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Sparring Partners

Thomas J Parlette

“Sparring Partners”

Mark 7: 24-30



Back on Saturday, May 2nd, the Fight of the Century was held between Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas Nevada. Of course, it’s only 2015 – we’ve got 85 years left in this century, so it may be too early too judge. But this was a fight that boxing fans had been waiting for a long time.

In the days leading up to the Fight of the Century, Manny Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, discussed his fighter’s workouts. He said he wanted to ask Manny’s Canadian sparring partner Dierry Jean, to concentrate on throwing more right hands – because Mayweather uses his right hand a lot. Then the trainer said he asked Manny’s other sparring partner Richard Sims, to run a bit more, circle the ring more often – because Mayweather runs a lot during a fight. He always moving.(1)

This is not unusual in the world of professional boxing. It’s standard practice to have fighters train against other fighters to sharpen their skills. Many boxers have multiple sparring partners, each one brings specific skills that they want to work against.

It happens in football too. During practices, NFL back ups quarterbacks will be expected to mimic an upcoming opposing quarterbacks style and tendencies so that their own defense has some thing to practice and spar with.

All of this sparring amounts to, as Proverb 27 says, “Iron sharpening iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.”

And you could say that sparring is what is going on in todays text.

This is a disturbing story for today. This is not the Jesus we are used to. Today we find Jesus and his disciples up in northern Galilee in the region of Tyre. This is notable because this is a non-Jewish region, this is Gentile territory. Jesus trys to sneak through town, but word gets out that he is staying in a local home. A woman comes to see him, a woman of Syrophoenician origin. She is an outsider, some might say that she is unclean, even unworthy. But she has a daughter who is sick with an evil spirit. So she comes to Jesus, asking him to cast the demon out of her little girl.

And Jesus’ response seems downright rude. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Wow, wait a minute – did Jesus just call that woman a dog! That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know. Jesus is welcoming, he is kind, he heals people – he doesn’t call them dogs! Sure, the word translated “dogs” here is actually more like the word “puppies” – but still dogs. Pretty demeaning, pretty insulting.

But this woman will not back down. She accepts the invitation to spar with the Rabbi Jesus. She answers him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I imagine a long pause at this point. Everyone is waiting to hear what Jesus will say. Jesus starts to respond – but then he hesitates. He thinks some more. Then he starts to smile at his sparring partner, this gentile woman from Tyre. He answers her back “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

Matthew tells this same story, but adds a little bit here. In his version, Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith…” and then sends her home to her daughter.

She has sparred well. She has answered wisely. She has helped Jesus understand his mission more completely – or, perhaps she has helped Jesus make his point to his own disciples… that his message, his saving work is meant for all – even the gentiles up here in Tyre.

This woman also teaches us that sparring with Jesus, talking back to God is not of bounds.

In fact, sparring with God actually has a long history in Judaism. There are many stories from medieval times about Rabbis who sparred with one another over biblical texts and theological questions. The intent was always to sharpen their own interpretation and deepen their understanding.

There are also many examples from the Bible about people sparring, arguing and talking back to God.

There is the story of Hannah in 1st Samuel, chapter 1, where she prays and prays and prays – and finally strikes a deal with God, to give her a son, and she will dedicate him to the Lord

Then there is the story of Abraham in Genesis 18. When God told Abraham that Sodom was going to be destroyed, Abraham pushed back by asking if God would spare the city if 50 righteous people could be found there. Abraham kept arguing, whittling the number down to 45, then 40, 30, 20 and finally to 10.

You probably remember the story of Jacob, who not only argued with the Lord, but got into a physical wrestling match.

And of course there is the story of Moses when God spoke to him from the burning bush. God wanted Moses to lead the people out of Egypt – but Moses didn’t want the job. He didn’t think he was up to it. So he argued with God. He didn’t win – God had the last word as God always does, but in the process of sparring with God, Moses received the help he needed to do what God asked.

We could also point to the story of Gideon in Judges, chapter 6, where God calls upon Gideon to lead the Israelites in battle against the Midianites. Gideon, like Moses, isn’t sure that he wants the job and so he calls upon God to prove himself with a wet/dry test involving some fleece.

Talking back, arguing with God, even sparring with God is very common in the Bible. This story today, and all the other stories about sparring partners show us that questioning, pushing back, expressing doubt – those things are not out of bounds. Wanting to go a few rounds with the Lord does not mean that you are unfaithful, it is not sinful, it is not evil. In fact arguing, questioning, sparring back and forth with God, it actually sharpens our belief and deepens our faith.

As New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe says, “this woman’s faith is no doctrinal confession of Jesus messianic identity, and no flattery of his miraculous powers, but, rather an act of trust, of engagement, risking everything…”(2)

And that is what Jesus wants. That’s what God wants. Total engagement. Total trust. A willingness to risk everything.

-When you cannot understand why you have received this diagnosis…

-When you cannot put up with another day…

-When you see no reason to go on…

– When you cannot understand the violence we see in other parts of the world and right here in our backyards…

– When you want to go a few rounds with God to demand an answer…

That’s okay. God can work with that. God wants to work with that. Our greatest sin is not unbelief. Our greatest sin is not believing that God can work miracles through us. Our questioning, arguing, sparring with God, actually deepens our faith and sharpens our understanding.

So as we approach the table today, bring your questions.

Bring your doubts. Bring your arguments – and be ready to spar with God.

God can handle. Indeed God invites it. God enjoys a spirited interaction. So come – be fed with more than crumbs from the table.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 27, No. 5, p13.

2.    Ibid… p15.