A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar., May 12, 2013
Proverbs 6:20-22; Mark 7:24-30
We didn’t have much money in the early days for eating out, but often were invited by church members to accompany them for lunch after Sunday morning worship. Bless their hearts; it took a lot of courage. We had a toddler, you see, and we know that restaurant dining isn’t always a relaxing or enjoyable occasion when a little one is present. It didn’t happen every Sunday that we were invited to eat with folks from the church, but it occurred often enough that one day I asked the pastor with whom I worked if he and his family ever ate out on Sundays. I had not seen them on the occasions when we did.
Rarely did they eat out on Sunday, he told me, because it was a relatively small town, and frankly, when they did so, church folk would come by their table and want to chat… about the sermon, about something else that was going on in the church, about family, about this, about that… to the point, he said, that it was hard to enjoy the meal for all the interruptions. So, they usually just went home where they could eat quietly together.
I wonder if Jesus ever felt the same way, that he could go nowhere and do nothing without the intrusion of those who wanted – and sometimes demanded – something from him. They wanted a meal from him, perhaps, or healing for whatever illness or condition they might have… someone always seemed to want something from him, and his notoriety was becoming such that he was recognizable just about everywhere he went.
At one point in his public ministry, he took his disciples to the coast for some rest and recuperation. It was largely Gentile territory, a place where his reputation would not precede him and he and his co-workers could spend a few days basking in anonymity before going back into the fray. I would imagine that Jesus looked as forward to this opportunity as do you and I when we get the chance to go out of town and do something different and see things we’ve never seen before. By the time this story is recorded in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has already fed the multitudes in the wilderness (though he will do it again later, according to Mark) and has performed countless numbers of miracles. No doubt, he is physically and emotionally fatigued from all this exertion and just needs a few days away where nobody knows his name or his reputation.
In reflecting on this story, John Killinger puts his imagination to work, and trust me, John has a good imagination.1 This is how he sees this story unfolding…
Peter and James and John walked along the seacoast, checking out the fishing equipment of the men who sailed on the big sea, to see for themselves, in effect, how the “big boys” did it. Philip and Andrew followed Bartholomew down to the village market, where they fell into talking with the old men who sat under the plane trees.
John suggests that it would have been very natural for Jesus’ disciples to talk about their remarkable Master, the rabbi from Galilee who had made blind people see again, healed the flesh of lepers, and enabled the lame to dance a jig. Soon, because of the loose tongues of Jesus’ own disciples, the whole town was buzzing about the Galilean prophet. Where was he staying? Maybe they could go and take advantage of his wonderful power. After all, they had the blind among them too… and the lame and lepers.
It was discovered that Jesus was staying at the house of old Michael the fishmonger, down by the wharf. It would not be long before the line would stretch for blocks, people who had come to take advantage of the prophet’s power. But the first one to get there, ahead of everyone else, was this nameless Greek woman whose daughter was possessed of a demon.
She had been in the market when she overheard the men talking. As they described what Jesus had accomplished in Galilee, her eyes narrowed with intensity and her brain began to work. Her little daughter, whom she loved with all her heart, was terribly sick. But it was a sickness that no one really understood, or had much sympathy for. Mental illness in those days was considered to be demon possession. What could doctors do? She was at her wit’s end, having tried everything she could think of. What did she have to lose? There was the strong possibility that nothing would come of it, that all this talk was just the overworked imagination of some foolish men. But what did she have to lose?
The scriptures don’t even give her a name, but she will forever be etched in our minds as one of the greatest examples of motherhood we will have ever known… if for no other reason than she was willing to go toe-to-toe with Jesus over the needs of her sick daughter. She would do anything to help her sick daughter.
Consider that her opinion of Jesus was different from ours. Was he a prophet? Could very well be, though there were many prophets in the land representing all kinds of faith persuasions. Was he a healer? Well, that remained to be seen, didn’t it? Was he Lord and Savior, the Messiah? Let’s not go too far. To this woman, he was just a Galilean who reportedly was gifted in the area of healing.
Again, we call on John Killinger’s imagination to help us frame the story…
She went straight to Michael’s house and found Matthew sitting at the doorstop whittling. “Are you the miracle worker?” she asked. “No,” Matthew said, “I am not.” The Master was asleep in the house. He came to Tyre for rest and didn’t need nor want to be disturbed. The woman should go away. Jesus would probably be agitated when he found out that the people of the city knew he was there. After all, they were on vacation, and nobody wants to work on vacation.
“Wake him up,” the pushy woman demanded. “I have need of him.”
“Oh, you do, huh? Well, you just wait a minute. You may have need of the Master, but he doesn’t have need of you. I told you, he needs his rest. Why don’t you come back later.”
“I don’t have later. I have now, and I need him.”
Matthew knew instinctively that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with this pushy woman. He had run into people like her before. After all, he had been a tax collector. Tax collectors had seen all kinds of people, especially those who were pushy. In fact, tax collectors fit the same category (it takes one to know one), so he knew the best and only way to get rid of the woman was to give her what she wanted… to let her see Jesus. The sooner they got this over with, the better. He might get his head bitten off, but it was something he had to do. He let out a deep sigh, and then showed her the way back, worrying all the while what Jesus would think.
As we have already acknowledged, this being Mother’s Day, we brought to worship with us today the images (and for some of us, the memories) of those who nurtured us and guided us and brought us up. Again, as we have said, that person may not have been our birth mother, but the chances are pretty good that there is not one person here today who has not known a mother’s love, regardless of how that love was embodied, whether it was the one who brought you into the world or who brought you up in the world. Take a look at the greeting cards (141 million were sold last year)2 and you’ll find all kinds of warm sentiment expressed, a warmth that we feel on an iconic day like today.
That warmth, and certainly that sentimentality, is hard to find, however, in this story from Mark’s gospel. Instead, what we discover – though this mother obviously holds great affection for her sick little girl – is a tough, maybe even hard-bitten, woman who won’t take no for an answer, even if that no comes from the lips of a man who is known by many as Messiah, and who is known by us as Savior and Lord. In fact, it is a story that makes us a bit uncomfortable for how raw it is, and how it paints Jesus in what seems to be less than a favorable light. Of all the stories that could have been omitted from scripture, this is one of them. It could be quite possible we wish it had.
You see, this mother doesn’t exactly bring out the best in Jesus, at least on the surface of the story. Matthew, who has been guarding the door, according to the way John Killinger sees the story, is right. Jesus did not want to be disturbed. He came here for rest, not to be bothered by this woman or anyone else. And when he is disturbed, he reveals a side of himself we see no other place. And frankly, we’re not sure what to do with this story or how to respond to it.
Though I do know a bit how Jesus might have felt. We were living in Baltimore and had come back to Arkansas on vacation. I was tired, not only from the demands of my work but also from the long drive between my native state and where we were living at the time. I was really looking forward to putting my feet up, so to speak, and take it easy for awhile.
We hadn’t been in my parents’ house ten minutes before my mother informed me that her pastor wanted me to call him. Why? I asked. He wants you to preach for him Sunday night, she said to me. “Mom, I don’t want to preach for him Sunday night. I’m on vacation!” Call him, she said to me, call him. You can probably already guess that I preached for him that Sunday night, but not without first thinking of this pushy mother in Mark’s gospel.
Knowing she is in no position to make any demands of the Galilean, the woman identified by Mark as a Syro-Phoenician, which is to reveal her as a Gentile, immediately bows down at his feet and begins to beg Jesus to remove the demon from her daughter. Do you think she was surprised by Jesus’ response? After all, he isn’t very kind to her. “Let the children be fed first,” he says to her, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That means he doesn’t think he should help her or her daughter because they are Gentiles and he has come to bring his ministry to his fellow Jews. That he is available to her where she lives, in a region largely inhabited by Gentiles, is only because he has come there so he won’t be bothered. And in the process of conveying that message, he uses a not-very-kind expression for Gentiles, for people like her and her daughter. He calls them dogs.
She could have reacted to this bit of seeming racism by storming off in disgust and anger. But she doesn’t. Instead, she comes back at him hard and fast, showing an insight that we should all admire. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Hmm. Pretty good, huh? Does she say this because she’s simply quick on her feet? Maybe. Because she’s shrewd? Perhaps. Because she’s tough? Could be. But I think it is something else. I believe she wouldn’t take no as an answer, even from Jesus, because of her deep and abiding love for her sick little girl. And she wasn’t going to let anything or anybody keep her from helping her daughter.
As we know, Jesus responded favorably to her sharp and witty comeback. He said to her. “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
It’s not the only story in scripture – and my guess is that you can think of others from your own experience as well as that of others – where a mother sacrifices her own comfort or desires for the well-being of her child. Bringing up children often involves acts of costly self-denial and self-giving, and this woman’s story epitomizes that.
In a Mother’s Day report on television, a participant was reflecting on how expensive it is to raise a child these days, only to have that child in fifteen years say to the parent, “I hate you.” I hope our youth understand there is not a mother in this place today who has not denied herself on behalf of her child. That is not always the case, but I’m confident it is here.
John Claypool once preached a Mother’s Day sermon in which he traced the stories of different and various mothers in scripture.3 What he reveals is that scripture portrays those who were good at being mothers and those who were bad. From Rebekah and her deception to the bloodthirsty Herodias who demanded that the head of John the Baptist be removed and placed on a platter, while using her daughter to accomplish this hideous deed, the Bible is quite realistic in its portrayal of those who have not handled this important relationship… shall we say… well?
John says, “The quality of motherhood, like everything else in life, is ultimately determined on what a person brings to it and what one is willing to make of it. The decisive factor is not the physical act of becoming a mother, but the response one makes to this high adventure. It is a vocation that must be lived out intentionally. There is nothing automatic or simple about it.”
That, of course, could be said about any relationship. But on this day when we consider the role our mothers have played in the kind of people we are, it is good to reflect upon the influences they have had on us. How blessed we are when we can say with all honesty that those who have nurtured us in the motherly role have pointed us in the direction of the One who gave everything for us on the cross. If that is true, the only thing with which we are left to say is, thanks be to God!
Lord, find us as faithful as those who have nurtured us, and may that faithfulness lead us to you. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1John Killinger, “The Mother Who Changed the World,” (unpublished sermon, May 10, 1987).
2Zach Dawes, Ethicsdaily.com, May 3, 2013.
3John Claypool, “Mothers of the Bible,” (unpublished sermon, May 11, 1980).
Key Words: Mother, Mother’s Day, Motherhood