Text: Mark 7:24-31
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Sep. 10, 2018
I will never forget coming home from church one Sunday. The minister’s focus that day was how to overcome temptation. His solution was: when faced with the situation just ask, “What would Jesus do?” And then do it! The sermon hit close to home. We had had a bad year on the farm, the crops were poor, the market was low, and debts were coming due without the money to pay them. Dad’s temptation was struggling against giving in to despair.
“I don’t agree with Brother Flynn at all,” he said, as he pounded his fist on the steering wheel. “If Jesus where here, he would know exactly what to do, but I don’t have a clue. What Brother Flynn fails to realize is Jesus is God and I’m just human.”
I dearly love my father, and in many ways, he was a model Christian. But on this point his theology was defective. Though he accepted the scripture statement that Jesus was tempted in everyway as we are, he was able to overcome temptation. Dad thought Jesus overcame temptation because of his divinity, not because of his humanity.
I was not theologically trained at the time, I was only twelve, but even then, it didn’t seem right to me. Now I would have reminded my dad of St. Paul’s statement that though he was God, Jesus emptied himself of his divinity, taking on the form of man. While Jesus lived on earth he overcame temptation by relying on the same resources that we have available to us, trusting in God’s word, and relying on the power of the Holy Spirit.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus is confronted with temptation, and it is the only incident recorded where, on the surface at least, he blows it. Jesus and his disciples have left the boarders of Galilee and are in Tyre, a region to the north and west of Israel, along the Mediterranean coast in the country of Phoenicia. Jesus had gone there, not to minister but to get some rest, and to prayerfully prepare for the final year of his ministry as he heads south to Jerusalem to face the cross.
Six weeks ago, before we had the five-week focus on Jesus’ sermon on “I am the bread of life,” I mentioned that Jesus had attempted to make this retreat on the eastern shore of lake Galilee, but he could not shake his celebrity status, was recognized and ended up preaching to and feeding the five thousand.
Now, just a few days later he tries again, this time going north and west. Undoubtedly, he is thinking if he can get farther out of the country he will not be recognized. But it is to no avail. They have just arrived at their retreat center when they are accosted by a half-breed, a woman who one parent was from Syria and the other from Phoenicia. She recognized Jesus and begged him to cast out a demon that was tormenting her daughter.
At this point, several biblical scholars have a field day. They say that all of Jesus’ Jewish prejudice against gentles manifested itself. He replies: “Let the children be fed first, it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
In first century culture, dogs were not the family pets, that we know them to be today. Rather they were kept as scavengers, the sanitation commission, who along with hogs in non-Jewish lands, were kept to clean up the garbage that was thrown out on the streets or behind the house. In the same manner that they regarded these animals as unclean, so they regarded gentles.
Jesus was tired from months of exhausting ministry. His planed retreat was now interrupted for a second time, it is not surprising that this latent prejudice would come to the surface and manifest itself. These biblical scholars go on to note that the woman’s response, “but even the dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table,” caused Jesus to come to a new and deeper understanding of God’s gracious love. He came to realize that God’s love extends to all people, not just the Jews. They further point out that although Jesus continued to insist that his mission was to the house of Israel, he ministered to more gentiles after this incident.
Certainly, this interpretation shows our Lord to be fully human, facing the same temptations that we face, and coming through it a better person as a result. But although I have accepted this interpretation for years, I have come to see this incident in its broader context. In so doing, it shows our Lord’s motives his comment in a different light.
Jesus was an excellent teacher. Often, after he gave a teaching he would illustrate it with some action. Or conversely, if he responded to an incident that seemed to violate an accustomed Jewish practice, like, for example, healing someone on the Sabbath, he would then give a defense: “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Or “If an ox fell in the ditch on Saturday, would you wait until Sunday to pull him out?”
I believe Jesus is illustrating a point that he has just made the day before. Remember in last week’s Gospel, the Pharisees attack Jesus because his disciples had not properly washed their hands before eating, violating their interpretation of one of the Jewish ceremonial laws. Jesus responded by saying it is not what is on the outside the defiles a person but what comes out of a person—unclean thoughts, actions, ill motives—that defiles.
Now here in the very next verses, Jesus plays the part of the Pharisee, accusing the Gentile woman of being unclean and therefore unworthy of receiving God’s grace. His disciples had to be totally dense not to see the irony. But then instead of sending her away empty handed, he said to her more gently, “Go, your daughter is healed.”
Normally, our Lord’s method of teaching was to say something, and illustrate it by a miracle or some other action that would reinforce what he had just said. Here I believe he took the opposite approach. It was another way of reinforcing his main point to his students.
I once found myself in the place of this woman when one of my professors used such a reversal of teaching method to accomplish his purpose. I was in my first year of seminary. I had signed up for a preaching course because the syllabus said it was designed to make you an effective preacher. I was one of ten students who had enrolled in the class. We all wondered what he would do to perform such a miracle. We soon found out.
Our first assignment was to write a sermon. Then each of us had to preach the sermon. This was followed by several minutes when the rest of the class would give their critique, pointing out what they liked and where they felt it could be improved. We completed that exercise in the first two weeks. Just before he dismissed class on that Friday, he said that the following week he was going to pick the person whom he felt had given the worst sermon. The rest of the course would be spent with the class working with that student to make of him an outstanding preacher.
The next Monday we came in, every student knowing they would be the one singled out. I was the one proved to be right. The first day he had me work on my projection. For over fifteen minutes I had to stand in front of the class and say: “I can beller it out if I have to.” He kept urging me to make my voice bounce off the back wall of a rather large auditorium. I was totally humiliated. It only went down hill from there. I dreaded coming to class. I thought seriously about not only dropping out of class, but also quitting seminary. Then I got mad, and said to myself, I’ll show him. I incorporated all the suggestions into to my sermon which the rest of the students had made. I read more commentaries on my text. I read other books on preaching. I II.continued to refocus my sermon. Then I bought an expensive tape recorder. I taped my sermon. Then I would listen to it and tape it again and again. My congregations are the ones who must judge whether he made an effective preacher of me, but he did give me an A for the course.
Later when I joined him on the faculty, I vowed I would never put a student in a position that he had put me. But I did learn a lesson I would never forget. I could face anything that came my way and with God’s help, I could work through it. I trust the rest of the class gained from it too.
Throughout the course of my ministry I have been amazed at how many times the lectionary readings speak directly to issues that I am facing. As a result, the sermons that flow from them are addressing yours truly as much as they are addressing you. Our New Testament readings for the next several weeks are from the pen of our Lord’s brother James. He begins his letter by stating: “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters when you face various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. Therefore, let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be made perfect and complete lacking in nothing.”
We are called to become overcomers. Whatever we face, God intends for our ultimate good. Like our Lord, we have been given God’s word to sustain us and his Holy Spirit to empower us.
And Jesus is our model. Thanks be to God. Amen.