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The Dogs of Heaven

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A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 9, 2012.

Psalm 125:1-5; Mark 7:24-37

One of my favorite stories in all of scripture is the one about Jairus, a ruler in one of the local synagogues, and his daughter. My mention of it will ring a bell with a number of you, I’m sure. But just in case you aren’t familiar with it, allow me to give you the gist of the narrative.

Jesus is teaching by the sea one day when Jairus comes rushing up to him, falls on his knees, and begins begging Jesus, saying over and over, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” If any of you have ever had a desperately ill child, you know how he felt. There’s not a parent in the world who would not trade places with a sick child, if it was possible.

Jesus goes with him. Along the way, he is interrupted. A woman who has had an internal bleeding issue for twelve long and painful years, in desperation reaches out to touch the edge of Jesus’ garment. She figures, rightly so, that he holds such power even his robe is an instrument of healing. As soon as she does so, she senses that her hemorrhaging has stopped.

With a frightened and anxious father pulling on his arm, Jesus stops to speak with the nameless woman. Actually, he calls out, “Who touched my clothes?” I have a feeling he knows who did it, and why. He asks the question because he wants her to tell him, to admit to what she has done. But not because he is angry. Evidently, Jesus doesn’t want her or anyone else to think there’s something magical about him or what he wears. It is important that she know the source of her healing, that an important part of her healing is her very own faith.

This whole dynamic is being played out while a very anxious father is urging Jesus to hurry. His daughter is near death, and everyone knows that death is final. Nothing can be done if his daughter dies.

Jesus’ disciples remind him that the people are pressing in on him. Everybody is touching him at one point or another. Why does he ask who touched him? But sensing this to be a different kind of touch, and knowing that it has resulted in healing, Jesus continues to search for the person who has reached out to him.

The woman comes to him – like Jairus, but for a different reason – in fear and trembling for what Jesus might do or say to her, and also falls at his feet. She tells Jesus her story, of how she has been examined by all the physicians available to her, but without success. She touched him, she explains, in a desperate attempt to be healed. Jesus says to her kindly and with great compassion, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Daughter, he calls her tenderly. Daughter. All the while, Jairus who also has a daughter – a daughter well nigh unto death – continues to pull Jesus toward his home. And when they finally arrive, they are told that, sadly, their worst fears have proved to be true. Jairus’ little girl has taken her last breath. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” they say to the grief-stricken father.

You know the story, don’t you? Jesus goes to where the little girl lies, sends everybody out of the room, except for her father and mother and his disciples, takes the little girl by the hand and says to her, Talitha cum, “Little girl, get up!” And she does.

You can see why I like this story so much, can’t you? It gives me goose bumps every time I think about it. If you know it, it may very well be one of your favorites too.

But that’s not the scripture we read earlier, is it? Why am I telling you about this? The answer is simple. There is a difference, a huge difference, between Jesus’ actions and attitude in Mark’s chapter five than in chapter seven when Jesus is confronted by similar situations yet responds in different ways. The results are the same; the process is not.

Just two chapters later in Mark’s gospel, there is another story involving a little girl. Again, the elements of the story have some similarities. We find a parent – this time the mother and not the father – pleading for Jesus to heal her daughter. The daughter is not present, just as Jairus’ daughter was not present when her father sought out Jesus, but that is not a concern for this mother. She believes Jesus has the power to heal her daughter in absentia. Such is her faith.

Compare her with the woman who had the hemorrhage. One thought Jesus could heal her without even knowing what she had done, the other that Jesus can heal from long distance. Both had extraordinary faith in a man they did not know, and by all accounts, had never before seen. Yet, Jesus responds to them in two quite different ways.

You would think Jesus would show the same level of concern and caring, the same compassion and tenderness, to the Syrophoenician woman as he did for the daughter of Jairus, as he did for the woman who reached out to touch his clothing. You would think that Jesus would be as concerned about this girl’s welfare as he was for the others in the chapter five story we like so much. But he does not. Instead, he appears to be abrupt and quite unkind to her. He gives the woman ample reason as to why he can’t help her. “Let the children be fed first,” he says to her, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Do I need to tell you what he means by that? When he refers to the children, he does not mean the little girl who is ill. He is referring to the Jews, his own people, the chosen children of God. When he talks about the dogs, he is describing the little girl who is ill. He is telling this loving, desperate, faith-filled mother that he should not help her daughter because she is a Gentile. And to the Jews, all Gentiles are dogs. “It is not fair,” he says to her, “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

It is about as rough a racial epithet as he could possibly convey. The Jesus we find in Mark’s chapter seven is not nearly as nice as the Jesus of chapter five. It appears that Jesus is letting his prejudice show. Stephen Fowl has said, “… we are left with a sense of unease that lingers long after the Gospel has moved on to other matters.”1 Somehow, I don’t think the word “unease” is strong enough. Disgust might be more like it.

But, if that indeed was Jesus’ attitude, he comes by it naturally. A couple of Wednesdays ago we talked about Jonah. You know Jonah, don’t you? He’s the guy who, in trying to run away from God, got caught up in the belly of a fish… or a whale, if you’re disposed to think of it that way. It really doesn’t matter to me.

The reason Jonah doesn’t want to fulfill his duties as a prophet of God is that he has been given instructions to go and preach to the Ninevites. Jonah didn’t like Ninevites. He probably didn’t have anything to do with anyone who was not of his own nationality. It was inbred in him, just as it was every Israelite. Even when he finally gives in (living three days in the belly of a fish will convince you to do just about anything), he doesn’t like it. But he does it because he perceives, rightly so, that he has no other choice. And when these pagans, these Gentiles, these… these dogs, respond favorably to his preaching, he sulks about it. He wanted all of them to go to hell. And why not? Everybody knows that dogs can’t go to heaven.

At the end of the story, God is scolding Jonah for his petulant behavior. The interesting thing about this Old Testament tale is that while all the Ninevites are converted, all 120,000 of them, Jonah is not. The story ends with his still having, to use a good Southern term, a “hissy fit.”

Frankly, Jesus appears to be like Jonah.  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That sounds like something Jonah would say, don’t you think? It doesn’t sound like something Jesus would say. But he does. And that is our quandary. We don’t like for Jesus to talk like this. After all, if his feelings still hold true, we might as well start barking because we’re dogs too. We are Gentiles, mongrels all of us.

And then there’s the other story that follows on the heels, or should we say “paws” (?), of this one. Jesus moves on but is still in Gentile country. When the people hear he has arrived, they bring to him a man who cannot hear, and because of his hearing impairment cannot speak very plainly.

This time Jesus doesn’t object to helping the man, but he does take him off where it can be done privately, away from the crowd. Why? We can only guess, but my conjecture is that Jesus doesn’t want word to spread that he is here performing miracles. If his attitude is the same toward this man as it was toward the woman whose daughter was ill, he wants to do this and get it over with, and get out of Dodge as quickly as possible. It is a very earthy, if not crude, miracle. Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits and touches the man’s tongue, looks up to heaven, and sighs.

Why does Mark tell us that Jesus sighs? We don’t know, but I wonder if maybe Jesus, in light of the story that is told just before this one, is thinking that he has better people to help than this Gentile. If that is the case, we see a rather prejudiced Jesus who is hesitant to be of assistance to those who are not his own kind. You can think of these people, if you will – and to use Jesus’ own terminology – as the dogs of heaven.

Maybe Jesus’ reluctant response to these people has to do with his sense of mission. He had been having a hard enough time with the Jewish authorities. That’s probably why we left and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon in the first place. It’s Gentile territory, and while it might not be the most hospitable place he could choose, at least Herod and his people wouldn’t be around to hassle him.

Still, news travels fast in that part of the world, and if word got out that he was catering to the Gentiles, his ministry would be literally cut short like that of John the Baptist who had his head removed by Herod. One commentator has suggested, “He was pacing himself. While he has compassion on (the) crowds, he has a mission that goes beyond crowds. If he allows this woman to push him too far too fast (not to mention the people who bring the deaf man to him), the people of Israel, his first priority, will dismiss him as a Gentile-lover”2 and he won’t be able to get anything done.

That’s one explanation, I suppose.

When Jesus tells the Syrophoenician woman the bit about the dogs and how they are to be fed, do you recall her response? She’s pretty quick on the draw, isn’t she? “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” It just may be the only instance when, in all his public ministry, Jesus got trumped.  And by a woman no less.

We want to be like Jesus. We really do want to be like Jesus. But not this way. This just may be where we have more in common with Jesus than we would like. We have a tendency, do we not, to dismiss those who are not like us. If we do not do it literally, we do so at least in our attitude. If they are not our color, not on our social strata, not middle-to-upper class, not educated, not a lot of things… we dismiss them and send them away to a place, even if that place is only in our minds and hearts, where we will not be bothered with them simply because they are not like us.

But look again, a second or third time, if need be. Try to see others, regardless of who they are, with the eyes of Jesus, and I think you will find that faith, more often than not, is found in the most surprising of places and the least likely of people. That is where Jesus found them. Regardless of what you might think about Jesus’ attitude toward the dogs, he finally came down on the side of deep and true compassion. That, I do believe, was his true nature. And if we are to follow him, it must be ours as well.

Lord, everyone around us is a child of God. Help us to see this clearly, to respond to it fully, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Notes

1Stephen Fowl, God’s Choice: “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, September 5, 2006, p. 20.

2SermonWriter, Proper 15, Year A, p. 9.