Communion Meditation: Table Manners Mark 7:24-37 Rev. Dr. Paul A. Day
James issues a challenge to the gathered people of God. He is a keen observer of human nature. He had noticed that the Church folks tended to pay more attention, and more deference to wealthy visitors than to poor ones. Such partiality, James says, goes against the “royal law” – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” James goes on to urge us to “speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For . . . mercy triumphs over judgment.”
James also reminds us that loving our neighbors takes shape in practical actions, such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. In other words, our faith must lead to acts, for “faith without works is dead.”
There’s a T-shirt that says it well: “Love Thy Neighbor / Thy Homeless Neighbor / Thy Muslim Neighbor / Thy Black Neighbor / Thy Gay Neighbor / Thy Immigrant Neighbor / Thy Jewish Neighbor / Thy Christian Neighbor / Thy Atheist Neighbor / Thy Disabled Neighbor / Thy Addicted Neighbor” – We could easily add to the list.
When I was serving a congregation in Worcester, Massachusetts, we had an occasional visitor named Shirley. Shirley had been a vibrant young woman, and then had been involved in an accident that caused some brain damage. We would see Shirley in worship for a few Sundays, then she would be gone for a while. When I saw her in the street she would say, “Pastor Day, I haven’t been to your church because I found out that I’m Catholic.” You see, we shared Shirley with the other churches in Quinsigamond Village; with one exception the churches all treated her well even though she could be disruptive, often telling people she was the “Mother of God” and had a special message to share. It was a good test of the grace and graciousness of God’s people.
That inner city Church often had other visitors – homeless, dirty, smelly – or recent immigrants – Vietnamese, Hispanic, and others. Quinsigamond Village had once been a “Swedish enclave” – all the churches had Swedish backgrounds – Swedish Congregationalists, Lutherans, Methodists, Salvation Army, Baptist—even the Catholic church was called St. Catherine of Sweden. But when I was there the Village was 40% multi-ethnic and largely transitional. It was a challenge to reach across economic, cultural, and language barriers.
Today’s Gospel reading puts the challenge more boldly — Mark 7:24-30
24 Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
This passage is one of the most puzzling – indeed, troubling – incidents in Jesus’ ministry. His interaction with the Gentile woman seems very out of character. Did Jesus really call her a dog?!?! The problem is that we have only the words of narrative and dialogue—and certainly not everything that was said! Nor do we have Jesus’ tone of voice or body language. Luke, who has only a second-hand account of Jesus’ ministry seems to have been so troubled by it that he leaves it out entirely.
Matthew’s account of this incident tells us that it was the disciples who urged Jesus to send the woman away. Their pleas prompted Jesus to put their thoughts into words, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) The people of Israel were considered to be “God’s children” while non-Jews were regarded as “dogs.”
By his tone of voice and body language Jesus invites the Gentile woman into a playful dialogue: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
In February Diana & I adopted a 4-yr. old miniature Aussie Shepherd, Daisy. Daisy is a terrible beggar, sitting under the table at every meal even though we have never fed her from the table. We learned that she had been surrendered by a family with six children; she probably had plenty of crumbs to glean under their table. Our previous dogs – Gretchen and Tuffy – had picked up that habit when our children were young. Our last dog, Lady, who passed just a year ago, never did; we got her as a puppy after our girls had all left home.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The Gentile woman got it when Jesus’ disciples remained obtuse, and she responded to Jesus in kind. Jesus was trying to teach his disciples – and us – the need to expand the circle of loving our neighbors.
Indeed, from the beginning of this passage we read that Jesus went to the “region of Tyre” – in modern-day Lebanon. Then, as now, it was beyond the boundaries of Israel—Gentile territory! And when Jesus came back from Tyre he travelled into more Gentile country — Mark 7:31-37
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Tyre was north of Galilee; the Decapolis (literally, Ten Cities) was a Gentile area east and southeast of Galiliee – in present day Syria and Jordan. The man whom Jesus healed was undoubtedly also a Gentile. Jesus literally fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that “the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped . . . the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6)
Isaiah 35 – which called us to worship today – invites us to join in the song of praise to God —
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. . . .
He will come and save you.” . . .
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Isaiah invites us to walk in the “Highway of Holiness” (35:8) – James would say that is to put our faith into action and so fulfill the “royal law” — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” whoever that neighbor may be!
Even though we fulfill the royal law imperfectly, James reminds us that we are to speak and act “as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” and that Jesus’ “mercy triumphs over judgment.”
And so, we come to the Table to be fed, nourished, forgiven and restored by God’s grace. The Gentile woman joined Jesus in a playful dialogue about the family pet feasting on the crumbs under the table. An old penitential hymn takes a slightly different take on those of us who come to the Lord’s Table. For we have no claim on God’s grace. Rather, we acknowledge our unworthiness and look to God’s mercy.