September 9, 2018 – 16th Sunday after Pentecost
New Testament scholars agree that in Mark’s Gospel we find the most human of the Gospel portrayals of Jesus. We see that in this morning’s account of an exorcism. Jesus’ reputation as a healer was becoming widely known. A Gentile woman, a non-Jew, whose “little daughter had an unclean spirit” had heard about Jesus and sought him out. The woman humbled herself before Jesus and “begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” His response shocks our sense of who Jesus is.
Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus was declaring that his mission of healing and salvation was to the Jews, “the children.” To give to non-Jews was as bad as throwing food to dogs. This was a highly insulting comparison. In the ancient world dogs were viewed as shameless and unclean animals. Insulted by Jesus as she was, this woman might have gone away silently and in shame. Perhaps empowered by love of her daughter, the woman refused to give up. Instead she debated with Jesus, still addressing him with respect: “Sir,” – the Greek word translated “sir” also means “lord” – “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus recognized truth in her words and replied, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
Christians have been uncomfortable with Jesus’ initial brutal reply to this Gentile woman all through the centuries. A variety of strategies have been used to try to explain away Jesus’ answer. Here are a few. Jesus was smiling and looking with compassion on the woman while he said these dreadful words, so it was obvious to her that he didn’t mean what the words seem to convey. Or this, Jesus knew how brilliantly the woman would respond to him, so he set the situation up to let her shine. Or this, the exchange gives us an example of faith that doesn’t waver even when God is apparently ungracious, so it’s a good lesson that Jesus provides. All these are rather unlikely interpretations that preserve our image of Jesus as good and always compassionate.
Though this passage may make us uncomfortable, I think it is important because here we see clearly the humanity of Jesus. He lived in a particular time and place and was born into a particular culture and faith tradition. His understanding of the world was shaped by these factors. Not bound, but shaped. Jesus understood his mission as being to the Jews, his people, “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). That mission was quite a full job. As a prophet, Jesus needed to confront Jewish religious leaders about their understanding of God and God’s commandments, about how they were teaching and leading the people. Jesus had a message of salvation to preach and good news to share with the poor. He was a healer with crowds of people coming to him for healing and exorcism. He had to travel through the places where Jews lived to spread the word of the kingdom of God. Wasn’t this enough to do, without extending his mission to the Gentiles?
Mark tells us that Jesus traveled north of Galilee to the region of Tyre. This was Gentile territory, not Jewish territory. Tyre was a major city, and the people of Tyre were supplied with produce from the Galilean countryside. The people of Tyre were economically superior to the people of Galilee. Jesus was going into an area where relations between the Gentiles and the Jews were already strained because of the economic situation.
When Jesus arrived at a house in the region of Tyre, Mark tells us that he “did not want anyone to know he was there.” Perhaps he was weary from his journey. Perhaps he needed time for solitude and prayer. He may have been irritable because “he could not escape notice.”
All this is part of the human background of our story.
What “saves” this exchange between Jesus and the Gentile woman is his response when she says “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Here is where we find a model for ourselves, because when Jesus was confronted by the woman about his words and his behavior, he took a look at himself and changed. Not, I think, because she cleverly “won the debate,” but because she showed him the truth.
During this month we will hear virtually all of The Letter of James. Last week we heard this: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:22-24). This is an interesting image: to see ourselves in the mirror, turn away, and forget what we saw. If we look in the mirror and see something we don’t like, when we turn away we must remember what we saw and begin to change. If we simply forget, nothing will change. We may as well not have looked at all.
Our Gospel lesson shows us that when the Syrophoenician woman held up a mirror for Jesus to look into, he looked and saw and changed. By healing the woman’s daughter he tacitly admitted that his concept of his God-given mission had been too narrow. Jesus then expanded his mission to the Gentiles. He healed Gentiles as well as Jews. He responded to the call to care for more people, to include more people in the definition of “God’s people.” His disciples would go on to spread the good news of Christ to all nations throughout the world.
Christians often say that our direction in life is to grow into the likeness of Christ. This is one aspect of that likeness. Jesus shows us by his example that we are meant to look at ourselves honestly, see what needs to be changed, and do something about it.
Of course, we have to find a place to start whenever we want to change something about ourselves or anything else in life. Sometimes an encounter with another person – like Jesus with this Gentile woman – prompts us to take an honest look at ourselves, and we then see where we need to begin to change. Sometimes the consequences of our behavior are so painful or costly that we recognize what exactly we must change. Sometimes the wisdom of others gives us a clue about where we are currently “missing the mark.”
I would suggest that we all consider using The Letter of James as a tool this month to help us identify an area where we might work on change. Last week I described this letter as a sermon which offers guidance about ethical living based on contemporary Jewish religious thought. The letter – or sermon – certainly names quite a few specific faults to avoid. This morning’s lesson points out that we should not show favoritism to people who have wealth. We may not do exactly what the Letter describes, but it may be worth considering how much of our attention is focused on wealth or those who have wealth compared to our focus on the problems of the poor. And by stating that faith without works is dead the author invites us to examine our “works.” Does our behavior in fact reflect our faith or is there a disconnect that needs repair?
The five chapters of The Letter of James guide us to consider anger; “bridling our tongues” or being mindful of what we say; the extent of our charitable giving to vulnerable people in need; envy; selfish ambition; judging others; doing what we know to be right; cheating people who do work for us; and grumbling against one another. Quite an extensive variety of human failings! Something for everyone!
As I suggested, slow and prayerful reading of this short piece of scripture may help each and every one of us look in the mirror of our faith and take a next step on the path of following our Lord, who by both teaching and example shows us the way of love and life. May God give us the grace to follow Jesus, step by step, today and always. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Blessing: Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So, be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – be with you and remain with you always. Amen.