A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 9, 2018: Mark 7:24-37

Mark 7:24-37
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,

7:25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

7:26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

7:27 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.”

7:28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

7:29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.”

7:30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

7:31 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.

7:32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

7:33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.

7:34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

7:35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

7:36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

7:37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

A Question or Two:

  • Would the woman in the first scene have said that Jesus “has done everything well”?

Some Longer Reflections:

These scenes (there are two scenes, and they are rather different from each other) are generally seen to offer evidence that God is in the process of turning the world right-side-up.  The promises are old, as old as the prophet, Isaiah, and his promises of return from Exile.  That means the promises were old when Jesus’ great-grandmother was born, and that they had thus shaped the world in which his family had raised their children for generations.  This matters.  We feed our children on breast milk and baby food, but even more important, we feed them on the hopes and dreams that give us life.  We raise our children to hope and dream and work and watch.  We raise our children to see what is wrong with the world, and to expect it to change.  We raise our children to demand that change.

Jesus will have been raised on these hopes.

By the time Jesus was born, the expectation of a messiah had become attached to these old hopes.  The notion had helped gather the various hopes; it had helped focus the way Jews looked at the world and expected change and healing.  By the time this story of Mark’s gospel was told, the stories of Jesus healing people were taken as stories of the messianic correction of the world.  The conditions that separated people and isolated them were being corrected: deafness, blindness, any condition that prevented people from living and working and sharing in the responsibilities of the community.

It is worth noting at this point that these stories do indeed see deafness and blindness as problems to be removed.  The notion of deaf culture, or community amongst blind people was millennia away in the future; braille and ASL haven’t been imagined yet.  The world of this story is not yet able to imagine such things.  We are able, and it changes the way we watch this scene.  But from the point of view of the hopes and dreams that Jesus shared with his great-grandmother, we are all hoping and working for similar goals: we all share the goal of removing the conditions that separate and isolate people.

Which brings us to the scene that begins the preaching text for this Sunday.

Yes.  It is a miracle story.

Yes.  It is important that the healing takes place at a distance.  (You can read my detailed discussion of this factor, and of the entire text, in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  AmazonPrime could deliver it by Thursday, or something.)

And yes.  The contest with evil spirits is worth thinking about slowly.

But there is something else in this scene that needs careful attention.

Jesus calls a woman, a mother with a daughter in danger, a dog.  Some interpreters (even good friends of mine) seek to soften the scene by imagining that Jesus’ use of κυνάριον (little dog) makes it better than if he had called her a big dog.  I just leave that there.  I like dogs just fine, and puppies are cute.

But Jesus just referred to a woman as a dog.  He does not get a pass.

I work with actors to explore the inside of stories.  Many years ago now, we were working on this scene.  We were getting nowhere.  Everything we tried was less useful than the thing we tried before.  I had a conference with the actor who was playing Jesus.  I told him about an old, prominent interpreter of the gospel of Mark who said that the scene demonstrates Jesus’ tender love for the mother.  I told him that this interpreter went so far as to say that he thought that, when Jesus said these words, “a wistful smile didst play across his lips.”  I asked him to smile when he told the mother that he didn’t do favors for dogs like her.

He did.

I should perhaps mention that the woman playing the mother is a person who does not suffer fools gladly.  She heard the words.  She saw the smile.

And she slapped Jesus across the face.

And, for the first time, the scene worked.  All of a sudden, we had a motivation for the violent words that the storyteller used (now translated into oblivion by the NRSV) at the end of the scene.  When the mother returns home, she does not find the daughter lying on the bed.  The original Greek says that she was “thrown across the bed.”  And Jesus does not dismiss her calmly, telling her (in the NRSV) that she “may go.”  The original Greek has him command her to go, to go away now, to get out of his presence.

But most important of all, all of a sudden the women in the room recognized a scene that all of them had experienced, some of them many times.  Casual disrespect is common, accepted, even.  Women grow up learning to look at the man who dishes out this abuse, and thank him for his kind attention.

We were asked to perform this scene for a women’s group in a church.  We were afraid, but they insisted they wanted to see what we would do with this scene.  We played the scene.  The mother slapped Jesus.  The women applauded.  One woman, somewhere near 80 years old, told me that she had always hated that text.  “Today,” she said, “is the first time I didn’t hate it.  I would have hit him, too.”

The woman in this scene teaches Jesus a lesson.  It appears to have been a lesson that he needed to learn, and that he was not altogether glad to learn.  We all learn such lessons.  It is part of turning the world right-side-up.  It is what our great-grandmothers waited for and demanded.

After this scene, Jesus never treats a woman like this again.

He learned his lesson.  He went on to remove the things that separate and isolate us.  He went on to do the work of messiah.  Because the woman taught him a lesson he needed, if he was going to turn anything right-side-up.  This is what the messianic correction of the world looks like.  This is how it works.

4 thoughts on “A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 9, 2018: Mark 7:24-37

  1. Thank you for this. Something I am struggling to reconcile within this story , which I hope you can help me with, is the divine nature of Jesus – the claim that in him there was no sin. Surely the way he treats this woman is sinful…
    any and all thoughts much appreciated!

    Like

    1. I agree. It is useful (for me, anyway) to note that the notion that “in him there was no sin” does not come from the gospel of Mark. Mark MAY think of Jesus that way, or Mark may not. And it may also be useful (again, for me) to think of sin, not as scattered acts, but as an unwillingness to address the impact of those acts. If sin is an ontological condition (and therefore properly called Sin, and not just sins), then the fact that Jesus recognizes that he has been called out is significant. That is where I would start, in any case.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Try 2 Cor. 5:21. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

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