When Jesus Changed His Mind

In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte, made the decision to sell land to the United States.  In what came to be known as “The Louisiana Purchase,” he sold 828,000 square miles of land, west of the Mississippi, to the US government for what came out to $.22 per acre.  His advisors tried to talk him out of it; but he was convinced.  “Who’d ever want that land?”

20th Century Fox sold George Lucas the merchandising rights to all things Star Wars, for just $20,000.  The 20th Century Fox executives were convinced that this movie series would never catch on.  Lucas Films has earned more than $3 billion dollars on the merchandising.

In 1962, Deca Records told music producer Brian Epstein that four-piece bands with drums and guitars were a thing of the past.  So, Brian took his clients to Parliphone, who were only too happy to sign…The Beatles.

Sometimes, our inability to see alternative possibilities…to be open to the input of others…and to be, frankly, stubborn, puts us on the path of making sketchy decisions.

I have a confession to make.  I can, from time to time, be just a wee bit stubborn.  Once I decide, I kind of lock into that. Lori will sometimes (ok, frequently) say to me “Todd, you are often wrong…but you are always confident!”  I’ve got to admit…that’s totally true.  Does anybody else here suffer from chronic stubbornness?  (spouses…quit looking at each other)

For me, and for many of us, to back off from a decision we’ve made, and to change our mind, is something of a challenge.  In our culture, whether we’re talking about religion, or politics, or sports…we tend to dig in our heels…we stand by our thoughts and opinions, even when they make no sense.  (Packer fans, I’m lookin’ at you here!)

But in the world in which we live, we are constantly being bombarded by new experiences, new thoughts, new ideas, and by different perspectives that challenge our preconceived ideas.

As we encounter these different perspectives, it may be helpful to remember this: even Jesus changed his mind.

Our Gospel story today, the story of the Syrophoenician woman, is one of the most interesting and provocative stories in the Gospels.  Jesus travels to Tyre, a northern city, a Gentile city, deep in Gentile territory.  This was a little unusual.  Jews and Gentiles didn’t mix.  And when Jesus arrived, he asked that his presence be kept quiet.

But amazingly, word gets out that this Jewish teacher and healer had arrived.  And soon there is a knock on his door, and a Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, is standing before him.

The woman came with a request. She begged really: “Jesus, my daughter is possessed by a demon.  No one has been able to cure her.  Can you please help her?  Can you cast it out?”

Jesus’ answer is not what we’d expect: “No.  Let the children be fed first.”  By children, Jesus was referring to the children of Israel, the Jewish people.   Jesus ministry was focused on these children of Israel.  In fact, in Matthew’s version of this same story, Jesus says to the Gentile woman “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

No?  Jesus said no?  No to healing someone in need?  No to a little girl?

But Jesus had a strategy.  And his strategy was that he is going to help the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  The Jewish people.  Why?  Well, way back in Genesis, God says to Abraham, “Go to this new land I’m going to show you and I’m going to make you a great nation.  And through that great nation, all nations are going to be blessed.”

So, the children of Israel are meant to bless all the families of the earth.  But to do that, they themselves need to be first healed and made whole.  That is what Jesus is doing.  That is his strategy.  Focus on the healing of his own people, and out of that healing will come restoration for everybody else.

This Syrophoenician woman?  She didn’t fit into Jesus’ strategy.

Jesus turns and speaks 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.”

Now, if I ever gave a sermon titled: “Things I wish Jesus Hadn’t Said,” this would be at the top of the list.  Did Jesus really just call this woman and her daughter “dogs”?  Yeah, it looks like it.

This statement by Jesus is so surprising…and troubling, that scholars and theologians have been trying for years to find ways to explain it away…and to soften it…so that it doesn’t sound like an insult.  They’ve argued that maybe it was a mistranslation, or maybe Jesus was just being playful.

But I don’t think so.  No, it really sounds to me here like Jesus is being insulting to this Gentile woman and her daughter.  He called them dogs.

If then, you were this woman, how would you respond?  If your last hope for any kind of relief or healing for your daughter was Jesus, and you’d gone to him, and he said no, and then called you both “dogs,” how would you respond? Tears?  Sorrow?  Maybe anger?    That’s what I would expect.

Instead, this woman does the unexpected.  She doesn’t argue…she accepts the comparison to dogs…and then she makes a case for dogs.

She starts out by saying “Lord.”  That’s pretty significant, and it has to catch Jesus’ attention. When this woman calls Jesus “Lord,” she is making a confession of her faith.  This Gentile woman is saying, “I believe that you are the Lord…the Messiah…the Son of God.”

“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In Galilee, where Jesus was brought up, in Jewish households, they did not have dogs under the tables. In fact, Jewish people did not eat at tables. The Jewish people ate while sitting or reclining on the ground.  And dogs were not allowed in the house.  Dogs were wild; they were scavengers.  They survived by eating garbage.  They ate unclean food, which made dogs unclean…which is why maybe Jewish people sometimes referred to Gentiles as dogs, because they were outside the household of Israels and they were considered unclean.

But, in Tyre, the Gentile people did eat at tables.  And people did keep dogs as pets, inside their homes.  And the dogs ate the same food as everyone else.  (There wasn’t any dog food, or anything like that) And for thousands of years, Gentile children had been sharing their meals with dogs under the table.

So, what this woman is saying, is: “Maybe in your country, dogs are outside, and unclean.  But here…in my country…in Tyre…dogs are part of the household, and they get the same food.  They get the scraps from the children.  You call my daughter a dog?  Ok, she’s a dog.  She may not be in the household of Israel, but she is a part of the household of humanity.”

This woman’s words are powerful…and surprising…and moving.  And Jesus sees in this woman what he’s been preaching:  humility, persistence and trust that God’s boundless love knows no borders.

In that moment, Jesus changed his mind.

I can visualize Jesus, looking at the woman, with a smile on his face, and telling her: “for saying that, you may go.  The demon has left your daughter.”

His ministry is still going to be to the lost sheep, but in that moment, he decides that it is to all of the lost sheep.  Regardless of boundary or border.

This is an important story.  It was important because the early church was wrestling with the issue of Gentile inclusion in the church.  And for them to resolve that difficult issue, some people were going to have to change their minds.  And in this Gospel, what the writer, Mark, was saying to his own congregation, was “look, even Jesus changed his mind.”

In many ways, we aren’t all that different than the early church.  We still wrestle.

  • We wrestle with how we connect with and serve the whole world. (not just the parts we like).
  • We wrestle with how we welcome those who are different than us.
  • We wrestle with how we live the faith and values that Jesus taught: humility, persistence and trust.

Jesus reminds us today that we have to be willing to change our minds when we learn something new.

Sometimes, amazing things happen when we are willing to change our minds.

This past week, we hosted the funeral for Gail Arnfelt, who with her husband, Paul; had been members here at Trinity since 1960.  Gail had an amazing and beautiful Spirit.  I asked Paul if I could share a part of their story:

Both Gail and Paul grew up in New Richland.  They’d been friends since 6th grade; after all, it was a small town, and everybody pretty much knew everybody.    But that was it…just friends.

After Gail graduated from New Richland, she entered nursing school in Rochester.  One night, Gail was supposed to go one night out on a date with a different boy, but Paul, this guy she knew…this guy she’d grown up with…he was around.  And suddenly, Gail had second thoughts.  She wondered if maybe she wouldn’t rather go out with Paul.  And so, she changed her mind.  She cancelled the first date,  and Gail and Paul went out.  Paul was pretty convinced that it was because he was driving a brand new ‘57 Chevy…and maybe it was the car that caught her eye.  But whatever the reason, it was clearly meant to be.  And on January 8th, 1960, the two of them joined their lives together in marriage; a marriage that lasted 58 years!

And along came their daughter, Liz, and then their son, Patrick, and then granddaughters Allison and Zoe…and then a full life here in Owatonna with friends and family throughout the community.

And on Tuesday, when we celebrated Gail’s life and her resurrection into the presence of God, our Sanctuary was full.  And there was sorrow, but there was also the joy of a life well lived and an amazing legacy of love, life, friends and family…all because that one night, Gail changed her mind.  I’m convinced that in that moment, when Gail changed her mind about going out with Paul, God was up to something.

As we unpack all of the implications of the Good News; as we discover all the implications of God’s boundless love; from time to time we are going to be challenged to change our minds.  I guarantee it.

We are like that Syrophoenician woman.  Jesus traveled to Tyre.  Likewise, Jesus comes to us.  And we meet Jesus.  And we bring Jesus our needs. And because Jesus changed his mind, we too, Gentiles all of us, receive the boundless love of God that is for all of God’s people.  And we will discover what God is up to.

Let our love for others reflect that boundless love.  And as we experience what God is doing in the world, and within our lives, let those experiences open our hearts and minds to being willing to think differently about the world and the people around us.  When we are challenged, let us be open to having our minds changed.  After all, if Jesus can change his mind, so can we.

Thanks be to God!


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