Sunday, August 17, 2014

Who gets the crumbs?

I was talking to a businesswoman this week who was helping us get a loan for our new home. I had never met her face to face. I knew her husband and that he had surgery recently. I inquired how he was doing. He's in a lot of pain, she said. But, I know he is going to be healed. I am claiming that! That's the South. Few people are reluctant to share their faith even in a professional context and with someone they had never met. I am getting used to it and I don't mind it. It's easier in the South to know where someone is coming from than in the North. Then, she asked me a couple questions and realized I had been a pastor. She wondered if I had a church now. No, not in the sense of pastoring one but we attend one in the city. Our pastor, she... Whoa, wait a minute, she interrupted, you mean you have a woman pastor...I thought the Bible said women can only teach other women and children. Well, I said, I don't think the Bible says it quite like that. In fact, God uses women in leadership positions in the Bible, and women in ministry are viewed in a positive way. Which is remarkable given the patriarchal culture of Bible times, I was about to say but we were on to another question.

I've heard Christians affirm that the Bible teaches women cannot be leaders over men often over the years.  Looking at who leads churches in the part of the South where I live it sure seems like Christians are practicing what they teach.

So, I like to notice when the Bible shows women operating outside the cultural expectations but, apparently not outside God's. This morning I was reading the story about the Syro-Phoenecian woman who "came out the hills", is the way Matthew puts it (the Message), as if to remind us that she was not on any one's radar at the time she encountered Jesus. Jesus had been in mostly Jewish territory teaching. This woman was not only a non - Jew, a Canaanite, in fact, but she was a woman who was the mother of a daughter who had an  unclean spirit according to Jewish tradition.  It was impossible for her to approach a Jewish Rabbi. Jesus tries to ignore her and his followers urge him to send her away because she is such a beggar. Cultural and religious expectations are in full view.

The woman will not be shrugged off that easily. She persists so that Jesus finally talks directly to her. I have been sent to the lost sheep of Israel is what he says. Then, he tells her a parable about dogs and crumbs from the table. It's one of those so called hard sayings of Jesus that is hard to get. She got it though, right away, as her immediate response shows.  To call someone a dog was an insult and Jews regularly used that term for Gentiles. Dogs were not pampered in the culture of Jesus' day. Jesus chose a word for dog that meant a small dog or puppy. Tim Keller writes, "the woman is a mother, and Jesus is saying to her, You know how families eat: First the children eat at the table, and afterward their pets eat, too. It is not right to violate that order. The puppies must not eat food from the table before children do."  Keller explains further that Jesus concentrated his ministry on Israel to show them he was the Messiah they were expecting. But, after he was resurrected he told his followers to go out to all the nations and spread the gospel. What he was saying to the woman was not an insult but a parable which meant "Please, understand, there's an order here. I'm going to Israel first, then to the other nations (Gentiles) later." This Gentile woman comes back with "Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." "In other words, Keller writes, Lord, the puppies eat from the table, too, and I am here for mine."

Commenting on this passage in his study of the gospel of Mark, James Edwards, writes, "She appears to understand the purpose of Israel's Messiah better than Israel does.... the woman is the first person in Mark to hear and understand a parable of Jesus...she is the first person to hear the word of Jesus to her.

That it was a Gentile woman whose spiritual sensitivity and insight was so unexpected in the culture of her time makes what Jesus was saying harder to understand What sounds offensive to us was really Jesus turning the racial prejudice of his followers upside down.

 Keep your eyes and ears open as you read the Bible. This is not the only time in the gospels when a woman gets it and the men do not. It is still so unexpected in parts of the cultural terrain of our time that the children and the women are eating some of the choicest meals at the table while the men are content with the crumbs.

(btw, Keller's book is Jesus the King and well worth a read.)