The Barrel
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 10, 2000
The Controversial Gospel
Mark 7: 24-36
The Rev. John H. Pavelko

The conference had been a stunning success. The participants had come with high expectations and they were not disappointed. God had spoken through the speakers. The men felt convicted by the messages and recommitted themselves to fulfilling the promises they had made to their wives and children. At the end of the final program, the keynote speaker look out over the crowd and sensed the Spirit of God prompting him to speak from his heart. "Men, next year at Folsom stadium we expect a sellout crowd." A thunderous applause went up from the men. The speaker continued, "But I believe that if we fail to gather a fair representation of all God's people, God will not join us." Another chorus of cheers erupted from the crowd and the men left the stadium filled with exhilaration thereby ending the first Promise Keepers conference in Boulder CO.

Bill McCartney left the hall that night elated by what God had done to bring so many men together to discover how they could grow as men of faith. However, in the weeks that followed his heart was saddened by the letters he received from the very participants of the conference. They were caustic and chastising. His closing remarks were prompted by the entirely white composition of the audience. His words had obviously touched a raw nerve. "How dare you imply that God won't be there?" To debunk his exhortation, others reminded him of the promise made by Jesus, "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Mt 18:20). One sarcastically wrote, "God did not state in Scripture, "Go ye therefore and 'eradicate racism.' He said "Go preach the gospel to all nations."1

While God never said to go into the world and eradicate racism, both our Lord and the nephew of Peter, John Mark thought that it was paramount to the gospel. He conveys this by the way that he has retold the stories of the faith of the syrophoenician woman and the healing of a deaf and dumb man. The two stories are connected by geography. They both occur outside of Galilee in land of the Gentiles. Jesus has left his homeland. He is seeking rest so he attempts to escape the crowds. Secondly, the two stories are a logical follow up to the debate that occurred in the previous passage between Jesus and the Pharisees over the issue of the importance of ceremonial laws. Jesus discussion forms the theological basis for the two healing stories. Any schoolteacher should appreciate Mark's method. He first describes how Jesus explained his concepts then he has Jesus demonstrate in a practical, visual way the truth that he had just explained. The gospel is more than about how often or how thorough you wash your hands before a meal. The gospel is about how you love others. The gospel is about what comes out of a person, not the externals.

Tom was a recovering alcoholic who placed his faith in Jesus Christ at a Tri-City's Evangelistic Crusade. Ray did not think much of either the crusade or the sincerity of Tom's conversion. He thought the Crusade was just a bunch of religious fanatice who wore their religion on their shirtsleeve. His attitude toward Tom was even less kind, "Once an alcoholic always an alcoholic," was his opinion. Ray got upset when I asked Tom to share his testimony with the congregation on Sunday morning but what really made his blood boil was when I asked the entire Session to come forward, lay hand and pray for Tom. Ray thought that I had violated good Presbyterian standards. I visited Ray to listen and answer his questions but found that Ray did not want to hear any of my answers. In anger he said, "You preachers can make the Bible say anything you want it to say." I have thought a long time about those words. They were the one thing on which we both could agree that day. Preachers do have a tendency to make the Bible say anything they want it to say. Over the years, preachers have twisted Scripture to justify great social injustice and I suppose. The Bible had been interpreted in a manner that has minimized its social, economic, and political implications. We have created a personal God, who calls us to a personal faith and heals our personal wounds and answers are personal prayers and allows us to live our personal lives. The gospel has been reduced to a set of silly me and Jesus love songs that has stripped the message of its transforming power. As we consider this mornings Scripture, lets not try to make it say what we want it to say but let us allow the full gospel speak to our hearts.


The first story is about the deliverance of a little girl from demonic possession. The mother's non-Jewish character is stressed. She is from a region of land that lies along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It was included in the promise land to the nation of Israel but the nation was never able to conquer it. When the woman enters the house, she falls at his feet and begs. "Her prostration at Jesus feet was a mark of deep respect as well as of profound grief." She begs Jesus to deliver her little girl from a demon. His apparent refusal conveys an impression of harshness and insensitivity unless we try to understand his reasons. 

Miracle workers attracted large crowds wherever they went. Their supposed powers were based in superstition and magic. Jesus would have nothing to do with either. His miracles were to be displayed only in the context of faith so he puts the woman to a test by using the situation at hand. In the home of a Gentile, the meal would have been served on table that would have required the guests to either sit or recline on the floor. If Jesus and his disciples interrupted their meal, they would leave their food unattended and thereby allow the dogs to carry off the "children's bread. Jesus is, also, tired. He has come to the region of Tyre to escape the crowds. He sensed that his "children" or disciples need the rest. Why should he leave the food to the dogs when his disciples needed the nourishment?

The woman clearly understood his irony of comparison. She felt no insult; rather she neatly turned his words to her advantage. She carries his comparison one step farther: if the dogs eat the crumbs under the table, they are fed at the same time. Let the children eat but also allow the dogs to enjoy the crumbs. One author said this about her faith:

The irresistible confidence of the woman delighted him. Her interpretation of  his statement bore eloquent witness both to her humility and  her simple trust in his power to confront the demonic when all human help fails. This is the faith which is alone capable of receiving miracles.2

The second miracle also takes place in the land of the Gentiles but we do not know the nationality of the man who was both deaf and dumb. There were many Jews living in the region of the Decapolis, however, Mark clearly wants it known that the man is from the Ten Cities of the Gentiles and he is both deaf and dumb. The man was not born with this physical aliment. He lost both his speech and hearing later in life because he "could hardly talk." For the Jew the man was defective, physically and geographically. He lived on the wrong side of town. Why should God heal him?

Jesus takes the man aside. His is not healing the sick to mesmerize the crowds. His personal relationship with the sick held greater importance than the applause of the crowd. Through the use of touch and spittle he entered the visual world of the man who could not hear. He put his fingers into his ears and spittle on his tongue to make it clear to the man that Jesus wanted to make his ears open and his tongue alive with his own life. The healing was confirmed when the man spoke without defect. 


The nephew of Peter, John Mark, use miracle stories to accomplish several things. First, they demonstrate the power of God over power of evil to inspire people to faith. They also are used to call people to action. The miraculous events call us to a commitment as witnesses. They compel us to set aside our preconceived concepts about God, about themselves and about the people whose lives have been touched by God. Today's stories are record by Mark to tell us not only that God heals but also that God heals in a Gentile world. The Great Physician is also The Great Reconciler.

Time, geography, and cultural, have eroded the impact of these healing stories. However, they had a profound effect on their hearers. For a good Jew to hear the names of Tyre, Syria, Phoenicia, Sidon, and the Decapolis would have been as repugnant as a Ku Klux Klan, Grand Wizard hearing that his sister walked through NYC's Harlem, LA's Watts, Cleveland's Hough, or Boston's Roxbury districts during the early Sixties. The animosity felt by the Jews toward the Gentiles in the days of our Lord was as intense as the hatred shared by Serbian Christians and Bosnia Muslims. There was no middle ground. There were no affirmative action policies or equal employment opportunity laws. Discrimination was condoned as the proper response to people of other ethnic and racial ancestry. That is why Mark's stories would have shocked that ancient world. They are more than miracle stories. They are more than stories of how God heals. They are more than instructional methods on how we can manipulate God to answers are prayers. They are proclamations that the power of God is offered to every person regardless of their nationality and ethnic background. The house of God must be a house of prayer for all God's children and the body of Christ is whole only when its members.

On the cover of the September issue of Presbyterians Today, the question is asked, "Who me? Prejudiced?" While the problem of racism today is in some ways better than it was 30 years ago, Sara Lisherness, the director of Presbyterian Peacemaking Program says that "it is much more hidden and insidious." It will remain so until the Church is willing to see that all the gospel writers and Jesus himself took bold, assertive steps to overcome the barriers that their society had created.

Why did the gospel turn the ancient world upside down, because it crossed social and racial barriers. The rich and poor ate dinner with one another. The Jew and Gentile held hands and prayed for one another. The master and the slave shared with each other the gospel of love. The Church of the 1st Century knew no boundary lines of division. They had broken-down the walls that divide and separated them from one another and their God. They took and controversial gospel and changed the world.

1 Bill McCartney, Sold Out: Becoming Man Enough to Make a Difference, with David Halbrook, (Waco TX: Word, 1997) from an excerpt "The Coach's Burden," Christianity Today, May 18, 1998, Vol. 42, No. 6, 30.
2 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT eds. Ned B. Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce and Gordon D. Fee, (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1974)


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