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  • The Rev. Matt Welsch

Uncomfortable Grace

One afternoon, when I was about 6 years old, my parents left me and my older brother Peter home while they went and ran errands. My mom had made a chocolate cake that was going to be our dessert after dinner that night. I was about 6 years old and Peter, who is about 12 years older than I am, was babysitting me. Now, I don’t remember what I did, but I did something wrong. And Peter put me in time out. Time out is miserable. All I wanted was to go and play with my toys and read my books.

And so I asked Pete if I could leave time out. And he said: say you’re sorry. I said. “Fine. I’m sorry.” He asked, “What are you sorry for?

” I couldn’t come up with an answer. So Peter raised the stakes: “If you can’t say what you’re sorry for, you won’t be able to leave Time Out AND you won’t be able to have chocolate cake later.” I started to cry and said: “I’m sorry for chocolate cake!”

This morning, Jesus is a long way from home. Mark tells us that he’s outside the city of Tyre. If you don’t happen to be up on our ancient near eastern geography: Tyre is about 40 miles northwest of Nazareth and about 100 miles from Jerusalem. About the same distance as we are from Washington, DC. Now, obviously, driving from Towson to DC is the absolute worst, but it would have felt a lot farther by foot than it does by car.

Tyre and Nazareth couldn’t have been more different. Nazareth is a tiny, backwoods town in an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire. Tyre, on the other hand, was an ancient, wealthy city state. Tyre was a coastal city - an island with two large ports and high walls, situated in the Roman province of Phoenicia. It was a trading hub, located at the crossroads of several trading routes connecting places as far as Egypt, Persia and India with Rome. Tyre produced purple dye. Jewelry and pottery. It was a center of art and culture. The people of Tyre (assuming they were male and owned land) were granted Roman Citizenship.

Lots of wealth. Lots of Power.

The Phoenicians also had a long and bitter relationship with the Jewish people. They profited off of Rome’s subjugation of Judea. some scholars suggest that the people of Tyre often employed jewish migrants as household servants. And saw them as a second class people.

Tyre represents about as much wealth and privilege as you could get in the ancient near east at the time of Jesus. And so here is Jesus, the itinerant, backwoods Rabbi with his band of fishermen, tax collectors, sex workers, and political activists. And he is very much out of place.

And that’s when a woman approaches him.

Mark makes a point of telling us she’s greek - a gentile. More specifically, he adds that she’s “of Syrophoenician origin.” In other words: she’s from there. She belongs in this society of wealth and power.

It suggests that, whether she was an active participant, she has benefitted from the Phoenician economic system - which includes the suppression of Jesus’ people. So she’s the last person you’d expect to approach Jesus. And she’s the last person the disciples would expect Jesus to help. When this story is told in the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples actually try to intervene. They beg Jesus to tell her to leave them alone. She offends them.

But this woman is desperate. Her daughter needs Jesus’s help and the woman begs Jesus to heal her. We can imagine that Jesus isn’t the first wandering healer she’s asked for help.

By this point in the Gospel of Mark, we’ve heard healing stories enough times that we think we know what will happen next: Jesus will show compassion to the woman and declare her daughter to be healed. He’ll tell her not to say anything about it to anyone, and she’ll go around telling everyone she sees. But not this time.

This time, Jesus says no.

And it’s a definitive no. He actually takes it a step further. He insults her, calling her a dog unworthy of God’s grace.

No doubt, she’s taken aback. Probably expected him to see her clothes and her apparent wealth and simply do as she asked. Perhaps she’s never heard the word “no” before. But something about Jesus’ no forces her to realize her deep, desperate need for salvation. She yearns for the healing power of Jesus.

Her, response is truly remarkable: this wealthy, privileged woman hears Jesus’ rebuke and says: “yes, you’re right. I don’t deserve God’s grace and yet…”

Jesus forces her to come to terms with her privilege and her power and humble herself. To acknowledge her limits. This shift is what saves her.

Even though this story ends with the woman’s daughter being made well, this story makes me very uncomfortable. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that we, like this woman, come to Jesus wanting what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” We want salvation, love, healing, wholeness. But we want it without having to reckon with our own need for forgiveness. We want chocolate cake without being willing - or perhaps even able - to think about what we’d done wrong in the first place.

But Jesus doesn’t offer cheap grace. He offers, what bonhoeffer calls Costly grace. “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”

Grace is serious business. Grace is hard. And so, when Jesus says no to this Syrophoenician woman, it makes us wonder - even if just for a split second - whether he might say no to us as well.

The second reason this passage makes us uncomfortable is that, no matter his intentions, Jesus’ “no” feels so out of character. It’s so harsh, so definitive. Even though the story ultimately has a happy ending - the woman’s daughter is healed - Jesus’ initial “no” lingers. We expect Jesus to be the open-hearted Son of God, willingly offering love and mercy to everyone he meets.

We expect him to say “yes.”

Just last week, Arianne spoke about Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees in which he said that, by clinging to their traditions they failed to acknowledge the humanity of the people around them. And now, the very next story in the Gospel of Mark has Jesus doing the exact opposite.

Why? Because Jesus is an excellent teacher.

At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been preaching the Good News for some time. And still his disciples don’t get it. Still the Pharisees don’t understand. “Don’t you see?” he seems to ask again and again.

Jesus’ no is an intentional teaching moment. By saying no to the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus forces her - and us - to reckon with the ways we say no to the people around us every day. To acknowledge, as the confession from enriching our worship puts it: the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. It’s a counter example. Jesus has been teaching again and again - that Grace is offered freely to all. That, as James so bracingly puts it: God shows no partiality. And we just don’t get it.

One evening in December 2011, I was walking to the Yale library in downtown New Haven to pick up books for a paper that may or may not have been due the following morning. As I walked down York street, I passed a homeless woman standing on the corner, bundled in a coat and holding out a cup for money. Everything about her made me deeply uncomfortable. I stepped around her and kept making my way toward the library. But then I thought about how cold it was, and how dark it already was. And about how I was a seminarian and I should know better.

So I turned back and walked up to her. I asked if she’d like me to grab her something to eat. She said yes and asked if I’d buy her something from a carryout restaurant a few blocks away. As we were walking, I introduced myself and she introduced herself as Erica and we made small talk about the cold and the holidays and the like. It was pleasant conversation, but I was anxious to get to the library and get to work on that paper. When we got to the restaurant, I let her order and went to hand the cashier my card.

She looked me in the eye and said “Oh, you’re not going to eat with me?”

I was in a rush and was profoundly uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel like I could say no to that.

I ordered food and we sat and ate and talked. We had a nice conversation.

At the end of our meal, I thanked her for inviting me to eat with her and she said “Do you know the hardest part of being on the street? People ignore you. It’s like you’re not even there.”

When Jesus says no to the Syrophoenician woman, it makes us uncomfortable.

Jesus never promised to make us comfortable. The opposite, actually. “I come not to bring peace but a sword...Take up your cross and follow me...Blessed are you when you are persecuted because of me.” Discipleship is a costly, challenging, often deeply uncomfortable thing. Grace is free, but it doesn’t always feel good.

In order to accept God’s grace we need to acknowledge our own limits, our failings, our sins. And none of us want to do that. Obtaining grace is simple: we have to seriously recognize how deeply we need it. Jesus expects us to acknowledge our deep need of God’s costly grace. To confess, to return to God and let God’s grace transform us. And then, Jesus says we have to turn around and extend God’s love and grace to others - even and especially those people we’d rather not spend time with.

It isn’t easy to look seriously at our limits, our failings. But by doing so we see the truth: That God is God and we are not. And that God loves us - all of us - with a deep and abiding love that cannot be shaken. And this Truth, Jesus says, will set us free.

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