Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 9th, 2018
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
My grandfather was a gruff man. He was often distant. He used foul language. He spoke harshly to my grandmother at times. I remember as a kid he often called me “dummkopf,” which means “dummy.” I didn’t know what it meant then, but the way he spat it at me suggested it wasn’t a term of endearment.
He was scary to others too. Half the time he looked like a gangster from the 1930s, with a fedora and a scowl and a cigarette dangling from his lip
But I loved my grandfather, because even though he had a gruff exterior, I knew his heart. Sometimes he accidentally let it show! He would put his arm around me at church while my grandmother sang in the choir. He would take me fishing, and when we didn’t catch anything in the river he’d take me to a trout farm so I would be guaranteed to have something to bring home. Best of all, when I spent the night at my grandparents, after my grandmother made sure my sister and I brushed our teeth, after she tucked us in, my grandpa would sneak into our room later that night and whisper to us: “Don’t forget to take your pill.” Then he’d give us each a half of a Baby Ruth bar.
Even though my grandpa could be harsh on the surface, I knew his heart. I knew how he really felt about me. And so even when he was distant or rude, I never hesitated to approach him. I never hesitated to climb up into his lap. In the midst of an often turbulent childhood, I knew I could always go to him for anything.
This morning we see a side of Jesus that is troubling to many. We see a side of Jesus that doesn’t fit with the children’s Bible version of Jesus we often have in our minds – a Jesus who is always kind and sweet and rides around on a unicorn tossing flowers to everyone. The Jesus we see today is gruff. He’s distant. He’s downright rude.
Jesus was probably exhausted. He had been putting in long hours doing ministry among his people. Now he wanted to get out of town. He wanted to be alone. He went to the Tyre, where St. Mark tells us he entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there! He probably thought going away to Tyre, away from his fellow Jews, would allow for him to get some peace and quiet, a chance to catch his breath.
But that didn’t happen. “He could not escape notice,” Mark tells us. A woman, a gentile, Syrophoenician woman, came knocking at his door. This woman had a daughter who had a demon. She bowed down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to help her. She begged him to help her precious daughter. Jesus’ reply was harsh. It was cold. He 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.”
I can’t tell you how many different interpretations I’ve read on these words of Jesus trying to explain why Jesus is speaking this way. Some have suggested Jesus was testing her. Some say he was testing the disciples. Some say he had a sparkle in his eye when he said it, and was only joking. Some say he was tired, and this illustrates his humanity. Some have said he was only trying to follow God’s timeline, which was Jews first, Gentiles later. Some say he uses the term for little dog instead of the term for street dog so it isn’t as bad as it sounds.
I don’t know what to make of Jesus’ harshness here, and any explanation I tried to offer you today would be complete speculation. I can’t get inside Jesus’ head, and neither can all those Bible scholars.
But we can learn something about Jesus from the actions of the woman. She seems to know something about him. She seems to know his heart – because she doesn’t give up! When Jesus says these things to her, she doesn’t go crawling away in shame. She isn’t afraid to keep on pestering him! She even goes so far as to use Jesus’ own words against him! She says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs!”
This woman somehow seems to know the compassion that is underneath his initial distance. She seems to know the great love he has hidden behind his harsh words to her. So great is her faith in Jesus that even crumbs from him would be enough for her. And this woman’s faith in Jesus proves to be well-placed. “For saying that,” Jesus says to her, “you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Sure enough, she went home and found that her child was well.
In the second story in our gospel reading for today we find Jesus still trying to stay away from Galilee, still trying to find some alone time, when he is approached by some people who bring to him a man who is deaf and mute. They had to beg Jesus to help him. Why did they have to beg? I don’t know exactly, but they did. They too seemed to know Jesus’ heart. They too trusted that the compassion and love at the center of his heart would come out in the end. They too were persistent. They too had great faith.
And their faith was well-placed. Jesus took the man aside, touched his ears and his tongue, looked to heaven with a sigh and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.” Immediately, the man could hear and speak.
And immediately, grumpy Jesus was back. He ordered them to not say a word about what he had done. But the cat was already out of the bag. Jesus’ true heart had already been revealed! And the more Jesus told them to shut their pie-holes, the more they proclaimed it.
We cannot understand all the ways of God. Sometimes God seems awfully distant from us. Sometimes God seems harsh or scary or cruel. In spite of the flowery, cartoonish Jesus we sometimes have in our minds, these attributes of God sometimes even show up in him. Like Father, like Son, right?
I talk to people all the time who have much in common with the Syrophoenician woman. I talk to people who come to me with tears in their eyes because their child has a demon of unbelief, or the demon of addiction, or a demon of depression or anxiety. I talk to people who have loved ones who are suffering, who are facing serious health problems. I talk to people who have friends and family members who are deaf to the gospel and they don’t know what to do about it. They don’t know what to say – their tongues are tied! I know there are people in this sanctuary right now who have been begging Jesus for healing of bodies and minds and relationship, begging Jesus that things could be different, and so far all they’ve gotten from him for an answer seems to be a rather snide “no.”
Just as Jesus is a mystery in our text for today, his work in our lives is a mystery too. Sometimes he doesn’t react to us as we’d like. Sometimes he seems distant or harsh or cruel.
But you who are here today know that there is more to Jesus than this. You know his true heart!
We see that true heart even in our gospel stories for today, as he relents and casts the demon out of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. We see it as he responds to the Gentiles who begged him to heal their friend, opening his ears and loosening his tongue. In their persistence, in their great faith in him, they end up helping to reveal Jesus’ true heart.
We see Jesus’ true heart most clearly on the cross. It is there that Jesus experienced everything that we do: the harshness, the cruelty, the seeming silence of God. He suffered all of that so that we would know we are never alone, we are never forsaken, we are never without hope. In his great love for us he died for us so that we might be raised to new life with him.
We see Jesus’ true heart at his table, where he gives us much more than crumbs – he gives us himself. He gifts us the fruits of the cross. He gives us the bread of life. He gives us the full meal deal of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
I can’t say why Jesus says harsh things to this Syrophoenician woman. Nor can I tell you why he sometimes seems to be reluctant to answer your prayers more quickly. But Jesus has ultimately shown us his true heart, and it is full of love and compassion for each and every one of us. And so we should never be afraid to approach him. We should never hesitate to go to him. We should always be persistent in prayer and steadfast in faith, trusting in his love for us.
That love might come to us as a whisper in the dark of night, but when it does, we will all see his true heart. Every last demon will be cast out, every ear will be opened, and every tongue will be loosed to sing his praise.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church