The Smell of Grace
But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
September 3, 2015, Words By: Joel Van Dyke, Image By: "Sam" by Angelica (CC BY 2.0)
Spread out in front of José was the ragtag congregation of drug addicts and alcoholics to whom he had come to preach. The problem this particular morning was that as he settled in behind the pulpit, he was unable to speak. He stood there feeling helpless until one of the ladies in the front row came up asking him if he was okay. Then she turned and proclaimed to the people around her, “The preacher can’t talk. He needs us to pray for him!”
The folks got up off of their plastic stools and formed a circle around José. The smell of alcohol and body odor was so strong that José almost passed out. However, as the people began to take turns praying for him, José says, the bad stench turned to sweet aroma. The smell was overwhelming. It was like nothing he had ever smelled before or since. Recounting the incident to me later, he said, “I smelled grace that day, and it was magnificent.”
Our lectionary text this week begins with the statement, “Jesus left that place….” Could it be that the place he was leaving meant far more than a simple change in geography? In the earlier part of Mark 7, we saw Jesus having a heated argument with the Pharisees and scribes over their angst that Jesus didn’t make his disciples wash their hands before eating . Soon after, the disciples asked Jesus about the meaning of a parable and he responded, “Are you so dull?”
More than changing his physical location, it seems Jesus is trying to “leave” a stench of hypocrisy and dullness. He does not smell grace in the church leaders, nor in his own disciples. So he enters a house in the vicinity of Tyre, hoping to get a time of respite. However, a Syrophoenecian woman learns of Jesus’s proximity to her. She “falls at his feet” to ask for healing for her demon-possessed daughter.
The response from Jesus as she grovels at his feet is disorienting and aggravating: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
How can Jesus be so rude as to call this woman a dog? How does he have the nerve to do so publicly, in front of a listening crowd of bickering church leaders and dull disciples?
Could it be that Jesus decides to do so in order to confront those watching this interaction with the absurdity of hearing out loud what was swirling silently in their own heads? Could it be that Jesus makes his disorienting proclamation to her only after a wink of his eye that only the Syrophoenecian woman could have seen?
Instead of bitter defensiveness, her response according to the New American Standard Bible translation is simply, “Yes Lord, but…”
According to the religious tradition, she has no right to be in Jesus’s presence, let alone speak with him and even make a request of him. She is a Gentile, not a Jew. She is a pagan, not a God worshipper – and a woman, not a man. She knows she is on the wrong side of the tracks of every moral, gender, cultural, and racial boundary. She has none of the credentials necessary to approach a Rabbi. Yet she risks all anyway.
Yes Lord, what you say is true, but all my daughter needs is a crumb from your table. Contained in a crumb of your goodness there will be an overabundance of what my daughter needs. It is in front of your abundant goodness that I throw myself.
Does your life smell like the grace that wafts out from this kind of dependence on God’s abundance, or do you more resemble the Pharisees, dependent on rules that you’ve established from your own version of the gospel? Or perhaps you can relate to a “dullness” – has life just become a thoughtless, unexamined religious parade?
It took a rejected, marginalized Syrophoenecian woman to invite those around her to recalibrate their vision. Through her story we are exposed anew to the aroma of scandalous, abundant grace.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
P.S. For a deeper exploration, listen to Joel Van Dyke’s sermon on this passage.