No one is excluded - Mark 7:24-30

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 15th October 2000.

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I have a dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but the content of their character. I have a dream.

That was, of course, a part of Martin Luther King’s famous speech spoken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in 1963. His dream was for a society where ethnic race or the colour of your skin would no longer be a barrier between people, and America would be a united country. Sadly we know only too well that his dream has never been realised, even if much work has been done in its direction. Huge rifts still exist between white and black in America. And in our own country, racism bubbles under the surface, sometimes exploding in horrific acts of abuse. The dream is still just a dream, and the question we all ask is, is it ever possible? Will the dream ever be realised?

Well the Bible’s answer is that it is possible, that one day this dream will be realised. But it won’t be achieved by better race relations nor will it be in this world. The fact of the matter is that God is building a new community of people from every tribe, every country, every skin colour and every tongue. That nation is the people of God and their home is in heaven. And day by day that new people is taking shape and one day the dream will be realised as we all gather round God’s throne in heaven, black and white, British and French, Hutu and Tutsi, all praising our glorious Saviour together. That is a dream which will come true. And in our passage for today, which is Mark 7 vv 24-30, Jesus is seen to take some of the first steps on the road to the fulfilment of that great vision. And it all starts with one poor pagan woman who has a demonised daughter barging in on Jesus whilst he’s trying to get some rest and relaxation. And we’ll discover that this remarkable story has much to teach us about that great vision of God’s united people.

But before we look at this story in detail, we need to see what has been happening beforehand. Jesus has been in a heated discussion with some legal experts and religious leaders about ceremonial washing. Mark explains to his non-Jewish audience what was the problem in verses 3-4. The Jews always wash their hands in a ceremonial way so that they do not become ritually ‘unclean’. Ritual uncleanness prevented you from going into the Temple to pray. And it could be picked up in all sorts of ways, including contact with non Jewish people. So ritual cleaning kept you ritually pure. The religious leaders were getting upset because Jesus wasn’t doing it. But Jesus gets up and declares that Jewish ceremonial law is no longer valid. The real problem he says is not that you are ritually unclean, but that your hearts are filthy. You are rotten sinners, he says. There’s no point just washing your hands and thinking you are clean, when the real problem is that your hearts are black as coal! It’s the inside that needs to be cleaned not the outside. And as you can imagine, this has caused quiet a stir. This is revolutionary stuff. In one full swoop he has declared centuries of Jewish ceremonial tradition null and void. We’ll see later why he has the authority to do this. But the point to note as we begin is that Jesus is saying that the barriers between Jews and Gentiles are coming down now that he is here. That is the claim. So when Jesus bumps into this Gentile woman, we want to know whether Jesus is going to put his sermon into practice. If he’s said there’s no barrier, will he uphold that in practice? Well the answer is yes, and it is the beginning of the fulfilment of the dream. You see this is no irrelevant religious debate. It actually affects you and me. So let’s turn now to look at this fascinating story. And we’ll learn three lessons:

1) Remember your Position

2) Trust Jesus’ Authority

3) Participate in God’s Dream


1) Remember your Position

So first, then, we must remember our position. Jesus has moved up north to Gentile territory, Tyre. He’s trying to get away from it all for a while after a very busy time. In verse 24 we are told that "Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret." And at this point we are introduced to the woman. And Mark makes it clear that humanly speaking this woman is out on a limb. In verse 26 we learn that she is a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She was a Gentile woman, who spoke Greek, and culturally she was a million miles away from Jesus. For a start she was a woman, second she was a Gentile and third she had a seriously ill daughter, a demonised daughter. Now if you were here two weeks ago, you’ll remember just how terrible it is to be demon possessed. We saw the story of the man who was possessed by many demons. And this girl would have been similarly traumatised. She would have be prone to fits, to self mutilation, to a death wish, and I guess her mother was simply at the point of despair. Parents will do virtually anything for their children won’t they? If their child is sick, they will go to any lengths to find a solution. Nowadays we hear of parents selling their houses, or taking out second mortgages just so they can afford to send their child to receive treatment for a life threatening disease in the States for example. And this woman was desperate. And yet she knew that Jesus had the solution. Do you notice how quick off the mark she was? Verse 25, "As soon as she heard about Jesus she came and fell at his feet." Well what humility! She gets on her knees in this stranger’s house and begs Jesus to help.

And what answer did she get? Well it is a very strange at first reading. Jesus says, "First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs." Now what is Jesus saying? Well some people get very upset at this point and worry that Jesus is being insulting. They say that ‘dog’ was a common insult used by Jews of Gentile people. But the word Mark uses here for dog is not the word that is usually used. Here Mark is referring to the domesticated pet, not the mangy, rabid scavenger dogs which roomed the streets of Palestine. Jesus is not being insulting. He is using a parable. It’s possible that as Jesus sat in this house, he was at table with the household children. They were having tea and the pet dogs were underneath. So he says: "It’s not fair to give the dogs their food first. Let the children eat first." The parallel he is drawing is between the people of Israel and the Gentiles. It is right that the Jews, the children in the parable, receive the gospel, the bread, first, and only then should the gospel be spread to the gentiles, the pet dogs in the parable. That was how God did it, as we’ll see later. The Jews would have the first bite of the cherry, but then the gospel would spread to the rest of the world. Well the woman sees this and replies, perhaps as she looks at the dogs under the table, "Yes Lord but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs." Her point is that at some point the dogs get their fair share, so let me have it Jesus.

Can you see this woman’s humility? She never for one moment assumes she is entitled to receive the bread along with the children, but she just flings herself on Jesus’ mercy, realising that if the Jews receive it first, then that implies there must be a second. She’s just happy to get second spot. And Jesus doesn’t congratulate her on her witty reply as some commentators think. It’s her humility and faith, as Matthew tells us, that he is impressed by! She flung herself at Jesus’ feet, she begged him to heal her daughter and she kept pressing him, knowing she had nothing to lose. She wasn’t proud. She just realised that Jesus was her rescuer and flung herself at his feet. She remembered her position.

Now let me ask. Is that your attitude when you approach God? You see all too often, it seems, we approach God as if we have a right to be one of his children. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t. Like those Jews that Jesus argued with, we have black sinful hearts. We don’t deserve his mercy. We’ve fallen far below his perfect standards. All we can do like this woman is fling ourselves on God’s mercy. We can give him nothing, except our sin. Like her, we need to realise that he owes us nothing. She was totally dependant on Jesus’ mercy. That’s all she had to go on! But that was all she needed. She didn’t come with a list of impressive credentials, a degree, an exemplary church attendance record, a list of charities she supported. She simply flung herself at Jesus’ feet and begged for mercy.

One of my favourite prayers is the prayer of humble access. We’ll be saying it in a few minutes time. As we approach the Lord’s table to receive the bread and wine in remembrance of what Jesus has done for us, we say: "We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.." I guess Thomas Cranmer had this story in mind when he penned those words. We don’t deserve God’s mercy, but we have received it, like this woman. So let’s approach him with humility and faith, not presumption, swanning into his presence as if we owned heaven. We have no right to be there, expect for his grace. That’s the first lesson we learn from this story, we need to remember our position.


2) Trust Jesus’ Authority

But secondly we must trust Jesus’ authority. You see we might be tempted to say, well what grounds do we have for thinking we might receive mercy. Well our grounds are in Jesus himself. Like that woman we too can find mercy from Jesus because he has the authority to give it to us. Just see how Jesus’ authority is seen in the story. It is seen most clearly in Jesus ability to heal the woman’s daughter at a distance. Verse 29, Jesus says: "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter." And in verse 30 she goes home and finds her daughter lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Well what incredible authority. As we saw two weeks ago, Jesus has the authority to heal a demonised person. Jesus has the power over Satan and his forces. But here Jesus heals another demonised person though this time it is from a distance. This is the only healing at long distance in Mark’s gospel, and it emphasises Jesus great authority. And then there is his ability to decide who can receive God’s mercy, the bread in the parable, and who cannot. What gives Jesus the authority to do that? What right does he have to say to this woman that she can have some of the children’s bread? Who is he to determine who receives God’s mercy and who does not? And there is the passage before where Jesus is debating with the Jews. On whose authority does he say that the whole ceremonial law is defunct, that it’s time is passed? Jesus is making staggering claims isn’t he? He is claiming huge authority, he’s claiming authority for godlike deeds. People who claim such divine authority have to be tested.

A few years ago, in about 1990, a man became famous for claiming that he was the Son of God. He was an BBC sports correspondent and an ex-professional footballer. His name was David Icke and he appeared on national TV wearing a turquoise tracksuit, turquoise being the colour of the Force apparently, and surrounded by a harem of women. One of the claims he made which would show him to be the Son of God was that the Isle of Arran off the coast of Scotland would disappear at the turn of the decade back in 1990. Seven years on the Isle of Arran is still there and David Icke is a forgotten figure, with just a small office in Japan and a web site on the Internet, albeit very rich. One of his mottos on his internet site is: "Remember that all I am offering is the truth and nothing more." The problem was that his credentials didn't match his claim. Jesus’ did and they still do. And in short the authority that he claimed was his own. He was doing God like things, and claiming his own authority for deeds only God could do. And the conclusion Mark wants us to see is that Jesus is God in the flesh. That’s his unique authority. So the reason that the woman could have confidence that day was that she had seen in Jesus something unique. She may not have been able to cross all the theological t’s and dot the i’s, but she had enough faith to trust Jesus. This poor, humble gentile woman had shown more faith than all the religious professors in Israel. And she’d even understood more than the disciples, those who had been with Jesus for months. Yes she spotted it. She’d seen Jesus’ unique authority. She’d realised who he was. No less than God on earth. And that is why even today we can trust in this same Jesus because he has the authority to hold fast to his promises. And it’s why we can be absolutely sure that the great dream of God’s people together in God’s heaven is a sure hope. Because Jesus has the authority to fulfil it. Which brings us to our final point.


3) Participate in God’s Dream

Now we might be tempted to ask why did Mark put this little story in his gospel? Well the clue as we have seen is in the identity of this woman. She was a gentile. And before this episode Jesus has declared that the ceremonial laws of Judaism are now defunct. And he has just put this in action by mixing with a gentile woman and giving her his mercy. And the point of the story is simply this, that race is no barrier to being in God’s kingdom, because it is a kingdom for all people. The scope of the mission is worldwide. Now as Mark’s readers were sitting there in Rome reading this gospel this would have been a mind blowing discovery. They too can have a share in God’s great kingdom. Gentiles as well as Jews are allowed in, and little instances in Jesus’ life like this story are if you like the first fruits of the great gentile mission that was to take place in the early church under Paul. Paul would no doubt look back to stories like this and see this as a spur to continue this great work. Jesus himself would say to the disciples that they are to take the gospel to all the nations. Nowhere was exempt from God’s mercy. And so many years later a church would be founded at Tyre, where this woman was from, and so would be the springboard for the gentile mission into Turkey and Western Europe.

You see God’s plan was never for the children to keep all the bread. OK they might get the first taste, but the plan was always for the whole world to benefit from God’s saving mercy. That’s God’s great dream throughout the Bible. And it’s a dream we can be sure will be reality, because God is behind it. Way back in Genesis 12 God had promised Abraham that he would be a blessing to many nations. And this woman was one of the first gentile recipients in the NT of this gracious mercy. The reason the gospel went to the Jews first was that they were the vehicle of God’s message. They were to carry it out to the nations. They were to be the light for the nations. That’s why this story is here. It reminds us of the scope of the mission, the extent of the dream. To the whole world, to all the nations, no-one is exempt. And we here in St. John’s are the amazing beneficiaries of Jesus’ mercy to the world.

And the great news is that we can participate in that dream. Now if that is the case, then we too, like our great Saviour, must never think that the gospel is only for nice people. It would have been very easy for Jesus just to shrug off the request of this woman, to ignore her as he was having a day off, or to tell her that his priority was the Jews. She should wait a few years and then come back. But he didn’t. He accepted her. But for us it is very easy, even subconsciously, to rule some people out from the message of the gospel. Sometimes I find myself saying, "Oh, he could never believe." Or, "They are too bad to ever become Christians." It is easy to look around our place of work or around where we live and think these people could never become Christians. Well what a terrible thing to do. The gospel is for all. We should not restrict who we think the gospel is for. Quite frankly if sinful human beings like us lot can come to Christ then anyone can. And if we truly believe in the world wide scope of God’s offer of mercy then we should be confident that God can save any. So why not start praying for the person you think is least likely to be saved. Why not? They’ve got no other help. Why can’t they too fling themselves on the mercy of God. Of course it needs a miracle, but then Jesus has been in the business of miracles for a long time. All we need to do to refresh our often flagging memory is to look around the church. There all sorts of different people around the church. Rich and poor, black and white, young and old, southern and northern, different gifts and strengths, and yet one thing unites us. The gospel. Each of us has met with the merciful Saviour. The scope of the mission is world wide, and no-one need be excluded. And each of us here can have a privileged role in seeing God’s great dream fulfilled.

Martin Luther King’s dream will never fully be realised. But I suggest there is a much better dream to put all your efforts into. That is the great gospel dream, of a joyful people of every tribe and tongue giving praise to our great Saviour. This woman will be there and if we’ve trusted in Christ we’ll be there. So why don’t each of us take a leaf out of this woman’s book today. She was a woman of great humility. She remembered her position. Unlike the pompous religious leaders and the hard hearted disciples, she threw herself on the mercy of Jesus. She knew that he had the authority to offer her, a gentile outsider, the mercy of God and she trusted him. And she got a glimpse and a taste of the scope of the great mission. A gospel which is for the whole world, a dream which each us can be a part of, a dream which one day will be reality.

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