Scripture Readings: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 125 | James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:24-37
“…mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
If the old saying is true that “hindsight is 20/20”, one problem that’s become a lot clearer these days as we look back is prejudice: judging other people by our own preconceptions. Whether we’re talking about systemic racism, gender inequality, or the volatile divisiveness that marks our political landscape, our world seems to be becoming more and more aware of how prejudice poisons our common life. Of course, that doesn’t mean we know much about how to resist it’s pull. This is a deep problem that’s been with humanity for quite some time… and one we don’t seem that capable of ending on our own.
Our Scripture readings today from the Book of James and the Gospel of Mark bring this problem of prejudice before our eyes, not to heap on even more judgment, but to show us another way… to draw us deeper into the merciful Kingdom of the Living God, which upends our expectations, and is always full of surprises.
In our reading today from Mark’s Gospel we certainly find a surprising story: where Jesus Himself appears to disparage a Syrophoenician woman… likening her to a dog when she begs Him to rescue her daughter. By all accounts, this is not an easy story for Christians to contemplate. We are so used to seeing our Lord as the epitome of kindness and grace. Instead, in this passage He seems to be propagating the prejudices of His times, referring to Gentiles, those outside of Israel, as something less than human. How does this all fit with the rest of Christ’s story and His character? What are we supposed to do with this upsetting episode?
First off, we need to remember our proper place within this scenario: we are not being called to pass judgment on Jesus, but rather to seek understanding. To discern God’s holy love at work, even when it’s hard to recognize… to be open to possibilities beyond our pre-conceptions.
Secondly, it helps to remember that this episode does not stand alone: it’s connected to the larger story that Mark is trying to tell us about the Good News of Jesus, God’s Son, sent to be the Saviour… not only of Israel, but of all the peoples of the world.
One clue that Mark gives us about the purpose of our troubling passage today is a theme that connects with our reading from last week, where Christ has a dispute with the Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem about what it means to be right with God… that is, about what it means to be truly clean. We heard these religious elites were focussed on rules of ritual purity, practiced through acts like always washing their hands before they would eat. By contrast, Jesus called, not simply for clean hands, but for clean hearts… for whole lives devoted to living in line with the holy love of God. Jesus effectively called out the religious leadership of Jerusalem, accusing them of caring more about their own traditions than the ways of God… for judging to be ‘unclean’ those who didn’t do things their way.
After this confrontation, suddenly, Mark tells us that Jesus heads into the country beyond Israel… to the region of Tyre, which is a city of ‘unclean’ Gentiles. There Jesus seeks some solace, but is sought out by a Syrophoenician woman, an ‘unclean’ Gentile, shaped not by Israel’s way of life, but by pagan, Greek culture. Mark tells us her daughter was suffering under the power of a demon. A rebellious, ‘unclean’ spirit, at odds with the will of Almighty God. This woman is someone who seems as far from the Living God as anyone could be. She was from another ethnicity, cultural, and religious world. To a faithful Jew, her whole identity and situation would have simply screamed ‘unclean’… cut-off from the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, standing in complete contrast to how the Scribes and Pharisees were usually seen.
But Mark wants us to see beyond appearances, and prejudice… and to open our eyes, he tells us what happened when this Gentile mother met Jesus.
We’ll return to Mark in a few moments, but let’s turn briefly to the Book of James, who offers a much more direct discussion about the nature of the Christian Church, and why the poison of prejudice is to have no place in it.
In today’s passage, St. James tackles head on the problem of ‘positive prejudice’, the problem of favoritism, especially when it comes to preferring those with wealth over the poor. St. James sees this as totally out of line with what the Church is all about, with the radical equality of the counter-cultural kingdom of God, a community not based on money, or influence, or race, or sex, or status, but on God’s saving love, drawing all peoples together in Christ. “My brothers and sisters,” St. James writes, “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1) St. James saw that Christ’s kingdom way of life was being completely betrayed by how some were treating their poorer brothers and sisters, as if they were less valued, because they had less money.
Sadly, this same attitude persists today both inside and outside the Church, but how out of place this prejudice is within the family of God! There are many today who still teach that riches are a sign of God’s favour. That if we only have enough faith, God will bless us financially. The flip side is then, if we aren’t rich, than we must not have enough faith. In this view, material wealth becomes hard evidence that one is right with God, and so those with money and influence deserve more of our attention and energy.
Against this kind of garbage, St. James shows us another way: reminding us that the evidence of true faith is not wealth, but compassionate love in action. “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (James 2:8)
This is what a clean heart looks like! This is God’s holy way of life: to be guided, not by our prejudices, or by favoritism… but compassionate love in action. Works of mercy, not mere words, are the evidence of living faith. This is he way of Christ’s kingdom, which St. James would have us follow… caring for one another, as Christ Jesus cares for us all.
Turning back now to the Gospel of Mark, we encounter someone living this kind of faith… but it’s not the religious elite, the ones with the reputations for godliness. It is the ‘unclean’ Gentile mother, driven to the feet of Jesus, humbly entrusting herself to His mercy out of compassionate love for her tormented daughter. She placed her hope, her faith, her trust in Jesus to come to her rescue, knowing full well all the barriers and differences between them. Unlike the Pharisees and Scribes who thought of themselves as utterly clean and holy, she does not back down from seeking mercy, even in the face of insult.
But why does Jesus speak to her this way? Why does He seem to dismiss her request with such an uncaring, unkind response? It seems so out of character.
I wish I had an easy answer that would smooth everything over. But I don’t think the purpose of this story is for us to find an easy answer. I think it’s a way Mark wants us to also experience the same tension this Gentile woman faced: to not expect to be flattered, or treated with favoritism when we come to Jesus’ feet… not to presume, like the Pharisees and Scribes, that we will get special treatment, counting on our own goodness in order to get what we want from God. Like this Gentile mother, can we come to Jesus, and trust Him to be merciful? That He will overcome all the real obstacles between us… not because we somehow deserve it, but simply because we believe that He is driven by compassionate love, and will put it into action?
The entire Gospel message gives us good reasons to believe this, and there is even a powerful hint hidden within Jesus’ strange reply. Mark tells us that Jesus “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 7:27) “Let the children be fed first”. This is a question of order.
We know from the rest of Christ’s story that His ultimate intention is not to ignore, dismiss, or disparage the Gentile nations, but first to fulfill God’s unique mission to His covenant people Israel… which was the necessary step in order to rescue every other nation! This mission was leading Him closer and closer into a confrontation that would end with Christ being rejected by His own, and hung on a cross, where He would willingly suffer, and die to redeem and reconcile the whole world to God. Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, no favoritism… but mercy for all. And to drive home the point, Mark will later tell us that after Jesus had breathed His last, it was a Gentile, a Roman soldier, who was the first to recognized Him as the Son of God.
Though hard to hear, Christ’s words to the Gentile mother are not an expression of prejudice. He’s not looking down on her, and judging her to be unworthy of care. Christ’s whole mission to Israel is not about who is more loved by God, or who is more worthy of honour. Through His unique relationship with Israel, which Jesus brings to a head, the Living God has reached out to ALL nations, once and for all… reconciling, and uniting us together in His mercy, and filling us with His own compassionate love to be put into action.
And as a foretaste of this worldwide mission, Jesus is moved by this Gentile mother's pleas, and sets her daughter free from the darkness that had tormented her.
As the Church, we are called to be the community on earth not driven by our own prejudices, but by our Lord Jesus’ compassionate love for all. There are still many ways that prejudice remains a real temptation for us, undermining the work of love God has prepared for us.
What are some of the ways that we still struggle with a spirit of judgment? Where do we need to trust in the mercy of Jesus again today? How might God be wanting to work through us to make His life-giving mercy known more and more to those who desperately need it today? Amen.