Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 5, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

(Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23)+Psalm 125+James 2:1-10, 11-3, 14-17+Mark 7:24-37

Several years ago, an Episcopal Priest in Excelsior, MN, held a 4-year women’s bible study with a unique purpose: to catalogue every word spoken by women in the bible.[1] There are 93 women whose words are recorded in the Good Book. Only 49 of them – just over half – have names. Of the roughly 1.1 million words in scripture, 14,000 are spoken by women. 14k. That’s about 1% of all those words.

In Mark’s gospel, only two women speak. “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb?”[2] These 12 words were spoken by one of three named women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, or Salome.

The other words spoken by a woman in Mark are these 11: ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,’ [3] spoken by this unnamed Syrophoenician woman. And she says this because Jesus has just called her a dog – a little dog, but a dog just the same.

I don’t know of anyone who loves Jesus who does not cringe at this particular story. Preachers have tried to dance around it for ages – no, he meant a puppy – rather than facing it head on. Yes, Jesus is tired. People have followed him and asked things of him and pulled and pushed to get to him, and now he’s gone to the beach. Tyre is on the coast of what is now Lebanon, so Jesus did what I like to do when I need a break and grabbed his passport and left the country. He’s in Gentile territory, land occupied by Israel before Israel went under occupation by Assyria and Persia and Syria and now Rome. The residents of this area were, shall we say, despised by the people of Israel. Dogs were not only considered filthy eaters of dead flesh by any self-respecting Jew, the word also made a really convenient epithet to throw at someone on the outside. Like this Syrophoenician woman who throws herself at Jesus’s feet. κυνάριον! You dog. 

While it may be hard to have such an insult come from Jesus, we have to remember that Jesus, fully human, was a fully human male Jew of his time.

Now, I know I’m not alone in having had older family members who maintained a range of derogatory terms for people they didn’t like. And when it came to outsiders? Most of us wouldn’t be caught dead using those words. Italians, Poles, and Jews? There were bigoted names for them. Blacks? Oh, yeah, plenty for them, too. Mexicans? There are still places where it is somehow acceptable to use insulting words for them. Gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender, queer folk? You don’t have to cast your glance very far to know what insults they endure even now.

This nameless woman coming to Jesus?

She’s the Palestinian mother trying to get her child past a checkpoint to a hospital.

She’s an Afghan mother hoisting her girl toddler up and over a barrier into the hands of an American soldier.

She’s a Guatemalan mother riding the top of the giant freight train to get to the border of the U.S., a desperate attempt at a safe life.

She’s a trans teen making herself invisible so that no one will beat her up.

A dog? This mother doesn’t care. All she wants is for her child to be well, and she will beg and grovel if she has to.

Many read this as a turning point in Jesus’s ministry. He says repeatedly, particularly in Matthew’s gospel where this story also appears, that he has come for the lost sheep of Israel. He sends the disciples only to their own kind. Over and over he warns his followers not to be like the gentiles. But after this, Jesus seems to have changed course.

In the feeding of the 5,000 a few chapters ago in Mark, there were 12 basketsful of leftovers to be distributed. This “12” is often taken to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. This word of God in human flesh, broken and given, is for the people of Israel. In the very next chapter after this one, we have another feeding, this time of the 4,000. The leftovers filled seven baskets. This number seven is significant. It represents completion, fullness – the seven days of creation. Perfection. No longer is the bread just for the people of Israel, it’s bread for the nations. Matthew makes this explicit at the end of the gospel in the Great Commission to go and make disciples not just of the people of Israel but all people. Everyone is invited to this party.

The unnamed Syrophoenician woman got what she came for with her few words. Her daughter was made well. She refused to be dismissed, to be marginalized, to be ignored, not even by Jesus. How many people around us are afraid to even ask for fear that they will be hurt or insulted? There are plenty of people these days who call themselves Christian but who sling those insults and judgments and threats at anyone who disagrees or who is in any way other.

But as the letter of James says, what good is it to claim that you have faith but show forth no evidence of that? If you’re spewing hate and violence, that is hardly loving your neighbor. If you go about your business with no regard for anyone else, that is, according to James, dead faith. Of what good is it?

Now, more than ever, it is vital that we lean into the life of an active and lively faith. In the name of Jesus, we welcome the sick, the hungry, the refugee, the addicted, the broken-hearted, the outsider, inviting them into the fullness of who God created them to be. No matter who you are or where you come from or what meandering journey your life has been, I say to you, “Welcome home.”

Jesus says to you, welcome home, “this is my body, given for you.”        


[1] https://www.startribune.com/minnesota-church-women-count-words-in-bible-spoken-by-women/290489131/

[2] Mark 16:3

[3] Mark 7:28

ASEPSermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 5, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas