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Handling Interruptions

Have you ever wanted just to get away from it all?  When I was in college I went through a very difficult time where I was trying to go to school full time and work full time.  I quickly got burnt out.  One day I decided to put down everything I was doing and travel up the California coast. I took some money out of the bank, a change of clothes, borrowed a friend’s tent and camped along the way. No sooner had I reached my destination of Big Sur then I realized I was ready to go back home, face and deal with my problems one by one.

Last Sunday we read about Jesus’ continuing battle with the Pharisees.  This time the point of contention was hand-washing. We get the sense in our passage for today that Jesus was growing weary in battle. He wanted to get away from it all and just have a break. On this occasion, for his break Jesus went clear outside the boundaries of Israel, into the region of Tyre and Sidon. This region represented an ancient enemy of Israel (Jeremiah 47:4; Joel 3:4; Matthew 11:21).

Let’s read Mark 7:24-30 and see what the Lord would say to us about “getting away from it all”. Listen for God’s word to you….

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.[a] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir,[b] even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
How do you handle interruptions? Sometimes I don’t handle interruptions very well at all. By contrast, C. S. Lewis once wrote:

. . . our imitation of God in this life . . . must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions.” (The Four Loves, p. 17.) 

On this occasion, we see Jesus’ “vacation” interrupted by a Gentile woman begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter.

In Matthew’s Gospel, this woman calls Jesus “Lord”. That could have been just a polite address, like “Sir”. But given the context, the title probably means more than that.

In Matthew, the woman also calls Jesus “Son of David”.  This was a messianic title. Even though the woman is a Syrophoenician, and therefore a Gentile, she recognizes Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Matthew doesn’t tell us how she came to know this, but she did.

This little story should remind us that no one is beyond the reach of the grace of God. I imagine there are many people in this world that would surprise us if they became believers in Jesus as their Messiah. But we shouldn’t be surprised by the grace of God and the power of God in operation. After all, if God can save us, why can’t he save everyone?

This woman’s request is simple; she wants mercy, the mercy of healing for her daughter. We have seen Jesus heal many people throughout Mark’s Gospel. But on this occasion Jesus responds to this woman’s request, at first, with a seemingly harsh retort: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

Jesus’ response to this woman certainly makes us pause and wonder: what is going on here?  As Tom Wright has written:

One of the great moral and cultural issues of the last hundred years has been racial identity. The world was horrified to learn that the German Nazis had killed six million people whose only crime was to be Jews. The world was then increasingly horrified to watch as the apartheid system in South Africa discriminated in hundreds of ways against most of the population simply because of the colour of their skin.  Eventually, through much hard work, change came….

So, when we read this story in our own setting, we may find it quite shocking. It looks as though Jesus, to begin with, is refusing to help someone in need just because she’s from the wrong race. We wouldn’t think much of a doctor or nurse who refused to treat a patient because they weren’t from the right family background, or weren’t the right colour. It seems very strange. What’s going on?
Well, for one thing, the proverb that Jesus repeats was common among the Jews. And this woman must have heard it before. Granted, the proverb refers to Gentiles as dogs and the Jews as children. But it is probably not quite as harsh as it sounds. The dogs in the proverb are household pets, little puppies. 

Furthermore, this woman is not deterred by the proverb. She answers Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

Then Jesus responds, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 

It would appear that Jesus is using this dismissive proverb to test the woman’s faith. 

John Ortberg explains:
Deliberately induced frustration in the hands of a master teacher is a powerful learning tool. Master teachers are always testing and probing to help their students see where they are on the learning curve. This passage is about the master teacher. Ken Bailey, who has written insightfully on this encounter, notes that to grasp the point of this passage, you have to see that Jesus is giving a test for two different sets of people. But tests are not always pleasant to the ones who are being tested.
John Ortberg goes on to share this story about testing….
My favorite story is about a guy taking a class in ornithology, the study of birds. The teacher has a reputation for being extremely difficult, so this guy studies his brains out for the final. He goes to class feeling prepared, but instead of having a normal test, there are 25 pictures on the wall of birds’ feet. He is supposed to identify the birds by their feet. The guy goes nuts, and says to the teacher, “This is crazy. Nobody could take this test.” The teacher says, “Nevertheless, you have to take it.” The kid says, “I’m not going to take it.” The teacher says, “You have to take it, or you fail.” The kid says, “Go ahead and fail me. I’m not going to take this test.” The teacher says, “All right. That’s it. You’ve failed. Tell me your name.” The kid rolls his pants up to his knees and says, “You tell me.”
Some tests are irritating; some have a point. Jesus teaches his disciples and the Canaanite woman by testing them and his tests have a point.
The test for Jesus’ disciples is: “Do you realize how much I love everyone?” In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples fail this test.  They want to get rid of this woman and they think Jesus does too.  Later, in Mark’s Gospel, we will see the disciples failing the same test once again. They shoo away the little children whom Jesus longs to have come to him.

The test for this woman is: to what lengths will she go to demonstrate her faith? Unlike the disciples, this woman clearly passes the test. She is not deterred by the proverb. Rather, she picks up the same image and uses it in a clever way, in effect to say to Jesus: “If the puppies can eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table then certainly you can do this healing for my daughter.”

Jesus is overcome by the woman’s answer. In Matthew’s Gospel, he comments on her great faith. He tells the woman her request is granted and when she arrives home she finds her daughter is healed.

We have read about so many healings in Mark’s Gospel it is easy to pass over this one as just one more healing story. But we mustn’t do that. Do we really believe that Jesus has the power to heal? Do we really believe that Jesus continues to heal today? Jesus’ power to heal is no less available today than it was for the Syrophoenician woman 2000 years ago.

However, this story, at its heart, poses a different question for us to answer: to whom are we reluctant to reach out? Is it the poor or the rich? Is it our African-American neighbor? Is it new people in the community or maybe un-churched people? We all have people we are reluctant to reach out to in Jesus’ name.

Normally, first century Jews would not have had anything to do with a woman like this. But Jesus breaks down that barrier.

I believe Jesus wants us to break down barriers between ourselves and other people. At first sight it seems like Jesus is reluctant to reach out to this woman. But beyond Jesus’ seemingly gruff exterior in this case we see the same heart of caring we have witnessed throughout Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’ seeming reluctance is merely a test of the Syrophoenician woman’s faith.

The question is: are we willing to reach out in love to others, especially those who are different from us, and especially when they pose an interruption to the way we want to live our lives at that moment?

C. S. Lewis once wrote to a friend….

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight: but it’s hard to remember it all the time.

C. S. Lewis’s step-son, Douglas Gresham, once told me that Lewis really had learned this lesson. By the time Doug came along, Lewis never complained about being interrupted in his work. He was always willing to set down whatever he was doing to help someone else who needed him.

If we Christians could learn to live in the same way, perhaps the whole world would be drawn into the love of Christ in a relatively brief time. Perhaps the number one lesson we can learn from this snapshot of Jesus’ life is the importance of the willingness to be interrupted. Maybe what the Lord wants from us is not so much to reach out to the person across town or around the world, but to simply make time for every person he brings across our path every day. And to do that, as we saw last week, we need Jesus to change us, to change our desires, priorities and attitudes, from the inside-out.


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