September 6, 2015
First Lutheran Church
BLESS THE BEASTS AND THE CHILDREN
Jesus has left Galilee and is traveling in the region of the Gentile Tyre, located in modern-day Northern Lebanon. This is a difficult passage, one that almost kicks us in the gut with its unexpectedly harsh portrayal of Jesus. It reminds us that God’s reign is neither easily regulated nor politely parceled out to those who have politely met the proper criteria. The abundance God’s kingdom promises has a tendency to burst the seams as it expands our understanding of what counts as real faith. It call us to stay hopeful because persistence pays off and uncovers grace flowing in ways we cannot imagine.
As Gospel stories go, this one is odd. Why is Jesus in gentile Tyre, of all places, so distant, both geographically and culturally, from rural Galilee? Why is he alone and seeking to elude everyone’s notice? How did this woman learn about and find him? Most importantly, why the harsh rudeness? Jesus never refused a direct request to heal someone. Nor does he insult anyone else who needs him, calling her and her afflicted daughter dogs. Is he categorizing these people as unclean Gentiles? That would be especially shocking, given that, in the verses just before these he argued about purity and tradition with the Pharisees. Are they dogs because they are Syrophoenician or because the daughter has an unclean spirit? Is he lumping the mother and daughter together with all people from Tyre because they were political enemies of Israel? Although Jesus’ motives are not clear, the meaning of his refusal is. This is entirely out of character with our usual image of our generously compassionate savior.
This passage has sparked centuries of debate trying to explain this passage. Mainly the arguments fall into two broad categories. Is the woman passing a test or is she winning an argument? Some say that Jesus’ initial denial must have been uttered with a playful gleam in his eye, that he is giving the woman a chance to express her faith before he gladly heals her daughter. This would make the story rather unique within Mark. She would be the only person who has to endure a derogatory slur before receiving Jesus’ mercy. In the end, that sounds more like making the text say something that clearly is not there to make us feel better.
But perhaps Jesus means what he says and has no intention of exorcising the demon from the girl. Perhaps the mother wins the argument with Jesus. In saying, Let the children be fed first, Jesus implies that the time is not right. Blessings will come to Gentiles in time, but for now his work is on behalf of Jews. He does not say, absolutely not, but not just yet. This approach is more consistent with the story Mark tells, yet the strange lack of compassion or imagination on Jesus’ part makes many people resist such a reading. Others have difficulty with believing that a divine Jesus might be persuaded to change his mind about anything. But there is Old Testament precedence in God changing the divine mind when a person requests it. In Genesis 18:16-33, God relents from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah because of Abraham’s intercession. In Exodus 32:14, Moses persuaded God not to destroy the Israelites who were worshipping a golden calf. These are demonstrations that God’s deep love for the people is manifested in forgiveness rather than destruction.
When Jesus does expel the demon, Mark uses a phrase in Greek that gets lost in the English translation. Jesus relents and casts the demon out, διἁ τοῡτον τόν λόγον—dia touton ton logon, because of this reasoning. He changes his mind because of her logos, her logic, her argument, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. It is not just that she cleverly reconfigures Jesus’ metaphors of crumbs and canines to fit her desires. Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit and humility. She recognizes somehow, a certain abundance about the things Jesus preaches. She recalls the leftovers when Jesus fed 5000. She envisions a table that feeds the children and still cannot contain all the food Jesus brings. The excess is already spilling onto the floor.
The woman also recognizes the potency of the feast. She does not demand to be treated as one of the children. It is as if she says, I’m not asking for a seat at the table, but my daughter is suffering. All I need from you is a crumb or two. I know that will be enough. But I cannot wait. I need those crumbs right now. She inexplicably understands the implications of what Jesus sparred with the Pharisees about in Mark 7:14-23. She recognizes that Gentiles are no longer unclean in the presence of Jews, because they are also beloved children of the Creator God. Why should Gentiles have to wait to participate in the blessings made possible through the reign of God through Jesus? He sees the truth of her words, and he heals her daughter immediately.
Afterward, Jesus leaves Tyre, going into the Decapolis, deeper in Gentile territory. He heals a man who cannot hear and can barely speak, then feeds 4000 Gentiles. Although Mark does not call attention to the ethnic identity of these people, Jesus has no further hesitation in bringing his compassionate ministry to the people in this region. His timeline is accelerated. Gentiles receive blessings alongside Jews. The woman’s persistence benefits more than just one little girl. Her persistence persuaded Jesus to do new things in his ministry. We owe a lot to this tenacious Syrophoenician theologian. Her theology does not originate in books and study. It comes as an expression of painfully experienced need and fierce motherly love.
It is interesting that Jesus commends the woman’s λόγος or reasoning, but says nothing about her πίστις—pistis, or faith. It is odd because Mark often connects faith to receiving blessings. Her persistence, however, demonstrates her amazing faith and the blessings that did finally come, She brings a new way of considering what faith really means. She brings her hopeful insight to her conversation with Jesus, refusing to believe that she is less worthy than the children of receiving grace. She knows that just a few crumbs can make the difference for her and her daughter. She brought a trusting acceptance, believing that Jesus’ words were enough. She journeyed home, confident in her daughter’s healing.
Who says things like desperation and tenacity are not the same thing as faith, when they are brought to Jesus? In Mark, faith is not about getting Jesus’ name or titles right. Mark is unconcerned with reciting proper confessions or articulating proper doctrine. Faith is about clinging to Jesus, believing that he will heal, restore and save us. Faith is about imploring him do what he says he came to do.
All of us have been the Syrophoenician woman in our lives, quietly slipping into the back row of worship, leaving before the final hymn, shunned because we do not quite match the social and cultural expectations of the congregation. And all of us know such people. Having been there ourselves, Jesus calls us to compassion, noticing that they keep coming back, fiercely convinced that if anything that happens in worship is true, then it is true for us too. Like Jacob striving against the angel, she will not let go until she gets her blessing. Let her faith compel all of us to recognize new implications in a truly abundant gospel. To God be the glory. Amen.