A Silk Purse and a Sow's Ear
"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" is a proverb meaning you can't get something good and beautiful from what is ugly and foul. It's generally attributed to 18th century Irish writer Jonathon Swift. However, in the 16th century you can find others saying the same or a similar thing like "None can make goodly silk of a goat's fleece." There is a relation between the good and beautiful and the ugly and foul. Reason says the relationship can only be mutually exclusive. God in Christ says there's more.
In our text, Jesus is in His hometown, the place where He spent the first 30 years of His life, Nazareth. He's back here immediately after having raised Jarius' daughter. He's back home after having cast out a legion of demons and healed a man with a withered hand, a paralytic, and a man full of leprosy. He's back after preaching and teaching in many different places. He's back home and He's preaching in His hometown synagogue for the first time. And you know what the people are saying? "He's a mighty fine silk purse."
Mark says they were amazed. Literally they were "dumbstruck." The main idea of the Greek word is to be driven out of one's senses by a sudden shock. They were dumbstruck by His wisdom and miracles says Mark. Luke says, "They all spoke well of Jesus, and wondered at the gracious words pouring out of His mouth." Matthew says they were beside themselves because of His teaching. Jesus was a great silk purse, the best silk purse, the finest silk purse.
Then the matter of the sow's ear came up, and as everyone knows you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Isn't this the carpenter? And that's how they said it with the emphasis on the word "the." Jesus was known as "the carpenter" by His hometown people. During His 30 years among them, He wasn't known for preaching, teaching, or healing anyone. He was known for His skills as a carpenter. O there were plenty of other men doing carpentry, but if you wanted the carpenter, you wanted Jesus. You no more look for wisdom, miracles, or grace from even a famous skilled carpenter than you would look for a silk purse from a sow's ear.
And, "Isn't this Mary's Son?" To refer to a man as being a son of his mother rather than his father, even if the father had already passed away, was considered an insult. Of course, we who know the story of Jesus' birth know this is more than calling Jesus a momma's boy. We were here in Nazareth 30 years ago when Mary turned up pregnant before Joseph and her were married. We remember that she left town suddenly to visit relatives around Jerusalem. We recall that 6 months later she turned up pregnant. Then she left with Joseph to go to Bethlehem to be enrolled for taxes. They didn't come back for years.
Over the 30 years, people had pretty much forgotten about Mary's out of wedlock pregnancy. Bygones were bygones, Jesus was a great carpenter, and in all other respects the family was decent. They were real silk purses, but then the synagogue goers remembered the sow's ear of His illegitimate birth. "Isn't this Mary's son' (wink, wink)?" Isn't this the "son" she claimed was miraculously conceived by the Mighty Power of God, by the Holy Spirit coming upon her?
You can see these folks running down things in their minds. You can see them stumble over one thing after another till they fall. We'll get to that in a minute. They stumble over Jesus being the carpenter and Mary's illegitimate son. That was proof to them that although Jesus may sound like a silk purse and do things befitting a silk purse, He was really a sow's ear and you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear, can you?
The final thing the churchgoers trip over is Jesus' ordinary brothers and sisters. Jesus may have been the sharpest tool in that shed, the brightest light in that home, but hey, that was a pretty poor shed and a pretty dark home. Even if Jesus was the son of someone other than Joseph, which is what they all thought, that didn't account for the words of grace, the works of power, the wonderful wisdom He had. An illegitimate birth was as repulsive to them as a sow's ear and you don't get a silk purse from a sow's ear.
"And they took offense at Him," the insert tells us, but the text is much stronger. This is a vivid Greek word. It means to be caught and killed by a spring trap. The churchgoers didn't stumble and merely fall down over the sow's ears they found in Jesus' life; they tripped and fell all the way into hell. And don't you think for a minute, you would never do that.
We're always tripping over the terrible ordinariness of Jesus and His way of saving us. O sure, salvation is the silk purse, but it comes in a sow's ear. You stumble, you teeter, you're on the verge of tripping sometimes at the pig ears of Christianity. God becomes Man and does a very ungodly thing. He takes on all the obligations of the laws that He gave to men. He could've stayed in heaven shouting from on high, "Do this; don't do that." He could've come down in power and lashed us for our failures. But instead God the Son came into a virgin's womb to take our place. He lived the life we were supposed to, required to, but never, ever did or could.
You see that's a sow's ear. It would be silk purse if was as the Mormon's teach. Jesus came to give you a hand up out of the pit of sin, to help you, to teach you how to live. Even though Mormons don't believe Jesus is God, isn't it much more godly to think of Jesus giving us a hand up out of the pit rather than getting into the pit in our place, taking our mud and slime as His own, but still living a perfectly clean life?
We're in danger of stumbling over the offensive things of Christianity which aren't the rules that unbelievers think Christians must live under, but God becoming Man not just to live in our place but to suffer and die. If God had become Man to see how we were doing, to show us how to serve Him, that would be befitting of God, that would be a silk purse. But God became Man and was treated as a sow's ear. He came to His own and His own didn't receive Him says St. John. Earlier St. Mark tells us His own mother thought Him crazy. But that's not the worst of it. His true Father, God the Father, treated Him like a sow's ear. He beat Him like the proverbial red-headed stepchild. Although perfect in word, work, and thought, although as fine and beautiful as a silk purse, His Father treated Him as an ugly, smelly ear of a sow.
This is sow's ear Christianity; the only true Christianity, but the world goes for silk purse Christianity. The kind that tells you your salvation is wrapped up in you getting smarter, better. The kind that triumphantly lifts high a cross. The world wants nothing to do with even an eternal salvation that is wrapped up in what a Man who was an ordinary carpenter for 30 out of His 33 years did and suffered. The world can get behind lifting high an empty cross, but it wants nothing to do with a Jesus lifted high on a cross.
And how does the salvation that Jesus bought and paid for with His innocent suffering and death and by His holy precious blood come to you? In silk purses or sow's ears? As God the Son was wrapped in terribly plain flesh and blood surrounded by a terribly plain family doing terribly plain work for 90% of His life, what do you think? The world is divided on just which silk purse salvation is found in, but all agree it's definitely in a silk purse and not a sow's ear. Some of the world finds salvation in the head, in thinking correctly about God. Some of the world finds salvation in the heart, in feeling correctly about God: choosing Him, loving Him. And most of the world finds salvation in their hands, in doing things for God.
All of these are silk purses. You will be listened to, maybe admired, if you talk about how you know God. Likewise, people will listen to your good feelings about God and conclude that anyone who loves God that much must be saved. And if you use your hands to do godly things, people will agree you must have salvation. You are such a beautiful silk purse. But God doesn't wrap His salvation in your head, your heart, or your hands. He wrapped it in Jesus as He labored in a carpenter shop for 30 years. He wrapped it in Jesus being rejected, persecuted, and crucified.
Just as God wrapped His Son in ordinary flesh and blood that people could touch and handle without being burned by divine holiness, so He wraps the salvation Jesus won in ordinary things that you can touch, handle, and taste without being burned by divine holiness. And just as God the Son could be rejected when He came to mankind clothed in flesh and blood, so God the Son can be rejected when He comes today clothed in Water, Words, Bread and Wine. In fact, it's because He comes clothed, wrapped up, hidden that many do reject Him. If Jesus had come looking like silk purse it would've been a different story. If Jesus came today in a silk purse, which would be anywhere in men, their feeling, their doing, their thinking, He would be popular, but Jesus doesn't come that way today.
Jesus comes looking like a lowly sow's ear in plain looking Water, plain sounding Words, and plain tasting Bread and Wine,. He's totally outside what you think, what you do, what you feel. This trips up those who think God only uses silk purses. This causes people to stumble who think they deserve to be dealt with only through silk purses. This leads to unbelief those who think God only operates in the good and beautiful and not also and particularly in the foul and ugly. There was no beauty in Jesus that we should desire Him, says Isaiah. There is no beauty in plain Water, Words, Bread and Wine. But there is the silk purse of salvation in them.
In 1921 someone did turn a sow's ear into a beautiful purse. Men can bring beauty from plainness or even ugliness. Only God can do the miracle of leading people to see that plainness or ugliness is beauty. We look at plain looking Water, plain sounding Words, plain tasting Bread and Wine and at the ugly crucifix and say how beautiful. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost VII (20060723); Mark 6: 1-6