Dog Food: Mark 7:24-37

“Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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 7:26-27)

That interchange has to be one of the most unChrist like things attributed to Jesus in any of the Gospels. The only similar verse which is even worse is in the Sermon on the Mount and lacks the context of Mark’s narrative. There Jesus just states “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” (Matthew 7:6)

In Mark’s narrative the dialogue is with a Gentile. And it would seem the distinction Jesus is making is that the Jews are God’s children and others are not. In all honesty I have not researched what biblical scholars have to say about how to interpret this text. One possibility that comes to my mind is that maybe Jesus was just having a bad day and didn’t want to be bothered by this woman’s request. If Jesus is fully human he certainly must have had times where just needed a break.

In fact Mark tells us in verse 24: “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Any pastor can identify with the need to go off the grid once in awhile to recharge. One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my ministry from one of my mentors was to always take a day off each week and get out of town so people won’t bother you. That was way before cell phones or even pagers made it harder to get away, and it is even more difficult and tempting to check for texts and emails 24/7 today.

We didn’t call it self-care back then, but that’s what it is. Jesus is usually pretty good at going off by himself to pray when he needs to, or at least he tries. Mark is the most intriguing of the Gospels in that regard with all the references to the Messianic secret. The verses for September 5th’s lesson are bookended by two such references with the second coming in verse 36: “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.”

Jesus’ desire for some solitude is denied him twice in this short passage. The conclusion to verse 24’s statement that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there says, “Yet he could not escape notice.” So maybe he was just frustrated. He figured that getting out of the country would offer a respite from the clamoring masses, but even in Tyre he couldn’t catch a break.

Throughout all the preceding chapters of Mark crowds are continually flooding Jesus with their needs to be healed. And in chapter 6 the feeding of the multitude story begins with Jesus expressing concern for his disciple’s self-care. They were so busy they didn’t have time to eat! I don’t know about you, but if I’m too busy to eat I get hangry pretty quick. So Jesus suggests they go off “to a quiet place” for some R & R. But the crowds got there first, and Jesus “had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

That sounds more like the Jesus we want when we call him for help. So how do we reconcile that compassionate Jesus with the one one who calls Gentiles dogs in chapter 7? Other than my speculation above I am not sure, but I am intrigued with how quickly Jesus changes his tune when the woman responds to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I think it’s an interesting coincidence that this narrative pivots on this comment about dogs when national dog day was this week. I enjoyed seeing everyone’s pictures of their fur babies on Facebook, but more than that I see a connection between this story from Mark with reading I’ve been doing recently about mysticism and the cosmic Christ.

In verses 29 and 30 we find Jesus’ response to the woman’s argument that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs. “Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” What is there about the woman’s comment that made Jesus completely reverse himself? Could it be Jesus recognized the truth in her statement that all of creation is intrinsically connected as part of God’s creation?

Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion for Aug. 27 contains this quote from the Celtic theologian Pelagius: “Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. . . . Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” (The Letters of Pelagius: Celtic Soul Friend, ed. Robert Van de Weyer, p. 71)

Rohr comments: “Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourself to mean loving not only our human neighbor but all the life forms that surround us. ‘So when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree,’ he wrote, ‘we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.’”

And Rohr concludes that devotion with these words from Thomas Berry, a modern mystic: “In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity. Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe. Every being enters into communion with other beings. This capacity for relatedness, for presence to other beings, for spontaneity in action, is a capacity possessed by every mode of being throughout the entire universe.” (Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Bell Tower: 1999), 3.)

Maybe Jesus recognized that cosmic spirit in the Syrophoenician woman’s compassion for the canine part of creation and that universal nature of her faith inspired him to extend his own cosmic healing power to her daughter.

“HEARING THE HEAVENS AND DOING THE WORD,” PS. 19:1-14

The heavens are telling the glory of God – without words – can you hear it?   Early morning bird song, gentle waves lapping at the sides of a canoe adrift on a lake at sunrise or sunset (if you aren’t a morning person!).    Most of us have felt the indescribable presence of God in nature at some time in our lives – as Robert Browning describes it in his famous poem, “Pippa’s Song:”

 “The year’s at the spring, and day’s at the morn,

Morning’s at seven; the hillside is dew-pearled;

The lark is on the wing; the snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world!”

We cherish such moments of communion with nature and the God who created it all – in part because it is extra-ordinary.  Such beauty transcends the mundane and ugly parts of life that are too much with us.  Partly because we don’t take time to seek out those special times and place, partly because it is increasingly hard to find such places in our hectic, crowded lives, polluted by noise and light and smog that tarnish our view of the heavens.  Yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch ran a story about air pollution being so bad in Beijing that they scored in the 700’s on a scale that is only supposed to go to 500!  A month after the Newtown massacre we know all too well that life is anything but peaceful and serene for far too many of God’s children.

Who was this Psalmist and what planet did he live on?  Would he or she have written such glowing idyllic words if he lived in the 21st century?  In our century of suicide bombers and devastation from storms caused by undeniable global warming and climate change?  What about the stagnant economy and congressional gridlock or senseless slaughter in Syria, starving kids in Darfur and Detroit?   The heavens may be telling the glory of God, but heaven is a long way from our troubled planet – and some skeptics say you can’t get there from here!!!

Given all that doom and gloom, even when we gaze at the vast expanse of the universe on a clear night and pray to our God in heaven, don’t we sometimes find ourselves feeling insignificant and lonely and asking what God’s done for us lately?

I know I do.  I can throw a great pity party – and then some friend on God’s behalf  reminds me that suffering is written large in every chapter of human history – from the crusades to the black  plague, from Roman imperialism to Nazi Germany and the Russian gulag, from the dark ages to modern day war lords, slavery and genocide.  And they also remind me that in every one of those generations a faithful remnant has heard and seen the cosmic goodness of God’s creation and refused to surrender to the forces of darkness.  Voices like Browning and our Psalmist have dared to affirm the goodness of creation and life, not because of turmoil and trouble, but in spite of it.  Luther, Augustine, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Paul of tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth – just to name a few – too many voices of hope that have made too great an impact on the world to write them off as unrealistic optimists.

And that doesn’t even begin to address biblical history.  Like many parts of the Bible, we don’t know for sure who wrote this Psalm or when, but knowing what we know about the history of Israel, it doesn’t really matter.  To get a picture of Israel’s political and economic history – imagine a place like Ohio being an independent country and all of our neighbors – Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, even Canada and that state up north, all take turns overrunning the Buckeye state and taking over our government and economy.  At one point we Ohioans are driven by a famine to Kentucky in search for food, and end up being slaves there for several hundred years to the pharaoh of Lexington.   When we finally escape and cross the Ohio River again, other people have taken over our homeland, and we have to fight a bitter guerilla war to reclaim it.  A then a few centuries later Michigan invades Ohio and our leaders are carried off to exile in Ann Arbor.

Pretty ugly, right?  Well that’s Israel’s history – Israel isn’t a great agricultural country – they don’t have lots of natural resources or wealth; but what they had, especially in Bible times was location, location, location.   Remember your geography and Israel’s location in that narrow strip of arable land along the Mediterranean coast.  It’s called the Fertile Crescent because everything for hundreds of miles to the east is desert.  So that narrow strip of land was the only trade route between the great political and economic super powers of the day.  The only safe way between Greece, Assyria, Babylon and Rome on the north and Egypt on the south went right through Israel; so everyone wanted to control it, and took turns doing so.  My point is that no matter when this 19th Psalm was written, it could not have been describing some utopian era when “all was right with the world” because no such time to this day has ever existed in Israeli history.  The Jews are fully acquainted with grief – to the point where Tevye in that great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” at one point asks God, “couldn’t you choose someone else once in awhile?”

And yet in this Psalm and throughout the calamities of slavery, exile, wars and rumors of wars, God’s people appreciate and witness to the glory of God.  They heard the heavens proclaiming the glory of God – do we?

Maybe the Hebrews were closer to the earth and creation than we are in our urbanized technological world, but that’s no excuse.  God is still speaking and the cosmos is as magnificent and awesome as ever if we take time to listen to its power and assurance.  As the epistle James (1:17) puts it, “Every generous act is from above, from God, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”   God and the universe don’t change, no matter how badly we humans mess things up – that’s the good news.

The temptation for some, even many of us, may be to withdraw into the beauty of nature and tune out the cacophony of human conflict.  When I hear the shouting matches going on in federal and local legislatures over fiscal reform or hear the litany of senseless violence and tragedy on the nightly news, I can see value in high tailing it to Walden Pond or a remote mountain somewhere and communing with nature forever.  But we know better.   It’s not enough to hear the heavens proclaim the glory of God; we are expected to put that heavenly assurance into action.  From Micah’s admonition to “do justice” (6:8) to James urging us to “be doers of God’s word, and not hearers only” (1:22), the biblical message is clear.  We need faith and hope and strength from God in any form we can get it – but it’s not there to hoard for a rainy day.  Love is only love if you give it away, or as James puts it even more forcefully later in this letter – “faith without works is dead” (2:26).

Talk can be cheap, and we know actions speak louder than words.  So what does doing God’s word look like for us as Jesus followers today?  To be doers of the word we need to surrender control and allow the ways of Christ to inform every decision we make–about vocations and vacations, how we spend our time and money, how we share our resources and care for mother earth.  And beyond acts of charity and kindness, to prayerfully examine how doers of God’s word can make positive contributions to public policies that shape and influence the lives of everyone in society, not just our own.

We could say, “I have health care and my family is taken care of, so let’s leave the system the way it is, it works for me!!!”   Or, “there’s enough money in social security to last my life time, global warming won’t get serious till after I’m gone; so let someone else worry about those complicated issues.”

No, what the heavens proclaim from our cosmic God requires bigger thinking and responsibility from us, and by the grace of God we are capable of bold, creative action, even if fair and equitable solutions to health care and other social justice issues seem currently impossible to achieve.

Yes, the heavens proclaim God’s glory, but we still know that all is not right with the world; and guess whose job it is to fix it?  When we think about the beauty of God’s creation, we need to remind ourselves that the Bible doesn’t begin with Genesis chapter 3, which is where Adam and Eve get booted out of the garden.  The Bible begins with Genesis, chapter 1 – where humans are created in the very image of God and entrusted to be God’s agents and stewards in the world.

Let’s be very clear that to be God’s agents and doers of the word is not advocating for some kind of works righteousness.  We aren’t called to be doers of God’s word to earn brownie points with God.  None of us can do enough good deeds to earn our salvation – that’s a gift of grace for those who repent and surrender to God’s word.  Faith produces good works, not vice versa.  People of faith can’t not do acts of justice and compassion, because once we truly hear the heavenly voice of God we know we are connected to each other – we are brothers and sisters in Christ, including those who don’t yet know we’re all kin.

Above the clamor and racket of modern life, the heavens are still telling the glory of God today.  Stop, look and listen for it – hear the power and the majesty – the power and the majesty beyond words, beyond human comprehension, beyond human suffering and injustice!

Stop, listen, hear the heavenly voices, and then go from the places of cosmic beauty renewed, refreshed and inspired to be doers of justice and compassion and hope for those who most need to hear what the heavens are proclaiming.