Crumbs of compassion

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
9 September 2018


All three readings today revolve around the theme of practical religion.

  • Proverbs 22 promotes compassion and integrity
  • James 2 encourages generosity that pays no attention to the status of the other person
  • Mark 7 has a foreign woman giving Jesus a master class in compassion

In these ancient sacred texts, religion is about what we do rather than what we believe. And the doing which matters in these readings is not religious actions, but treating other people properly.

Let’s focus on the classic and surprising story from Mark’s gospel.

Jesus has gone to the coast for a break from his public routine. It seems that he wants some time off as he does not want people to know he is there. He has gone to the region around Tyre, a major city on the coast and, as it happens, the mint that supplied to the priests in Jerusalem with high-quality silver coins that every Jew coming to the Temple needed to purchase from the exchange booth, because ordinary coins were not acceptable to the priests.

Since Jesus would later cause an incident in the temple when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, I wonder whether this trip was entirely recreational or whether he had planned some kind of prophetic action at the imperial mint in Tyre. We shall never know, but whatever Jesus had planned for his few days by the coast were overturned by the persistence of a local woman with a sick daughter.

It is critical to this story to recognise that the woman was not Jewish. From the perspective of Jesus and his disciples, she was an outsider.

Prior to this point in Mark’s story, Jesus has broken numerous Jewish religious taboos and even treated the occasional outsider well. Remember the story of the demoniac and the pigs!

But this woman was not getting even a halfway decent response from Jesus:

Woman: I am begging you to cast the demon out of my daughter.

Jesus: Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Woman: Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

Jesus: For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.

We always need to remember that episodes in the Gospel are not there simply because they happened. If that were the case, our Gospels would be much longer documents!

These are selected stories. They have chosen and arranged to make a point. In Luke’s case, this story was left out because it did not fit the point he was seeking to make.

So we can assume that Mark chose to use this story because it addressed something that he felt his audience needed to hear.

Up until this point in the Gospel of Mark Jesus has been working mostly in Jewish communities, but in the middle chapters of the Gospel we see Jesus beginning to extend his focus beyond the Jews.

Indeed today’s reading is followed a second account of Jesus feeding a multitude, and this version happens out in pagan territory. In that story, the gentiles get more than crumbs as Jesus feeds them with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.

The transition from the feeding of 5,000 Jewish people to the feeding of 4,000 Gentile people involves this feisty mum with the sick daughter. Mark has chosen to tell the story this way. It is not simply an extract from Jesus’ travel itinerary. Mark wants his readers to get the point.

For Jesus and for his earliest followers such as Mark’s readers, crossing the boundary between Jew and Gentile was serious business.

It could be a hard step to make.

But in the end, it was about enlarging our imagination to embrace the idea that God cares about people who are different from us.

There were good religious grounds and no shortage of biblical texts to validate fear, discrimination and prejudice.

But compassion for a mum with a sick girl opened Jesus’ eyes. He saw things differently after that.

The woman did not argue about whether or not God still loved the Jews. She simply claimed a few crumbs of that eternal love for her daughter.

In doing that her girl was healed and Jesus was blessed as well.

The rest of the Gospel reading today describes Jesus going deeper into Gentile territory and not hesitating to heal a foreigner who came to him for help. In the episode that follows this healing of the man with a speech impediment, Jesus repeats the miracle of the loaves for a Gentile crowd.

May the courage of the feisty mum and the openness of Jesus to new insights, inspire us to ‘cross the double lines’ and go where God is calling us, rather than stay where God has been in the past.

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  1. As I interpret it the region of Tyre and Sidon (Phoenician territory) enjoyed a special relationship to Rome and in some ways could be seen as a surrogate symbol of Empire. Its role in providing the wherewithal for the building of the Temple reflects a special relationship to the Jewish hierarchy and together with the presence of the mint reinforces its worldly political / economic alliance with the dual power structures of Rome and its colony. So it seems highly significant that Jesus went there. The representative of all wealth, corruption, oppression and violence on the one hand and the poverty and powerlessness represented in the itinerant Galilean healer on the other. Whatever happened there can be seen against the backdrop of this confluence and contrast of opposites. The ground on which one chooses to challenge the powers and principalities is symbolically powerful. Martin Luther King Jr stood before the symbol of American greatness (Jefferson Memorial) to challenge the powers and principalities of his day.

  2. Thanks for these thoughtful comments, Graham. While we cannot be certain that Jesus went to Tyre, let alone why he went there, it is true that Tyre had an important mint. We find many coins from Tyre during the Hellenistic and Roman period at Bethsaida. It was also the only mint in the region that was authorised to issue silver coins. (The mints in Banias, Sepphoris, Tiberias and Jerusalem only issued bronze coins.) Historically, Tyre was a powerful mercantile city-state with impressive defences protecting the island from the mainland, and no-one prior to Alexander was able to capture the city. He built a causeway out to the island! All of Galilee was in the economic zone of Tyre, with the hinterland providing flax and other agricultural products, so Jesus was possibly moving within the economic power zones even if crossing political boundaries between Herodian territories and the Roman administration in Tyre. Greg

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