Pentecost 15 2021 Year B Mark 7:24-37 “DOES GOD CHANGE HIS MIND?”
It only seems like yesterday but in 1972 the Rt. Hon Arthur Calwell MP, and one time leader of the Australian Labor Party retired from Parliament. In that year he published his memoirs and in them he made this remarkable comment.
I quote; “I am proud of my white skin, just as a Chinese is proud of his yellow skin, a Japanese of his brown skin, and the Indians of their various hues from black to coffee-coloured. Anybody who is not proud of his race is not a man at all. And any man who tries to stigmatise the Australian community as racist because they want to preserve this country for the white race is doing our nation great harm… I reject, in conscience, the idea that Australia should or ever can become a multi-racial society and survive”.
Arthur Calwell always maintained that he held no personal prejudice against people of other races, he simply believed that they should be allowed to exist in separation.
I am truly blessed to be in a family which is multi-racial; my son-in-law an architect in Brisbane is Sri Lankan – his skin colour makes many of our indigenous look positively anemic.
My gorgeous daughter-in-law is Japanese and she and our son Jacob (Emily) live in the mono-cultural city of Rockhampton.
The reality is that the world is not black and white. I think that it is reasonably to argue that the world is probably more brown – than it is black and white.
If I were truthful, and if you were truthful then we would admit that since our childhood we have all had a considerable shift in our thinking regarding racial equality.
So popular was the white Australia policy of Arthur Calwell that in the 1961 Federal elections he lost by only 2 seats and fell short of being an Australian Prime Minister.
The vast majority of Australians have of course had a change of mind and a quantum shift in their thinking regarding issues of race and equality.
There is a theology which says that God is not like us and is incapable of changing his mind. It is a bit like the story of the Pope who once believed that he was fallible and then he realized that he was wrong!
There are as many instance in the Old Testament of God’s unchanging mind as there are scriptural references to God “repenting” or changing his mind.
The gospel reading for today illustrates that God is capable of changing his thoughts and plans.
John Gill a 17th C. Baptist Pastor, scholar and early “Expositor of the Bible” argued that God never changes his mind or alters his purposes, “though he sometimes changes the course and dispensations of his providence.”
You can’t have it two ways! This is a case of John Gill wanting to have his cake and eat it!
The Syrophoenician woman (a woman from Syria) approached Jesus and in so doing she broke every traditional and cultural barrier according to the conventions of the day.
She was a Gentile, from the region of Syria, and the implication of this, was that she was regarded as impure.
She is a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative, and she initiates a conversation with a strange man — this was Taliban stuff – this was taboo within the culture.
Added to this, was that her daughter was possessed by a demon. And although we are not told exactly how the demon affected her daughter, it was a given that you avoided such encounters with the demonic or anything to do with them.
However you look at it, this woman was “persona-non grata” unacceptable and unwelcome – an outsider. And yet this bold, outspoken woman falls at the feet of Jesus and begs him to heal her daughter of her dis-ease and her demons.
And what does Jesus say – how does he receive her?
It may come as a rather shocking and disturbing revelation that Jesus was right up there with Arthur Calwell, he says, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).
In the context of the day everyone would have understood that “children” referred to the children of Israel.
In the context of the day everyone would have understood that “dogs” referred to the gentiles – the non-Jew.
It doesn’t matter how you go about “sugar coating” this statement from Jesus – in the context of our day what Jesus said to the woman was racist and unacceptable.
Some Biblical scholar have tried to save face and defend this statement by saying that Jesus used the diminutive and gentler form of the noun for dogs. (Κυναρίοις /kynaroios)
They maintain that Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the little puppy dogs”. It is a very long bow to draw! Because in any language a dog is a dog, is a dog!
It doesn’t matter how you try to dress it up, his words to the woman were intentional and smacked of a racial slur.
Other Biblical interpreters have attempted to make excuses for Jesus and have suggested that he was simply goading the woman in an effort to test the strength of her faith.
The audience of St Mark the gospel writer was predominantly Jewish however there would have also been a significant proportion of gentile listeners, or dogs!
And I think that St Mark deliberately includes this story for the benefit of his gentile listeners.
The reality is that you and I, and our nation, since the 1970’s have had a quantum shift regarding the one-time acceptable ideology of a white Australia policy.
We no longer embrace this ideology. We no longer accept this type of thinking. It is simply unacceptable and racist.
I spoke in the beginning of this homily of the theology which says that God is incapable of changing his mind.
This passage of scripture, this story of the Syrophenician woman, is an example that God can and does change his mind.
The mission of Christ was initially to the Jewish nation, to the “Children of Israel” and in this story we have a turning point where Jesus realizes that the “dogs” are more receptive to the gospel than the spoilt Children of Israel.
We find this change, this shift in thinking in the mind of God, in other places in the NT.
In the gospels of Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-39 we have a shift in the thinking of Jesus where he realizes that you can’t put “new wine” – new teaching into old wineskins. No! New wine – new wineskins.
We read at the end of the story of the Syrophonecian woman where Jesus praises the woman’s faith, and ultimately her daughter is healed of her dis-ease.
Every congregation, every community, every nation needs a Syrophonecian woman sitting in the pew who can stubbornly, doggedly, relentlessly, faithfully and “rudely” work on us to change our entrenched ideologies and our bigoted, inappropriate and unacceptable thinking.
And if it is possible for Jesus to change his mind, his direction, his mission, his purpose – then there is probably no good reason why we can’t also have a change in our thinking.
It is not too late, and especially so if our thinking is remotely racist, overly nationalistic, discriminatory or xenophobic.
When it comes to discrimination and xenophobia, just remember, that every community is likely to have someone sitting in their midst who will say, “Please explain!” AMEN