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The Rev. Dr. Charlene Han Powell The Rev. Dr. Charlene Han Powell
The Rev. Dr. Charlene Han Powell is associate pastor for education and engagement at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


Desperate Belief

Mark 7:24-30

15th Sunday after Pentecost - Year B

September 06, 2015

 

To get things going, I want to start out with a quick little get-your-imagination-going exercise. Now unless you are operating any sort of heavy machinery, I want you to just close your eyes wherever you may be, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and picture Jesus. Alright, do you have an image in your head? Great. You can open your eyes.

Now I just have a few follow up questions for you and I want you to keep count of how many questions you answer yes to. 

In your imagined picture of Jesus...

  • Did he have a full beard?
  • Was he wearing a white robe?
  • Did he have a calm, serene look on his face?
  • Was he surrounded by children and/or cute farm animals (i.e. lambs, puppies, or kittens)?
  • Were his arms outstretched or in some kind of a welcoming posture?
  • Was he performing a miracle or doing some kind of charitable activity?

My guess is that you said yes to at least three of those things. What I find so interesting is that even though we all have unique beliefs around and understandings of Jesus, our image of him is quite similar. It doesn't matter how many world famous artists have reimagined and reinterpreted our Savior because when it comes down to it, most of us have gotten our picture of Jesus from the exact same place: the cover of a children's Bible. And it doesn't matter what version you have or edition you're using, Jesus always looks the same: calm, happy, and inviting.

Yet, Scripture paints a different picture. In fact, the Gospels are full of stories where Jesus is sarcastic, reclusive, and even grumpy. Today's passage from Mark 7 is a perfect example.

In the preceding chapters, Jesus had already performed a number of miracles including healing the sick and demon-possessed, walking on water, and feeding the 5,000.

So by the time we encounter him in the Gentile region of Tyre, there is no doubt that Jesus was exhausted and in need of some down time. And yet, he could not escape being noticed because a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit somehow finds out that he is in town, seeks Jesus out, bows down at his feet and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

To which Jesus responds by saying, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Now as much as I would like to say there is more to this comment than meets the eye, that crafty exegesis will uncover something unexpected about Jesus' shocking response, I can't. We can only speculate possible explanations as to why he was so dismissive, not the least of which is that Jesus was just being consistent about his intended mission.

After all, the Gospels make clear that his ministry was to the Jews and as the text so plainly points out, the woman is a Gentile of Syro-phoenician origin.  

But instead of being offended or even discouraged by Jesus' harsh reaction, the woman presses on. She accepts his disparaging characterization and even uses Jesus' own words against him by saying, "Fine, you can call me a dog, but even dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table."

With that Jesus relents and frees the woman's child from her demon. And the sun shone above them as they skipped off into the sunset and lived happily ever after. The End.

If only it were that simple. I gotta be honest. I really struggled with this passage. It made me realize how attached I am to my domesticated, children's book version of Jesus. 

  • The Jesus that bids everyone to come to him, no matter the time or the place.
  • The Jesus that never tires or pulls away.
  • The Jesus that doesn't have any tricks up his sleeve because what you see is what you get. And what you get are rainbows and sunshine.

Yet, as I said earlier, Scripture paints a different picture of Jesus. One where he is indeed divine, yet also VERY human. This more realistic version of Jesus experiences the wide range of needs and emotions common to our species. 

  • He gets annoyed with the stupidity of the disciples.
  • He gets overwhelmed by the burden he is called to bear.
  • He gets tired of having to be on all the time.

So throughout the Gospels, we read how Jesus goes off by himself to pray, to recharge, to be alone with his Father. Except this time, he is unsuccessful. He gets cornered by a woman in need of help. So instead of encountering the "come-to-me-all-you-who-are-weary" Jesus, the Syrophoenician woman confronts the "go-away-all-of-you-because-I'm-weary" Jesus.

And since we are polite, well-mannered, 21st-century Christians, well, we don't really like this Jesus. We don't like that he doesn't just heal the woman's daughter when she asks. And we definitely don't like that he doesn't live up to our expectations of who we think Jesus should be.

But if we are able to step back from our politeness, our expectations, and our children's Bible version of Jesus, we might be able to see that this passage isn't about him rejecting the woman's desperate request but rather, recognizing her DESPERATE BELIEF.

Let's start with the DESPERATE part. No doubt the woman is at the end of her rope. Her young daughter is plagued with something no doctor can fix. She doesn't just have a fever. She's not suffering from some disease. 

An unclean spirit, a demon, is residing in the innocent body of her beloved child. Desperate is probably a euphemism for what she is feeling.  

Yet in the depths of her helplessness, this woman, this mother, hears a story about a man from Galilee who not only makes the lame to walk and the blind to see, but casts demons out into the darkness where they belong. Normally she would chalk such tales up to the bored chatter of country folk, but these accounts were different. This Jesus was different. 

  • His power was evident.
  • His message was clear.
  • His compassion was overwhelming.

Many were saying it was all too good to be true, but she couldn't shake the feeling that maybe it was so good that it had to be true.

That's where the whole BELIEF part comes in. You see, it didn't take long for the stories to stop being just stories as more and more witnesses came forward, those who had seen this Jesus of Nazareth at work firsthand. 

And it didn't take long for the woman's curiosity to turn into hope and her hope to turn into expectation and her expectation to turn into belief. She began to believe that the stories about Jesus were true. She began to believe that Jesus was more than just an ordinary man.  She began to believe in Jesus.

  • And it was this DESPERATE BELIEF that drove the woman to call in every favor she had and use every trick in her bag just to find out where Jesus would be when he got into town.
  • It was this DESPERATE BELIEF that gave the woman the courage to fall down at the rabbi's feet and beg him for a miracle.
  • It was this DESPERATE BELIEF that gave the woman the determination to argue for a crumb when she was denied bread.
  • And it was this DESPERATE BELIEF, it is this DESPERATE BELIEF, that we, as Christians, call faith.

Despite my initial issue with Jesus' response in this passage, I have come to actually appreciate what he is doing here. Because if Jesus had just reacted the way we would have expected him to, if Jesus had just healed the woman's daughter outright like he did every other time in Mark, then not only would we maintain an unrealistic perception of who Jesus is but also an unrealistic perception of who we are as people of faith.

You see, by domesticating Jesus, we have also domesticated the life of faith. Somewhere along the line, we were told that our faith is grounded in Jesus's response to our incessant requests. If God gives us whatever we want, when we want it, how we want it, then God must be real, our faith must be real. 

We love the Jesus we read about in the earlier chapters of Mark and see painted on the cover of our children's Bible because, well, he gives the people what they want. And whether we are aware of it or not, we start putting our faith in a divine Santa Claus rather than a merciful Savior.

But if the Syrophoenician woman teaches us anything in this passage, if Jesus teaches us anything in this passage, it is that faith is NOT about what Jesus does, but about who Jesus is. 

Because faith is not about getting what we ask for, but getting the one we are asking. 

Faith is not about our needs, our wants, and our plan, but his needs, his wants, and his plan. 

When it comes down to it, our faith is not about us at all. Our faith is about him, our Savior, our Messiah, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

But here is the best part. While we don't know the where, the when or the how, we do know, we do believe the who, the what and the why. Because as Christians we know, we believe that THE WHO is Jesus Christ. As Christians we know, we believe that THE WHAT is a life marked by forgiveness, redemption, healing, and grace. And as Christians we know, we believe, that THE WHY is that God loves us more than we could have ever hoped for or imagined.

So while the life of faith doesn't always happen in the way we would expect, we, as Christians, continue to desperately believe not necessarily because we want to but because we have to. 

  • After all, Jesus is the only one, we can rely on even in the midst of our deepest sadness.
  • Jesus is the only one we can hope in even when it seems all hope is lost.
  • And Jesus is the only one we would seek out, fall at his feet, and beg for even just for a meager crumb.
  • Because Jesus is the only one who can take our desperate belief and call it faith.

When push comes to shove, I gotta say that this version of Jesus is way better than the Jesus of our children's books. I don't know about you, but when I close my eyes, I don't want to see somebody else's version of somebody else's version of somebody else's version of Jesus. 

When I close my eyes, I want to be surprised, amazed, astonished, even offended by the Jesus I see, because as it turns out, that is the

  • Jesus who bids the little ones to come to him AND who casts out demons.
  • That is the Jesus who preaches to the masses AND who goes to the mountains to pray.
  • That is the Jesus who died on a cross AND who rose again three days later.
  • And that is the Jesus who carries my faith AND carries your faith AND carries all of our faith.

Let us pray. Gracious and Loving God, Give us faith to move mountains, or at least faith to move us closer to you. Help us to desperately believe in a God not of our own making but in the God made known to us in Jesus Christ. It is in his holy name that we pray. Amen.

 


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