Mark 7: Initiating the Future

This is the a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, September 20, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter series on Mark’s gospel, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.

It’s based on Mark 7:24-30.

You can view worship and sermons at BBUMC.orgYouTubeVimeo, or Facebook.

On February 24, 1791, about a week before he died, John Wesley wrote a letter to William Wilberforce that included this message:

I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

John Wesley’s letter to William Wilberforce, February 24, 1791

Wesley is the founder of the Methodist movement in England, and Wilberforce was a prominent British politician, and obviously, both were passionate about the “glorious enterprise” of ending both the slave trade and the institution of slavery altogether. According to theologian NT Wright, many early 18th Century Christians believed slavery was “evil and would eventually stop, but not many wanted to do it just yet” (Matthew for Everyone, 201). Perhaps they thought it would just end naturally on its own. Yet, that someday vision was not enough for Wesley or Wilberforce. For them, God had revealed through scripture that God’s kingdom had no place for slavery or the subjugation of people based on ethnicity. This was their hope, their God-given vision of the fullness of God’s kingdom that was not present yet, but that God was most assuredly creating.

This definition of hope is central to our passage from Mark 7 today, so let’s repeat it.

Hope is the vision of God’s kingdom that is not fully realized, but that we’re sure will come to be by God’s grace.

Now, let’s keep this definition of hope in mind as we explore today’s passage.

As we’ve seen in other chapters of Mark, Jesus has experienced a mixed response to his teaching and healing ministry throughout the northern region of Israel, called the Galilee. The people, except for those in his hometown, love him. He heals the sick, he feeds multitudes, he casts out demons, and his disciples do likewise. As Mark 7 ends, we hear that they think, “[Jesus] does everything well!” (v. 37). But the Jewish religious leaders are not so impressed. For the second time, Pharisees and legal experts come up from Jerusalem – the seat of Jewish faith – to check out Jesus. They’re looking for something to criticize. And, as when we’re looking to criticize someone, they find it: his disciples aren’t observing the traditional ceremonial washing practices. Jesus addresses their critique with an argument that leaves them silent and shamed. The main point of his argument is that all the laws (some scriptural and some traditional) about being clean or unclean because of something external are not valid. Having said this, he quickly gets out of town. As he’s frequently done in Mark, he seeks to get away from the crowds – presumably to rest, pray, and refocus. And so he goes to the region of Tyre, about 35 miles north of Capernaum on the Mediterranean coast.  

But Jesus can’t hide, even this far from home, and a Greek, Syrophoenician woman, whose daughter is suffering from a demon, seeks him out. The gospels of Matthew and Mark both include this scene, with similar details. But one of the main things to see about this woman is that she’s an outsider times three: she’s a woman; she’s non-Jewish by faith or ethnicity; and she has a sick daughter, making her unclean in relation to Jesus. And yet she throws herself at Jesus’s feet and begs for him to heal her daughter.

Jesus’s initial response to her is perplexing. In other scenes, when people cry out, he heals them. He’ll do it again later in this chapter. But here, he resists: “The children [presumably the people of Israel] have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v. 27). There’s no getting around this: commentators have tried. At the very least, Jesus is bantering with her using a common Jewish derogatory word for Gentiles – dogs. At the worst, it seems like Jesus is about to refuse to help this woman based on her ethnicity. As NT Wright notes, we wouldn’t think much of a doctor or nurse who refused to treat someone based on something external like skin color or ethnicity (Matthew for Everyone, 199). So, we have to ask, “What in the world is going on here?”

To get at this, let’s first remember how Jesus began his ministry: he came on the scene proclaiming, God’s kingdom is at hand; change your hearts and lives and believe this good news (Mk 1:15). Jesus is clear that he is bearing God’s kingdom-presence in the world. And this understanding of God’s kingdom is particularly Jewish. As we talked about throughout our Genesis series, God’s mission was to bless the whole of creation through a particular people, the people of Israel. And ever since God made that “blessed to be a blessing” promise to Abram and Sarai, and especially after the fall of the Davidic kingdom of Israel, the people of Israel had been waiting for the fullness of God’s kingdom to come. So, Jesus knows, and his point is, that in order for God’s promised kingdom to come, it had to come through the “children” – the people of Israel. Anything less would make God a liar.

Except, like William Wilberforce and John Wesley, this woman could see a vision of God’s kingdom in Jesus, even if it wasn’t fully a reality, and she sought to bring God’s not-yet kingdom into the present. She hoped for it – seeing and believing that God would make it so. She begged Jesus to bring God’s kingdom in full for her daughter. And so she countered Jesus, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28). At this, Jesus affirms her answer, and her faith, and sends her away with assurance that he’s healed her daughter.

So what’s going on here? This woman, like Wilberforce and Wesley, strives against systems and powers and laws to bring the hoped-for reality of God’s kingdom presence a little closer to actual reality. And as with Wilberforce and Wesley, the hoped-for vision of the kingdom can only come to be by the grace, power, and presence of God. So she begs and pleads with Jesus – the one who says, God’s kingdom is here, in me. In response, Jesus opens wide the doors of God’s kingdom, enacting his message from the beginning of Mark 7: God’s kingdom is a blessing to everyone. Jesus brings God’s future kingdom into present reality, so that even triple outsiders can experience God’s saving presence.

Jesus initiates God’s universal kingdom, even before he’s fully ready to, so that everyone can have a place at the table.

The Syrophoenician woman saw the fullness of God’s kingdom in Jesus, and begged it into existence. John Wesley and William Wilberforce saw the fullness of God’s kingdom – a kingdom without slavery or subjugation – and they witnessed to this vision, seeking to make it a present reality. Their witness together inspires these tough questions in me: “How and for whom is Jesus initiating God’s future kingdom today? Who are the Syrophoenicians, the Gentiles, the outsiders, and the kept-outs today? Are there people who figure the so-called Messiah and Savior proclaimed in churches is not Messiah and Savior for them, because of how we do church? And in this, am I more like a Pharisee – keeping people a little removed from God’s grace – by my practices, vision, and traditions?”

There are three ways Jesus reveals these people to me today.

First, we can look around us in worship. Some people we sang and prayed beside six months ago aren’t here. Could Jesus’s vision of the kingdom, and of church, be big enough to see online worshippers as every bit as faithful as in-person worshippers, not as afterthoughts? Is our vision of church – as bearers of God’s kingdom – big enough to figure out how to disciple and care for brothers and sisters in Christ, for whom Sunday worship doesn’t work?

Second, because Jesus initiated the fullness of God’s kingdom specifically in the presence of an outsider, far outside the normal boundaries of religious life, what is happening beyond the church’s walls? Are there things we do as church, things we think every follower of Jesus should do, that seem meaningless or irrelevant to others? Do our lives, practices, and relationships with others proclaim the central truth of our faith: that Jesus is saving us from sin and death and transforming our lives? Or do our lives merely proclaim that being a Christian is only related to what we do on Sunday mornings?

Third, because Jesus initiates the fullness of God’s kingdom in the presence of one crying out for healing, justice, and inclusion, who’s crying out? Who’s struggling with mental illness, depression, or thoughts of suicide, all while trying to put on a good face? Who’s crying out in loneliness? Who’s crying out at injustice or in pain, and can we believe them when they say they’re hurting?

The hope-vision of the Syrophoenician woman leads Jesus to initiate the fullness of God’s kingdom reality, so that she can experience salvation. The hope-vision of Wesley and Wilberforce lead the Spirit to bring God’s kingdom future more fully into reality, so all can experience salvation from the sin of slavery. In us, as church, as a community of Jesus’s disciples, Jesus initiates the fullness of God’s kingdom so that all here, all in our community, and all in our world can experience God’s saving grace. May it be so.  

Reflection Questions:

  1. What stands out at you about this passage from Mark that this sermon doesn’t cover? Explore that.
  2. Some commentators of this passage emphasize that the woman taught Jesus something about God’s kingdom that he didn’t see – that it was inclusive of everyone. What about this idea fits or doesn’t fit for you? (I’ve gone either way on it, but today, given some of Jesus’s actions before this passage, I lean away from this interpretation).
  3. Some commentators suggest that this text is helpful in exploring the concept of racism. In what ways do you think this passage reflects on racism, or not? (I’ve explored this interpretation in another sermon).
  4. Consider the questions raised in the sermon near the end (labeled “first,” “second,” and “third.” What other questions fit here? What answers do you have to these questions?

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