A Feast for All
If you were a celebrity or another very famous, very important person, what would you do to hide from the crowds wanting your autograph or from the paparazzi trying to photograph your every move? When I lived on the coast of Maine, one of the local summer residents was Kirstie Alley of “Cheers” and Jenny Craig fame. She lived with her then-husband Parker Stevenson on an island. Whenever this famous couple sailed their yacht to the mainland to shop at Walmart (they actually shopped there; it was the only option), they created a major sensation. So they tried to sneak into the store, and Kirstie would don a kerchief and huge sunglasses that covered most of her face. It was still pretty easy to spot her. Celebrity-sightings were a big deal in our small town until the Parker-Stevensons split up and sold their island retreat.
Jesus often felt the need to hide from the crowds. He was a celebrity because of the remarkable words he used and the miraculous things he did. He couldn’t seem to go anywhere during his public ministry without people following. If the camera had been invented by then, people would have been trying to take pictures of him leaving restaurants with sinners and shucking corn on the Sabbath – things like that – and publishing them in the Jerusalem Juice or some gossip rag like that.
On one occasion, recorded in Mark 7, Jesus intentionally slipped off to a small town in Gentile territory to escape the crowds. No one would know him there, but apparently Jesus was more famous than even he realized. In the house where Jesus sought privacy, he was approached by a woman whose small daughter is described as having a demon. She was a mom pleading on behalf of her little girl who was suffering.
The mother in the story, though, wasn’t just any mom. She was a Gentile, and more specifically she is described as a “Syro-Phoenician” woman. As a Gentile, she was a pagan non-practitioner of the Jewish faith. Beyond that, if we read the Old Testament books of the Hebrew Kings regarding Phoenicia, we can see that many years earlier the most famous queen of that region was a woman named “Jezebel.” Does that name strike a bell? She was condemned as a harlot of sorts for using her seductive power to woo Israelities away from the one, true God. To put it mildly, another Syro-Phoenician woman is not someone Jesus might be expected to be glad to see, especially when he is trying to hide.
This story came around the lectionary cycle last year when we were in the Book of Matthew. We’re looking at some different angles this morning, but I need to remind you that this is the place where Jesus essentially called a woman a “dog.” This is problematic because it is offensive and because we don’t generally see Jesus as someone who would speak like that. I suggested last year that he might have been having a particularly bad day and that it reveals his humanity. It may also reveal something about the writers who were perhaps less Christ-like than Jesus in regard to foreigners. Many other explanations have been given, and the correct one is this: Who knows?
As the story goes, the woman came to Jesus begging for him to help her young daughter who is described as being tortured by a demon. In return, Jesus announced that his ministry and mission was to the Israelites, not the Gentiles. He said it this way: “Let the children” (meaning the children of Israel) “be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Now, a lot of people might have taken that for the offense it seems to be and walked away in a huff. Instead, the woman came back at Jesus with a clever but very sincere response. She said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In other words, she was saying “I know your plan doesn’t include helping a Gentile woman, but couldn’t you find just a little left-over compassion somewhere for an innocent girl who needs some help?”
The story tells us that Jesus really liked the woman’s answer. He told her that her answer was so good that she would get her wish. When the woman hurried home, she found that her daughter was resting in bed, still and quiet and delivered from trouble.
On a recent trip to Safeway, I bought a box of unseasoned bread crumbs. I didn’t have a recipe in mind, but I like to keep them on hand just in case. I know that when I finally use them, they will be a very small part of whatever food I prepare with them. Crumbs are tiny. Even a whole bunch of them do not constitute a meal. The Syro-Phoenician woman asked for crumbs, but I’d like to believe that the healing of her daughter was more like receiving a several course gourmet meal. Jesus was either testing her resolve by his statement about dogs or he was himself changed by the encounter with this feisty mother. Either way, he was not stingy when he decided to act on behalf of the mother and her beloved daughter. The fact that he woman and the girl were Gentiles no longer mattered.
Real love and real compassion cross over human-created boundaries like nationality and race and gender and anything else that separates and classifies. But that’s not how we usually see things work.
The world has looked with both horror and relief this week as families escaping inhuman conditions and tyranny in Syria have been alternately turned away or welcomed at various borders. The image of a toddler lying lifeless on a beach has reminded us that those trying to find a better life are not criminals but are children and mothers and fathers; all of them vulnerable and wanting more than the meager crumbs they are now offered in the country of their birth. We have seen a variety of responses toward refugees and immigrants in our own nation. While we are right to be concerned about our own quality of life, too often that translates into disregard or downright abhorrence for those who need a bridge to safety rather than a wall to keep them away.
This week we also watched the circus of media and protesters in rural Kentucky as a county clerk refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses. This, despite a clear order from the Supreme Court. The woman is in jail now, considered by many to be a martyr for her Christian faith. The debate on religious freedom continues, and it seems to me that the discussion is more often about how to protect my freedom to discriminate against others rather than how we can together protect the rights of all people to practice whatever faith they follow. As well as the rights of those who choose no faith. Too many are wanting to just offer crumbs to those who are unlike themselves rather than inviting them to share equally in the abundance of life.
It’s appropriate to hear a Scripture today that talks about a table when we will share in Communion. The woman reminded Jesus that even those animals begging under the table received crumbs. The table that we share today doesn’t have an underside. No one crouches or hides beneath, hoping to retrieve some crumbs. It is a table that we do not claim for ourselves. We do not attempt to limit access to anyone. We consider that it is Jesus’ own table and that the invitation issued is his, not our own.
A few weeks ago, I made mention of the Center for Progressive Christianity which attempts to define progressive Christian faith. One of the eight points of definition says this: “We understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’s name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples.” I really like that. It says to me that all are welcome to share in the feast, even those who do not believe the same as me. If someone is part of another faith tradition, even one that is not specifically Christian, and wants to share in the experience of community that is represented in our shared meal of bread and wine, then they, too are welcome. When we say “All our welcome”, as we do, either we mean it or we don’t.” We do not give crumbs to anyone while reserving the best for ourselves.
Jesus’s encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman was consistent with a trajectory of inclusion. Gentile astrologers came to the home of the infant Jesus to worship him. Peter refused to share the Gospel with a Gentile, but God changed his mind in a dream. The early church struggled mightily with who is in and who is out, and the conclusion was reached that all have equal access to the love of God expressed in the life and the ministry of Jesus.
Today we will come to Jesus’ table again. All of us are welcome. Young, old, poor, rich, women, men, straight, gay, transgender, healthy, infirm, white, black, single, married, happy, sad, and so on… all of us. Not to beg or scramble for crumbs that fall from this table, but to feast as honored guests with Jesus and the beloved community.