091006 Sermon Mark 7:24-37
“Snips and Snails, Sugar and Spice”
I can’t tell you how many little nursery rhymes and old wives’ tales and folk sayings I’ve learned from my grandmother. “There was a little girl who had a little curl in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid.” That was my sister, Emily. I was “brown as a biscuit, busy as a bee.” And she taught us, “Snips and snails and puppy dog tails, that’s what little boys are made of. Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.” I spent at least a couple of long Tennessee summers staring at my cousin Jeremy, looking for snails and puppy dog tails and knowing for sure that boys were not as sweet and wonderful as girls, because my grandmother taught me so with that little rhyme.
Unfortunately, Grandmother taught me lots of things I had to unlearn after those long summers in Milan, Tennessee. She taught me that people who lived better than us looked down on us. She taught me that people who were a different color from us were strange and “not nice.” “Not nice” covered an awful lot of people, and implied an awful lot of sins. The older I get, the more embarrassed I am that I learned some of the things she taught me, and the more grateful I am that I grew up the rest of the year in a big city, surrounded by all kinds and colors of people, and with a great mom and family to help me un-learn some of her lessons.
In today’s scripture lesson, Jesus meets a woman who challenges some of the lessons he might have learned from his grandmother. As best we know, Jesus was raised as a devout Jew. That means traveling to Jerusalem for important festivals, learning from the rabbis in the Temple and in local synagogues, and understanding that the Jews were a people set apart by God. Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, and other people were Gentiles, and Gentile was pretty much a dirty word. Gentile meant, “not from around here.” It meant “people who talk funny, look funny, and eat funny food.” Jesus would have learned from his grandmother and grandfather and parents and neighbors and friends NOT to do what he does in today’s story: Talk to that woman! Not only was she from off, she was a woman, and nice girls didn’t talk to strange men…so this woman must not have been a nice girl, and no nice Jewish boy would ever talk to a woman who was not a nice girl.
Jesus, however, had learned from his heavenly Father that “snips and snails” are not the measure of a man, any more than “sugar and spice” characterize every woman. So when this strange woman approached him, this lady who was “not from around here”, this “not-nice” girl, Jesus did the opposite of what he should do. Instead of turning his back on her and walking away, he heard her out. Let’s take a closer look at the text.
Following some very unsatisfactory and frustrating conversations with scribes and Pharisees, Jesus went away from Israel into the region of Tyre. Seeking what we think must have been some peace and quiet, he went into a house, and wanted to keep anyone from knowing he was there. Unfortunately for Jesus, the word got out. Mark tells us that “a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him.” Grandmother used to say, “there’s no rest for the weary,” and I guess in this case, that’s how it was.
This woman was a Syrophoenician, not a Jew. She was audacious enough to talk to Jesus, knowing who he was, knowing that he shouldn’t take any notice of her. But this woman, this brave soul, pursued him, begging him to heal her daughter. Truth be told, we don’t know what was wrong with the little girl. My grandmother suggested all manner of bad behavior “could be a demon,” from yowling cats to stolen tomatoes to fights I had with my sister, and my constant “hay fever”, but it was likely some kind of seizure disorder or mental illness. It really doesn’t matter what was wrong with the little girl; what we know is that she was so sick that her mother was desperate with worry, desperate enough to look beyond the cultural mores and religious dogma that would keep her from taking care of her little girl.
We know that Jesus did his own share of boundary-breaking in this story. He actually engaged this woman in a debate, something unheard of in his time, and in a way that’s very different from how most of us think of Jesus today. He responds to her plea, not with a blessing, but with a curse: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus here is not kind, not gentle, meek and mild. Instead he challenges her, pointing out that he has come in ministry to the Jews, the children of Israel’s God, and that Gentiles were merely “dogs” to them, not even housepets but strays to throw stones at. Not a kind way to look at a frantic mother, distressed, and begging for his help.
The woman does not do what she should in the face of his challenge: turn meekly away and go home to watch her daughter die. Instead, knowing that she has nothing to lose, she engages Jesus, this Jewish man, in a sort of verbal combat. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She says, in effect, “Fine, if that’s what it takes for you to help me, then I’ll accept your label. I’ll be a dog, if that’s what it takes to get your help. I know you can help me. I know you can heal my daughter. So I’ll be a dog to your children of God, if you’ll only remember that the children throw to the dogs the scraps they won’t eat. Your children of Israel have turned you away and rejected your teaching and healing. Throw me a bone, here, give me what I need.”
And he does—without further argument. “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” No more words, no fanfare, no fuss. She won, and she went home to find that Jesus had done what she asked. He didn’t heal her because she was a Jew, one of God’s chosen. He didn’t heal her because she was somehow entitled to his attention and mercy. Rather, the opposite is true: apart from her gender, apart from her nationality, apart from any barrier of language or culture, Jesus saw in her a loving mother, willing to give up her dignity, willing to do anything to heal her child. And he saw in her a woman, who, despite not being the “right kind” of person, saw what so many could not: that here, in the person of Jesus Christ, was the mercy and love and compassion of God present. Her success did not come because she was a child of Israel, but rather that she knew that he was the Son of God. In effect, she was saying to Jesus, “Who you think I am is not as important as who I know you are.”
Some say that she argued with Jesus and forced him to change his mind. Maybe that’s the case. But I tend to think that Jesus handed her an argument that he knew was old and tired, and ready to be laid aside, an argument that he himself did not believe: that God’s compassion was only for the Jews, the people of Israel. And I think he used this conversation with the Syrophoenician mother to demonstrate to the disciples and the crowds around him that he could not escape that God is less concerned with what is “right” about our outsides, and more interested in what is inside of us.
This woman engaged Jesus on her own terms, and it was who she was inside that made the difference. Where a Pharisee would have called her “unclean”, she shows that purity of spirit is more important than a ritual washing of hands. She gives us a chance to see that Jesus deals with us as he dealt with her: as individuals of sacred worth and value, not as a class, race, or gender that was inferior. Rather than putting her into a box in his mind labeled “other—impure—foreign”, Jesus saw this anxious mother’s individual character, her uniqueness, her personhood as something of value in itself, looking within to judge her worthy, not without. There’s a lesson to be learned here…but wait, there’s more to the story.
Mark continues this story by telling us that Jesus takes the long way home, traveling through Sidon towards the Decapolis, where he meets someone else in need of healing. This time it’s a deaf and mute man, presumably a Jew, whom Jesus takes aside to heal with word and gesture and spit, not unlike the blind man we heard about last week. Immediately this man too received his healing, hearing all that was said to him and speaking with no impediment. He spoke so well, in fact, that he ignored Jesus’ orders not to tell anyone, but he and those who were present were “astounded beyond measure” and proclaimed the news of this miracle with zeal. The witnesses proclaimed the good news of this miraculous healing, but still most people could not see who Jesus was.
In these stories, Jesus heals two people: one whom the Jewish authorities and teaching would deem unworthy, and another whom they would deem worthy. By all appearances, the woman and her daughter should not have merited Jesus’ attention. They didn’t fit into the patterns of culture and gender and religion that would have given them access to the mercy of God. They were “other”, not like us, not from around here, not our kind of people, not “nice.” On the other hand, the deaf man encounters Jesus and there’s no debate, no argument, no question of his worthiness: Jesus simply restores to him his hearing and ability to speak freely. What Jesus is interested in, I think Mark is saying to us, is not what category someone fits into, not how comfortable we are around them, not how they dress or speak or behave. Instead, God looks into all of us, past our “Sunday best” and our family tree, past our culture and the color of our skin, and into our souls. There God sees one whom he would save, one whom he would heal, one he has chosen to love.
I guess we are all made up of different stuff. I’m made up of west Tennessee, tempered by years of living in Virginia Beach. I’m a product of my grandmother’s wisdom and prejudice, of my mother’s strength and courage and stubbornness. I come from a broken home, and I have seen and done some things in my life that I’d be ashamed to admit to from here. There is no way that I could ever have earned God’s grace on my own, healing the scars within me. But Christ looks past our “snips and snails,” through our “sugar and spice,” and sees within us that which he wants to see: God’s child, God’s beloved, one who has value not because of who I am, but who Christ is in me.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see clearly: the Syrophoenician woman saw in Jesus what so many of his “own people” could not, that Israel’s God, Jesus’ Father, was a compassionate God. She saw past the outside of Jesus, past his race and the rules, and saw hope. The deaf man saw past Jesus’ commands to keep silent and couldn’t contain the word he knew to be true: that God’s mercy and compassion are available to everyone, that healing could come, that grace can break into our lives. Sometimes “outsiders” see what we can’t: our own faults, and God’s grace to look past them.
Mark’s Gospel is a story of appearances: despite the evidence of their own eyes and experience, the disciples and others are blinded to who Jesus is. Even though they hear his teaching, even though they witness the healings and the miracles, they cannot see past their own noses to understand what it means that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is in their midst. But the outsider, the foreign woman with a sick child, the deaf man who cannot work or support himself or even talk to his friends, these are the ones who get a glimpse of the Kingdom in the presence of Christ. They see clearly, past the externals, and into the heart of the matter: it is not who we are on the outside that matters. Who we are is less important than who Christ is.
Grandmother used to say that some folks were not “our kind of people”. I never knew who our kind of people were meant to be…seems like most folks in town weren’t. There was the Methodist Church in town, and most of those were, and most of the Baptists, but not all the neighbors and certainly not those who lived on the other side of town, literally on the “wrong” side of the railroad tracks. I did not learn from her who God’s kind of people are…but I did learn it from a Vacation Bible School teacher in that little Methodist Church in that little Tennessee town: God’s kind of people are all people, red and yellow, black and white, dressing funny, talking funny, eating funny food…precious in His sight. So too should they be precious in ours. Amen.