Jesus’ Broken Commandment
Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, July 2020
Jesus Christ is not his first and last name. Instead, affirming him as both Son of God and Son of Man simultaneously, he is a comingling of divinity and humanity. But when it comes to Christology, or the study of Christ, the Church’s scholarship has focused almost entirely on the miraculous healings, the clairvoyant insight, the supernatural powers, the otherworldliness.
Mark, surprisingly, the gospel account closest to the life of Mary and Joseph’s son and accepted as the most authentic, has a decidedly low Christology. The author records an emotional Jesus, a man who raises his voice in anger and rolls his eyes at the disciples, who screams at the storm and weeps on the cross, who puts his robe on like the rest of us. And in today’s text, Jesus is having a very human moment.
Taking seriously the fullness of his humanity and all the shortcomings that come along with inhabiting skin, what does Jesus here get wrong?
Mark 7:24-37 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
He contradicted every previous ethic.
He slanders a woman already slandered by society.
He doesn’t realize he’s tired.
In seminary, I began seeing a spiritual director. Bobbi was one of the first women ordained as an Episcopal priest, serving faithfully in the church and classroom. During our holy time together, we would walk with intention, or study a sacred text, or pray, occasionally using words. As our soul sharing deepened, I came to rely on her wisdom and trust her guidance as Spirit-led. As graduation neared, I asked about the habits that kept her so alive and curious after 35 years of service. As clergy, we’re taught, I remember her saying, that Jesus is the exemplar, the Alpha and Omega of our actions, the only way. He spilled out his life and broke his body for everyone else; he abstained from his desires and abandoned his own needs; he spilled his young life as a selfless martyr for a selfish world on Golgotha. And so should we. But he died shortly after his Messiahship went public and only ended up lasting 36 months in full time ministry. 3 years, and out. If you’re planning to sustain God’s calling from now until retirement, 40 plus years, then consider not always doing what Jesus did.
Mark’s Gospel has no birth narrative. Jesus isn’t afforded the slow time to grow into his calling or develop any healthy habits. Instead, as an adult, after being thrust into the wilderness of starvation, he’s baptized into ministry among the suffering masses before he’s even had time to fill his belly or towel off his face. Already on to the next thing, he heals a mother-in-law, rebukes an unclean spirit, cleanses the leper, restores a withered hand, resuscitates a girl, stops a woman’s hemorrhage, casts out many demons, and then feeds 5000. But the crowds don’t just keep coming, they increase in size and desperation making ministry, even for the Son of God, an overwhelming crush of needs that never get met.
Through the first seven chapters in Mark, Jesus pauses exactly once, to kneel in prayer before preaching tour in Galilee pulls him away. Although he periodically tried to escape for retreat, his attempts were always thwarted. Able to harness the power of God for the good of everyone else, he remained powerless to clear his own calendar.
What Jesus gets wrong is his unwillingness or inability to take a break. To practice God’s most ignored commandment, embracing a weekly Sabbath. Without regular days apart, he turns the Syrophoenician woman from a sacred subject into a dismissible object, from child of God to canine.
Saving the world is exhausting, and when Jesus and his followers refuse to rest, our behaviors quickly become unbecoming. Preaching fairness instead of grace, shrinking the Table instead of adding chairs, and insulting the very people we’re called to champion, forgetting that being a caregiver always comes with a cost. Compassion fatigue is real, and the only faithful response is often to do less. As Karl Barth reminds, “A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity.”
Internalizing that liberation begins with the embrace of limitation is vexing enough. But during a pandemic, its required learning. Over the past five months, through flat stares, slouched shoulders, labored exhales, dimmed spirits, and quiet asides, many of you have repeated: “I’m tired.” Tired of living in a threat response, scanning the environment for a viral enemy silently encroaching; tired of the hypervigilance, red alert reminders to wear masks and wash hands; tired of mandated precautions to shelter in place without a permanent address to shelter in; tired of interrupting our most basic instinct, to move towards one another in intimate relationship.
As we contend with our capacities, I encourage you to engage in the spiritual discipline of saying, “I’m not available right now,” because sometimes “no” can be the holiest and most life-sustaining word we utter. There are plenty of Christians worshipping the perfection of Christ for one hour a week. But if you want to follow Jesus through COVID and beyond, then let us learn from his mistake, and clock out to take the weekend off.