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Boundaries to Healing

February 10, 2015
Based on a sermon preached at Spring Mount Mennonite Church on Feb. 8 2015
Scripture text: Mark 7:1-30 NRSV


The jr. high school I attended was a large one located in the middle of a suburban town. Behind the building, near the center of the property was the football field. And bordering the football field was an approximately 8′ high fence—the top of which was equipped with barbed wire. “Why is there barbed wire around the football field?” my 14 year-old self would wonder, realizing that all gym class escape plans would be a painful waste of time. “Was it there to keep people in, or keep people out?” We sometimes go to great lengths to create boundaries.

Boundaries are borders, dividing lines, that all groups of people create to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” The authors of “Say to This Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship mention an important element about boundary-making that we should be aware of:

Boundaries can be a good thing, such as when they help protect weaker people from domination by stronger people. But while this “defensive” function is usually cited as justification for boundaries, more often the actual relations of power are the opposite: Boundaries function to separate the strong from the weak, protecting privilege and maintaining inequality.(1)

These are the kind of boundaries that we find Jesus challenging in the Bible. Often Jesus was challenging the powerful political and religious leaders about their boundaries. But in one instance with a daring woman, Jesus was the one in the position of power and he had to demonstrate the new reality he was preaching. But before we get into that episode we need to understand what happened prior to it.

The previous parts of Mark 7 involve Jesus challenging some established borders of his people’s faith. This act would not leave everyone comfortable.

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!

The border Jesus is targeting here is the “tradition of the elders,” a group of teachings that emerged over time to help people interpret scripture and live it out. Which is a fine thing to create—as long as you don’t start giving it more authority than it deserves (or enforcing it inconsistently). Which is what happened in Jesus’ day—this “tradition” was given such a high authority that it largely became the focus—especially of the religious leaders. They felt that if the tradition was not followed as they desired that the whole group would become contaminated.

Jesus then used a short parable to clarify his objection to the kind of boundaries that were being used (v.14-15,20-22):

Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile … 20 “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.

In challenging the traditional rules, Jesus pointed to the heart—to what is inside of us rather than what is outside. Doctrines and traditions don’t mean anything if one’s heart is far from God. Therefore, worry about what arises from within—examine what is in our hearts—rather than defending perceived threats from outside.

Jesus seemed to believe that the social boundaries of the purity tradition were unable to protect the community’s integrity.(2) And I tend to agree.

One of the ways I’ve learned this to be true has to do with our own Mennonite Church. The current Mennonite Confession of Faith endorses the view that both men and women may serve as pastors and leaders in the church, since Christ gives gifts through the Holy Spirit to all believers.(3) Gender does not disqualify a person for these leadership roles. Yet there are Mennonite churches today who choose to not embrace this position. The social boundary of our confessional tradition has not prevented some of our churches from barring women from pastoral roles. Confessions like this are a kind of parallel to the “tradition of the elders” or the “human tradition” that’s mentioned in Mark 7. It is a thorough document and I appreciate the theological work it represents. But it did not fall out of heaven straight from God to us. Instead, it is the latest theological conversation in a long line dating back to the 1500’s—ways that Anabaptists (eventually Mennonites) discerned what their faith and practice should look like, in their particular time. That’s why there’s evolving versions—as the church we are always needing to ask ourselves, “What does faith and practice look like in our day, with its own unique challenges and opportunities?”

While we can certainly value these documents, we must remember that none of these confessions is the gospel. I get concerned when I hear calls demanding complete devotion to a document. Because what happens to the voice of God’s Spirit when we pledge our allegiance to a document? If such a document is operating as a boundary, who is it protecting?

I don’t believe that Jesus was entirely against the religious leaders creating a “tradition.” But I think he was likely concerned with how they were unevenly applying it (hence, the “hypocrites” language, which I’m sure went over big). Therefore Jesus claimed that the religious leaders of his day were following human traditions rather than “the commandment of God” (Mk 7:8-9).

And remember that on another occasion when Jesus was asked about the commandment of God, he responded with, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39)

According to Jesus if you have constructed what you feel are proper boundaries, but your heart is not right, then you still have a big problem. The rules and boundaries won’t necessarily mean that you are participating in God’s work of renewal.

Love of God and love of neighbor are the HEART of what needs to be in our HEARTS. And when we try to live out that command (like Jesus and the apostles) we will probably find ourselves discerning how to respond to people who reside outside of some boundaries.

Which brings us to the story of Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30). Which is one of the most difficult and controversial stories in the whole Bible.

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.[Other ancient authorities add and Sidon] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Jesus traveled to Tyre and Sidon, a region that was physically outside of the boundaries of his people. This area seems to be problematic: search through the Old Testament for “Tyre” and “Sidon” and it’s not exactly good news.

Another boundary that was broken had to do with the honor culture (4) of the day—it was inappropriate for such a woman to approach a man like this in a private home, and also inappropriate for a Gentile woman to ask this kind of favor. However, she seems to have been willing to risk breaking these rules in order to find healing for her daughter, and sensed that in Jesus healing could be found.

But then Jesus makes an insulting remark to this woman—did he just call her and her daughter “dogs”? What in the world do we do with that? Some say that the statement identified Jewish people as “children” and Gentile folks as “dogs,” indicating that his ministry priority at that moment was first to the Jewish people, and then to people of the whole world. But seriously–so many better ways to say that!

Yet most interesting to me is the daring and quick response of this woman—she said something that was both clever and theologically true: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It’s like she’s saying: “the Kingdom of God you represent is so full of abundance, that it can provide for ALL people; And even if I can only get a crumb, that will be enough to change my life.” Remember what stories in Mark come before and after this one: There’s the feeding of the 5000 in his homeland in chapter 6, and then the feeding of 4000 Gentiles in chapter 8. Both feedings included an overflowing amount of leftovers. While many seemed to find the kingdom of God difficult to grasp, perhaps this woman understood it better than most.

So what might we learn from this story:

I think this story makes us wrestle with Jesus’ humanity (and hopefully our own). Even Jesus had to confront that part of human nature that desires to separate from others who are different. This gives me hope, because it helps me to know that Jesus really does identify with us, and he understands the difficulties we face in human interactions—he’s not some robotic holy man that’s programmed to always respond automatically.

I think we also see that Jesus truly listened to this woman, and was willing to change his mind. He “allowed his privileged status as a Jewish male to be severely affronted by a Gentile woman for the sake of inclusivity.”(5) He listened to her, and granted her request, and her child was healed.

What might happen in our lives and in our churches if, instead of focusing on boundaries, we tried to understand our privileges, note the postures we take in our relationships, and intentionally practice listening to one another? My hope is that if we are willing to follow the example of Jesus, even into new territory, we will find the guiding presence of the Spirit and a deeper grasp of God’s mission and Good News. And we also may find the healing we seek.


(1)  Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (NY: Orbis Books, 1996) Kindle Locations 1517-1520.

(2) Myers, et al. Locations 1522-23.

(3) Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995, Article 15, “Ministry and Leadership”:

(4)  Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (NY: Orbis Books, 1996) Kindle Locations 1538-1539.

(5) Myers, et al. Locations 1552-1553.

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