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Words To Love By

Mark 7:24-30

If it can be said that a man reveals his true character in the way he relates to women, then the Gospels throw a magnificent floodlight on the character of Jesus. He encountered a number of women during his earthly ministry–and His conduct toward them is all the more remarkable when you recall that women in the First Century world were kept in a state of subservience and inferiority. The Romans treated women as slaves or playthings. The Greeks refused to consider women as being the intellectual equal of any man. Even the Hebrews regarded women’s value as being functional and supportive.

But along came Jesus Christ to change all of that. In fact, He changed it so dramatically that the world is still trying to digest its effects. You see, Jesus as no one before Him or after Him, invested womanhood with an exalted honor and motherhood with an infinite sacredness. Jesus displayed a gallant courtesy toward women of all races and ranks, of all classes and creeds. He demonstrated a noble chivalry and such a lack of chauvinism that He has been rightly dubbed “the greatest gentleman of the ages.”

That’s the Jesus we see in His crucial encounter with a woman recorded for us in Mark 7. This Greek mother comes to Jesus for help. Her daughter is ill, desperately ill, and she has heard of Jesus’ power to heal. So as a loving and concerned parent, she comes to Jesus, kneels before Him and asks Him to heal her child. We see in her the love any mother, every mother, ought to have for a child.

But here is where the story gets tricky, so stay with me. Tune in a bit more closely, listen a little more intently. You see there is a baffling dimension to this story and I think the confusion resides in the fact that we cannot hear Jesus’ tone of voice. When we look at the words in stark black and white on the page, it seems at first blush that Jesus with a cold and uncaring heart was harshly rejecting this woman’s appeal for her daughter. The Greek mother came begging for His help and what does He say? He says: “Let the children first be fed for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

What in the world does that mean? Well the word “children”, of course, refers to the children of Israel, to the Hebrew people, and the word “dogs” refers to the Gentiles. We remember from our study of the Scriptures that the Jews regarded the Gentiles as unclean people. One of the terms of contempt, one of the racial epithets they used for the Gentiles was the word “dogs”, meaning the wild, scruffy dogs of the street, the mangy strays who roamed the gutters and alleys and the garbage dumps, living off what they could scrounge from people’s refuse, the mutts who would just as soon bite you as look at you.

Yet what is so wonderfully fascinating about this story in Mark is that in the original Greek language, Jesus did not use that insulting, degrading word for “dogs”. Rather He replaced that word with a diminutive word which described not the filthy dogs of the street but the little pet dogs of the house, the family’s cute little puppies. In the Greek language, diminutives are always terms of affection and endearment. Therefore, by choosing the word He used, Jesus took the sting out of the word “dogs”—and when He did, this Greek mother realized immediately that she was with a friend.

Now the Greeks of that day and age had a gift for conversation. They had a love for verbal banter, for discussion, repartee’, debate, mental sparring and jousting. Consequently, this woman sensed at once in Jesus’ tone and in His words that He was speaking with a smile, that He was engaging her in warm and friendly dialogue, and that the help she desired was on the way. Not only that—and this is so important–but Jesus was treating this woman with a respect never given to women in those days. Back then remember, men never discussed substantive matters with women. Women were regarded as mindless beings, as objects to be used (or even abused), as chattel to be owned. But here is Jesus honoring this woman, exalting her to a level women never enjoyed, by including her in a significant, philosophical and religious discussion. Those who were a party to this incident would have been stunned into speechlessness by what Jesus did and by the way he conversed with this woman.

The message of the incident is quite clear. Jesus is declaring here that women are always to be held on the same plane as men—and that there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is revealing Himself to be not just the Jewish Messiah, but the Lord of all life, the Christ for all people, the Savior of the whole world. The Gentiles are included. They, too, have a place in His Kingdom. That was a revolutionary message then. It still is. Jesus came not just for some people, but for all.

Now as Mark tells the tale, when this Greek mother realizes that Jesus is befriending her, and she skillfully rises to the occasion with a brilliant response. She says: “Lord, I know that the children are fed first, but surely I can have the crumbs which are swept away after the children have eaten.” Jesus loved her response. He loved her spirit. My guess is that when she said that, Jesus threw His head back and bellowed with great laughter, for this woman possessed a sunny faith which would not quit, a persistent faith which would never take “no” for an answer, an indomitable faith which could not be squelched. Here was a mother with a sick child at home, who was willing to go way out on a limb for the sake of her little one. When tested, she responded with grace and grit, with charm and courage. I believe Jesus loved her boldness of spirit and her commitment to her child. So He said to her—and I believe a bright smile split His face—, He said to her: “You have answered well. Now go your way—your daughter has been made whole.” Jesus was as good as His word. Her daughter was completely healed.

What a fascinating and multifaceted story! We could easily go chasing off in a half dozen directions in trying to analyze it. But I don’t want to do that. I want instead to invite you to do nothing more than to look for a moment or two at the poignant portrait of love which is painted for us here. For I believe that in this Greek mother’s encounter with Jesus, we see the most important ways to express love.

We express love with our words.

This woman came to Jesus that day to express in words her love for her sick child—and she wound up also expressing in words her love for Jesus. Please don’t miss this. In the whole Gospel of Mark, she is the only person who lovingly called Jesus, “Lord”.

You would think it would be easy to express our love with words, but the reality is that precious few people do it well. Why is that true? Why do we seem to have so much trouble speaking the words of love? If only we realized how powerful those words can be, perhaps we would work harder at the task. Some years ago now, an elderly woman was dying in one of our hospitals here. She was in her mid-eighties. Her son flew in to be with her. I happened to be present in the hospital room when the son arrived. He entered the room, walked over to the bedside of his aged and dying mother, leaned over and tenderly kissed her on the cheek. Then touched by that moment of seeing her so weak and so vulnerable, he said to her, “Mom, you’ve been such a great mother to me. I want you to know that I love you.” The woman’s eyes welled up with tears and she said–I found it hard to believe then; I find it hard to believe still— “Son, that’s the first time you’ve ever told me. Last Friday was your 63rd birthday, and that’s the first time you ever told me you loved me.” How sad. It took him 63 years to say “I love you” to his mother.

Let me ask you something. Is there some word of love you need to speak today? Those of you fortunate enough to still have your parents, how long has it been since you told your mom or your dad that you love them and appreciate them? How long has it been since you told your mate “I love you”? I don’t mean quick, routine, matter-of-fact, spit-the-words-out “I love you”, but a genuine heart-to-heart expression of your feeling in words. And parents, how about you? How long has it been since you told your children how proud you are of them, and how much you cherish them? A suggestion. This coming week each day, write down the words you say to your children and ask them how many of those words are words of love and encouragement and appreciation and how many are words of correction or reproof or reprimand. I know as parents, sometimes we have to be referees–and that can be a loving thing to do—but we also need to be cheerleaders. We need to be saying to our children “I love you”—and we need to be saying it often. One of the best ways to express our love is with words.

And we express love with our attitude.

One of the things about this Greek woman that impressed Jesus so much was her splendid attitude. She was committed to her child—and she was willing to do whatever was necessary to get help for her sick daughter. She was possessed of a warm spirit which would not surrender to discouragement. She was bold, persistent, and courageous because she lived by the attitude of love.

Some years ago in a mining town of West Virginia, a seventeen-year-old boy took a summer job in the coal mines. It sounded like an adventuresome and macho thing to do. Besides, it paid well. However, the second week on the job, he got lost deep down in the mines. He had been working with a group of veteran miners. They warned him to be careful, to stay close to the group as it would be easy to get lost down there in the numerous caves and treacherous passageways in the mine. But he was seventeen, free-spirited, full of life’s vim and vigor, and not particularly responsive to the authority of those who were older. One day, without thinking, he wandered away from the work team. Before he realized it, he became lost, completely lost. He screamed for help, but the other miners had moved on to another vein and could not hear him. Then the light on his helmet flickered out. He was plunged into total darkness. He was terrified. He began to cry. He thought to himself: “I’m going to die.” At that point, in desperation, he dropped down on his knees to pray: “Oh God, help me, please, help me.” Then he noticed something. As he was kneeling to pray, he felt his right knee touching something hard. It dawned on him that it was the track for the mine car. Suddenly he realized that if he kept his hand on that track and followed it, eventually it would lead him out. That’s what he did. Crawling on all fours with one hand grasping the track, he followed the track out of the dark depths of the mine to light and safety.

That’s a parable for us, don’t you think? If we will hold onto the track of love and follow wherever it leads—if we will make love the dominant attitude in our lives, then no matter how dark some moments may be, the love track will bring us to the light. It’s a truism that happens to be true! Love is the answer. So we do well in life to hold onto that track, to live by that attitude. As Christians, that is our calling. So we express our love with our words and with attitude.

Then we express our love with our actions.

This Greek mother in Mark 7 put her love to work. She put it to action. She expressed her love not just by saying something but by doing something. Love transformed her behavior.

There is a distinguished professor at one of the great universities in Southern California. His name is Floyd Baker. He teaches physics, a difficult subject, and he teaches some of the most difficult courses within that subject. He always used to begin his classes in the same way. He would say: “This is Physics # so and so. Understand that you will not be able to go on to any additional physics classes unless you pass this one. Understand also that I am the only one who teaches this course, so don’t think that you can switch to some other professor who will let you off easy. Understand further that the material in this course is extremely difficult and you are going to have to study and study and study and even then 50 % of you will fail.” That’s the way he began his classes. He had a remarkable record as a prophet. About 50% of the people in every class failed.

Then something happened to Floyd Baker. He met the Lord Jesus Christ. And he discovered that when Jesus approached people, he approached them with love. Floyd Baker focused his study especially on I Corinthians 13, the great love chapter, the chapter which speaks so clearly about what it means to put love into action. And as a result, Floyd Baker changed his whole approach to his life, and even to his classes. Now on the first day of class he says to his students: “Well, we’re going to have a wonderful experience in this class. It won’t be easy—a lot of material has to be covered and mastered. But I have been teaching this course for long enough so that I am confident that I can get the information across to you. You will need to work hard, but if you do, then you and I together will master this material—and we’ll have a good time together along the way.” That’s the way he begins his classes now. And do you know what has happened? Funny thing. Without changing his teaching methods or his grading procedures in any way, the percentage of passing students in his classes has jumped from 50% to 96%! And all he is doing is putting the love he found in Jesus Christ into action every day in his classroom. That’s what happens when we put love into action into our lives. It changes us, it changes other people, it could even change the world.

Well,

Today we’ve been talking about Jesus and women and mothers. But let me end with this little story about men. It ought to be good for at least a laugh. A little boy said one day, “Mama, don’t men ever go to heaven?” And his mother replied, “Well, of course they do, Son. Why in the world do you ask?” The little boy said: “Because I’ve never seen any pictures of angels with whiskers on their faces.” And the mother who was very quick-witted, immediately responded: “Well, Son, I’ll tell you why that is. It is because most men who go to heaven only get there by a close shave!”

Of course, the fact is all of us get there by a close shave. We don’t deserve it. We don’t earn it. We don’t get there by virtue of our own efforts, our own work, our own goodness. We get there entirely and exclusively by the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ. You know it’s been said that the closest parallel to the love of God we can find on this earth is the love of a mother for a child. I think that’s true. And it is that kind of love we see in this Greek mother who one day came to Jesus and found in Him both love and life.

We can do the same.

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