. Therefore the table we will sit at together will feel less like our table. The table though familiar will now feel somewhat strange and foreign.
This is how I suspect many traditionalists are feeling about the possibility of marriage being shared with gay and lesbian couples. It feels a little strange, and a little foreign.
Contrary to the accepted understanding of the Torah [iii], Jesus would preach and live out a table fellowship where pure and impure, male and female, Jew and Gentile, insiders and outsiders, would dine together. Not always comfortably, but together.
The book of Acts, written by Luke, is an account of the emergence and spread of the early Church following Jesus’ death. Chapter 10 is the pivotal point of that book. Until chapter 10 the message about Jesus had been preached only to Jews. Admittedly it had been preached to those who, though Jews, were considered contaminated – the detested Samaritans [iv] and the sexually ‘other’ Ethiopian [v]. But it is still firmly within the Jewish house. It is not a religion for Gentiles. In chapter 10, however, Peter moves ethnically and thus religiously to the edge, and takes a dangerous step across a threshold that would demand the most fundamental reinterpretation for the emergent church.
Peter falls into a sleep and sees a large sheet coming down from the heavens. In it are all manner of animals – the clean and unclean, the ones a Jew could eat and the ones a Jew couldn’t. “Then he heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means…for I have never eaten anything unclean.” The voice said to him again... “What God has made clean you must not call profane”. [vi]
Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “Please remember the stakes. The Gentiles were considered 'by nature' unclean, and were 'by practice' polluted by idolatry. The decision to let the Gentiles in 'as is' [not requiring their conversion to Judaism] came into direct conflict with the accepted interpretation of Torah and what God wanted of humans.” [vii]
Peter’s vision leads him to respond to an invitation to intimate fellowship with an impure Gentile's household [Cornelius’s] - whom he baptizes once he sees evidence that God is at work among them. Peter then has the problem of justifying his actions to his colleagues in Jerusalem.
Again we can see parallels with where we are regarding the inclusion of LGBT in today’s Church. There are many who are uncomfortable with the foreign nature of same gender love and its expressions, and use the Bible to support their discomfit. There are those who want to make inclusion conditional on sexual abstinence. ‘Be-more-like-us,’ is the message, ‘before-we-make-room-for-you.’
Luke, in his Gospel, does not represent Jesus as having dismissed the issue of food purity [viii], but to the contrary presents the early disciples as keeping to a very high standard of purity. Thus, the addition of true Gentiles to the community created a serious problem about the relationship of believers to one another in terms of purity of their food. Luke acknowledges the seriousness of the problem by repeating the incident in full in Acts 11. If the Jerusalem Council found in favour of Peter with Cornelius’ household then faithful Jewish Christians would inevitably be compromised. There was no way for a win-win solution here.
The deck is stacked against Peter. Scripture, as Peter understands it, opposes his action: the Book of Deuteronomy does not permit the ‘People of God’ to mix with foreigners. Tradition is against him: the Maccabean Wars against foreign influences are in his people's recent history. The only argument in his favour is that there is something experientially remarkable about the work of Jesus in people’s lives. To their great credit the apostles and elders in Jerusalem knew the Spirit of Jesus well enough to discern that God was doing a new thing.
Likewise God is doing a new thing in these days. Here in Aotearoa the acceptance of gay and lesbian people grows daily; similarly in the Church. Although this new thing seems fragile, seems reliant on the goodwill of the heterosexual majority, there are continuing signs of hope. I pray that the Church will welcome and embrace this wind [ruach] of change, and celebrate the hope it offers to us all.
[i] Justa is the name she is called in the 3rd and 4th century Pseudo-Clementine homilies.
[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision-making in the Church, Abingdon : Nashville, 1983, p.147.
[iii] The Torah is the first five books of the Bible, and has preeminent place in Jewish Scripture.
[iv] Acts 8:4-25
[v] Acts 8:26-40
[vi] Acts 10:13-15
[vii] Luke Timothy Johnson, op.cit.
[viii] Unlike Matthew and Mark – see Matt 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23