The 15th Sunday after Pentecost — Proper 18B (Sept. 9, 2012)

Lessons:Isaiah 35:4-7a Psalm 146 James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17 St. Mark 7:24-37  Semicontinuous Series Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Psalm 125

Prayer of the Day: Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord. Amen.

7:24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. 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.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

St. Mark 7:24-37, New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

The Syrophoenician Divide

She is a woman. (Jesus seems to have a soft spot for women — in many ways second-class citizens in first century life.) She is a Gentile. (Specifically, a Syrophoenician, possibly with lineage that connects her with one or more of Israel’s historic enemies: the Canaanites, the Greeks, and the Romans — just the kind of outsider that Jesus often seems drawn to.) And she has a little daughter who is troubled by an unclean spirit. (In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as being particularly interested in those who are held captive by unclean spirits.) There seems to be ample reason for Jesus to respond positively when this woman approaches him, which makes his response to her quite surprising.

She bows down at his feet and begs for her daughter’s healing. His chilling response is: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, what he has to give is intended to nourish God’s children (the Jewish people), and it wouldn’t be fair to waste it on dogs (outsiders like her). Is this the Jesus we have come to know and love?

Of course, Jesus ultimately heals her. She responds to his declaration with a snappy come-back, and he both commends her for her words, and heals her daughter. As in the case of the second story (about a man from the Decapolis who struggles with deafness and a speech impediment), Jesus is a source of healing and wholeness.

So what do we make of his first response to this woman? How could Jesus have been so harsh? Why does he, at first, compare this vulnerable, hurting woman to a dog, and refuse to help her? I suppose there are any number of ways we could make sense of it:

  • He is testing the others in that house, to see if they will go along with this line of reasoning.
  • He is pushing the woman, to see how serious she is about her request.
  • He is stating the first century way of understanding this situation 1) to contrast it, eventually, with his own way of thinking, or 2) to show how cold-hearted it is.
  • He is still coming to terms with what his own role is, and in this story he begins to discover how radical his call is to help all people, no matter their background.

To adopt any of these explanations, though, is to let Jesus off the hook. St. Mark doesn’t do it, so perhaps we shouldn’t either. That leaves us with a Jesus who makes a demeaning comment to a woman in need (something the people of our day find very offensive), and who heals a woman that every other religious leader of his time would have felt perfectly free to ignore (something the people of his own day would have found very offensive).

So there we have it: a Jesus who is both deeply offensive, and a source of profound grace and mercy. It just may be that in this passage, we come close to experiencing him as first century people might have experienced him.

What do you think? How do you interpret this story about our Lord?

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What is unique about this woman (or the man in the next story)?
  2. What reasons might Jesus have had to refrain from healing her?
  3. What reasons might Jesus have had to heal her?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What lines of division exist in my life (which make me an insider)?
  2. When have I succeeded in reaching across those lines, and including someone else?
  3. What difference does my relationship with God make in my relationships with others?