I am fascinated by macro photography. Now I’m not a photographer, so I’m not even sure that’s the correct name for what I’m talking about. What I mean is that I am captivated by very close-up photographs of small items – or of small parts of larger items. Like when you see a photo of the very center of a flower, with a magnified view of the pistil and stamens. A couple of years ago, I bought a cheap macro lens that clips onto my phone so I could take my own close-up shots. I used it for the first time at the beach, taking pictures of bits of seashells and sand, and I was amazed to be able to see each grain of sand individually. Then I brought it home, and spent an afternoon taking pictures of flower centers in the garden. It was fun – and awesome to see the details of God’s handiwork. Now once you get the idea of what the center of a flower looks like, you can generally tell that’s what it is right away. But with other objects, when the camera zooms in on some small detail of a larger item, it can be very difficult to tell what you’re looking at. The detail you see makes no sense until you see the bigger picture. I came across an online quiz that I am sharing with you by email later this morning so that you can take a crack at identifying close-up details of everyday items. It’s harder than you might think.
When we read this morning’s Gospel text, it’s almost impossible, I think, not to zoom in on one detail of the text – and the reason we zoom in on this one detail is because it’s so troubling. Shocking, really. It’s the detail of what Jesus says to the Syrophoenician woman when she begs him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Let that sink in for a moment. Let the children (meaning the children of Israel) be fed first rather than taking what rightly belongs to them and tossing it to the dogs (meaning the Gentiles). That’s right, Jesus turns the woman away and calls her a dog. Some interpreters over the years have tried to argue that the word here used for dog means “little puppy,” and that Jesus is using a term of endearment, but you don’t have to be a biblical scholar to see that that explanation doesn’t really work. To call a Gentile a dog was a racial-ethnic slur, and it’s hard to understand how those words could have come from our Savior’s lips. When we zoom in on that detail of the story, well, honestly, I don’t know what to do with it.
I don’t know what to do with it, that is, until I look at the bigger picture. Let’s take off the macro lens and look at the bigger picture by examining the rest of the story. While it’s hard to understand how Jesus could have made such a seemingly offensive remark, it’s important to note that he changes ends up in a different place than he started. The woman persists in asking Jesus for help, respectfully but tenaciously arguing that even dogs get the crumbs under the table. And Jesus seems to change his mind because he sends the woman home where she finds that he has healed her daughter. Now I recognize that the idea that Jesus could change his mind might be a difficult one since we believe that Jesus is God and that God is unchanging. But this idea is not without precedent. Abraham changed God’s mind about destroying the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses changed God’s mind about wiping out the Hebrew children after they had built and worshiped the golden calf. Could not this woman have changed Jesus’ mind about healing and saving the Gentiles? If you believe, as I do, in a God whose mercy and love is ever-expanding, doesn’t that make sense?
But let’s pull back further to look at the even bigger picture by looking at the entire context of Mark chapter 7. We read the beginning of chapter 7 last week, where you may remember Jesus criticizing the Pharisees and scribes for being overly concerned about purity – about following the traditions of the elders, especially with regard to customs of ritual washing and keeping kosher. Jesus’ response was that nothing entering the body could defile a person. By declaring all foods clean, Jesus removed a major barrier that, in the eyes of the Jewish religious leaders, had relegated the Gentiles to a lower (even despised) status. And then as if to illustrate that point that God’s mercy and love extends to everyone, Jesus journeys to the Gentile city of Tyre, where he met the Syrophoenician woman, through Sidon (another Gentile region), and to the region of the Decapolis (yet another Gentile area), where he heals the deaf man with the speech impediment. If Jesus really had a problem with the Gentiles, he wouldn’t have gone there in the first place! Which makes me wonder if he called the woman a dog as a teachable moment, to set her up for her excellent argument that God’s salvation is for all people.
I don’t know if Jesus engineered the whole conversation with the Syrophoenician woman or not. Mark doesn’t really tell us. And you might even say that it’s dangerous to attribute psychological motivation in an ancient text. So if neither of these views makes sense to you – that Jesus changed his mind or that he intended to heal the woman’s daughter all along – if you can’t buy either of those interpretations, then I invite you to step back even further and look at the wide-angle lens of all of Jesus’ ministry. Because never, in my recollection, did Jesus ever turn anyone else away from healing and salvation. His goal was always for more and more people to know the love of God, no matter their gender or race or social status. When Jesus is viewed through a wide-angle lens, what we see is grace abounding. That’s the big picture.
Looking at the big picture is always a good idea when we’re reading or studying scripture because it helps us to see context. And looking at the big picture is also a good idea when we’re reflecting on our lives. It’s so easy to view our lives as if through a macro lens where we focus on the details of every problem, every struggle, every moment of confusion or pain. And when we zoom in on those temporary snapshots of our lives, we can begin to despair. That has been true for me in my transition from my former home and ministry to here. We had problems finding a new home because the real estate market has been so crazy. We struggled to sell our home in Pennsylvania. We experienced lots of confusion all along in the process. And the actual transition has, at times, been painful. If I may be honest with you, at those times when I was too focused on the difficulties, it was hard for me to see the big picture – the excitement of being Spirit-led into a new ministry and a new chapter in our lives. If I could do it all again, I would remind myself to use my wide-angle lens more often. Because when we pull back for the broader view, we see not the temporary setbacks, but the forward motion of the Holy Spirit’s leading. When we look at the big picture, we see blessing after blessing. And when we look through the wide-angle lens of faith, we see God’s healing and saving love for us all.
Reflection question: When do you have the most trouble focusing on the big picture?