Sunday, September 9, 2018
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)
Holy God, maker of us all, you call us to love our neighbors as ourselves and teach us that faith without works is dead. Open us to the opportunities for ministry that lie before us, where faith and works and the need of our neighbor come together in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house, and would not have any one know it; yet he could not be hid. But immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him. And taking him aside from the multitude privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Eph’phatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And he charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak.”
All readings for this Sunday:
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
1. How does the notions of “cleanness” v. “uncleanness” or “insider” v. “outsider” translate into our religious and social practice?
2. Do we act as if some people deserve healing and help more than others? How do we decide?
3. What lessons have you learned from “outsiders”?
4. Are the crumbs from our tables abundant or meager?
5. What does this story have to say to us today, in a very different culture and time?
by Kate Matthews
Many readers, including scholars, seem to miss something very interesting about this reading from the Gospel of Mark. They may recognize that the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s little girl and of the man who couldn’t hear or speak are miracles worked in Gentile territory, and they may even connect these miracles to the preceding passage, verses 1-23.
However, they don’t mention the progression from the story of Jesus feeding the crowd in the sixth chapter, along with healing and miracle stories among the Jews (including the daughter of the leader of the synagogue), through his teaching about what is “clean” or “unclean” (and the importance of the heart in such matters), to his acting on this teaching, described in today’s reading by the healings of two Gentiles, and finally, in Chapter 8, another feeding story, this time “on the other side,” where the crowd is presumably made up of Gentiles.
Because we read the Bible in short, “bite-size” passages, we can miss the arc of a given section of narrative, and we often miss an important point in the larger story. We’re also understandably unaware of the deeper significance of terms like “the other side” or of lake and border crossings or of trips to areas with names like “Sidon” or “Tyre.”
A moment of great tension and importance
It could be said that Mark is making a larger point here than the healing of two people in need of his help: listen, after all, to the interesting exchange between Jesus and the pagan mother, which often makes Christians feel uncomfortable. How, we might ask, can Jesus, our loving and tender Savior, turn away a desperate mother by telling her that she and her little girl are “dogs”?
Our discomfort with Jesus’ humanity and his very real experience and perspective as one who grew up and lived in a specific cultural context, trips us up on this exchange, even though things turn out well in the end. But if we look closer, we see several possibilities: could this be a great turning point in the Gospel of Mark? Could the early church which produced this narrative be evident in the tension it expresses and resolves?
Reading this story within a larger one
In recent weeks, we’ve heard the letters of the early church reminding us that what we do and how we go about our lives are the sure signs of our being followers of Jesus. Our words, our right doctrines, and our self-image as “good Christians” can’t define us as Jesus’ faithful disciples if we neglect the heart of the law of compassion and love.
For example, it helps us to understand the meaning of this story (and what comes after it) if we read the contentious conversation Jesus has just had with the scribes and Pharisees at the beginning of this chapter. In that confrontation, Mark says something that would have shocked the earliest Christians, a side, explanatory comment: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”
Just one short sentence shocks the audience
Just one short sentence (which doesn’t bother us much at all), but one that must have shocked those in Mark’s audience who were observant of the dietary laws of Judaism. What may seem obvious to us (specific foods aren’t unclean in themselves) was abhorrent in the religious practices of the Jews, and many early Christians were faithful Jews. Instead, Jesus points to the heart of the matter indeed: it’s not what goes into your stomach that defiles you, rather, it’s the evil things that thrive in your heart.
Having shocked the religious authorities and the crowds that were listening, Jesus decides to take a little break from his own people and familiar territory; he crosses over into Gentile territory for some time away from it all. Perhaps he needs to re-charge his batteries and re-group his spiritual forces.
Time for a rest
Megan McKenna suggests that Jesus may want to spend a little time reflecting on the rejection he’s experiencing from his own people, if he can just get away from them and find a little peace and quiet.
He takes refuge in a house and hopes that no one will interrupt his retreat. However, there were people from that same area (Tyre and Sidon) present when Jesus had worked earlier deeds of wonder in his own region (3:8), and they had come home bearing stories about him that they were eager to share.
Talking with pagans?
We contemporary readers of Mark’s Gospel may not be familiar enough with the geography of the Holy Land to know that Tyre and Sidon are in pagan territory, although, centuries later, their names became tragically more familiar during the bombings that occur in one outbreak or another in the conflict between two sides of the region’s ancient struggle.
However, the earliest Christians would have known that these were pagans that Jesus was dealing with, and they would have found the healing of a foreign child far more shocking than the words Jesus first uses to turn down the pleas of her anguished mother. We, on the other hand, find Jesus’ use of the word “dogs” to describe the woman and her daughter offensive to our modern sensibilities and in conflict with our understandings and assumptions about him.
A shocking gift of healing
How ironic that the astounding, shocking gift of healing happens because of the persistence, the tenaciousness of this mother who has been raised in neither Judaism nor Christianity. Megan McKenna observes that the presence of a woman in Mark’s story alerts us that something important is about to happen. In this case, he’s saying something about the life of the earliest disciples, and our lives as well, if we are truly followers of Jesus, no matter how much it may offend us.
So this isn’t just a pagan, but a pagan woman, and that tells everyone in the audience to listen carefully for what is about to happen. McKenna also calls her “formidable,” an “essential” characteristic for those early “outsiders” in the church, including Gentiles and women.
A desperate mother
The mother is desperate to help her tormented little girl, struggling at home on that bed, so she listens carefully to the rumors about an itinerant healer who is visiting her area. She can’t bear the suffering of her child one minute more, so she does what she has to do, even if she has to humble herself, in order to help her little girl. Any mother hearing this story would understand.
The Syrophoenician woman not only breaks into Jesus’ retreat but also breaks a number of Jewish conventions, including (and perhaps especially) when she touches him. That would have been a problem for the Jewish male who was touched by an “unclean” Gentile woman.
A woman of means asks for a favor
She is, it appears, a woman of position and means: her little girl, at the end of the passage, is lying on a bed, indicating a comfortable standard of living in that time. This woman’s position is not insignificant in the story: feminist theologians have offered in recent years a thought-provoking commentary on the text that explains Jesus’ rude-sounding response in several different and intriguing ways.
Loye Bradley Ashton summarizes them well: she offers Mary Ann Tolbert’s perspective, which focuses on Jesus’ annoyance with “the woman’s culturally unconventional and even shameful request,” in contrast to Sharon Ringe’s view that Jesus’ perplexingly harsh response has more to do with the political-economic situation, an “imbalance between the wealthy Gentiles of Tyre and the Jewish peasants of the region.” Ringe, Ashton writes, suggests that this story reminds us that the tables will be turned, or maybe righted, in the reign of God, with money and social status no longer deciding who sits where.
In any case, we have borders and boundaries of more than one kind being crossed here, and the audience, still reeling from Jesus calling all foods clean, must be even more uncomfortable with this conversation between their teacher and a foreign woman. Where are the clear-cut beliefs, the non-negotiable truths, the simple answers to our questions?
What kind of “faith”?
It’s always curious to me that any commentator or preacher might speak of this woman’s “faith.” (When Matthew tells the story in the fifteenth chapter of his Gospel, he refers to her “faith,” but here, Mark, in the first Gospel, doesn’t mention it.) How could a pagan woman have faith in an itinerant preacher from a foreign religion? Desperate hope, perhaps, but faith? What does she really know of his teachings, of his person, beyond the rumors of healings and other wonders?
Perhaps, in seeking a motivating force, we’re closer to the truth if we focus on her passionate love for her child, a love that would not be discouraged or deterred even by insult or rejection. And deep down, if we read the story closely and try to imagine what’s going through her mind, we don’t find it so hard to relate to her, no matter how different she may seem to us.
Those of us who are mothers (and fathers) can imagine her thoughts: “Who cares what he says or believes, if he has the power to heal my child? Who cares what he calls me, or what he thinks about me?”
The tenacity of maternal love
Recalling Sharon Ringe’s observation about an unequal balance of political and economic power between the Gentiles and Jews, we could say that the tables are already turned here, in this little house, when a wealthy pagan is desperate for help from a poor Jewish healer. It reminds me of the Roman centurion of the mighty imperial army coming to Jesus and humbly asking for his help in Luke 7–remember how Jesus said then that he saw more faith in this foreigner than in anyone he had met in Israel?
In that case, Jesus himself is talking about faith, which inspires us, perhaps, to explore more deeply what “faith” is. Here, certainly, it isn’t simply an intellectual acceptance of doctrines and dogmas, but a radical and humble dependence on, and trust in, a God who loves us and will provide what we need.
Opening the vision to include others
Back to the desperate mother, who can also think quickly and cleverly, so cleverly that, in an age and culture of riddles, her answer to his riddle wins Jesus over and changes his mind, not only about one child but about opening up his own (and the early church’s) vision to a new inclusiveness of all of God’s children in the gifts of grace. Perhaps the “firstness” of the Jews is expressed well in the loaf of bread, and the crumbs are abundantly overflowing and nourishing for all of God’s children, even a pagan woman and her suffering child.
It says something about the incredible generosity of God that even the crumbs from the table are more than enough for all of God’s children. The heart of Jesus is touched, even moved in new directions, not by faith but by love, the mother-love that is at the heart of God’s own love. Something deep inside Jesus remembers and recognizes this mother-love. We might even say that something in Jesus’ heart and mind and plans is “opened up” by the power of this love.
Who is “other,” who is unworthy?
Hearing this as a painful story from long ago that doesn’t matter anymore (all foods are clean, obviously, and so are all people) is contradicted by Megan McKenna’s sad reminder that Christians have not always done a good job of accepting and welcoming “the other,” whether that other is a woman, a foreigner, a member of a different racial or ethnic group, or a person of a different sexual orientation or gender identity. Today, it’s not a stretch to say that, deep down, some “good Christians” find some people “unclean” and “unworthy” of being fully included at the feast.
A colleague once told me about beginning ministry in a church where a man said he simply couldn’t accept a woman as pastor; he and his wife left the congregation (minds and hearts aren’t always changed). And yet, the Syrophoenician woman, this outsider, uses a word that is second nature to us “insiders” only because it became the Christian title for the Risen Christ: “Lord,” or “Sir,” the only time in Mark’s Gospel that this term is used.
Do outsiders have a “place” here?
In this way, McKenna says, Mark says something important about “the place” of outsiders (Gentiles and women, for example) in the early church. Considering the sad history and persistent practice of the church in regard to women and outsiders, we might also examine the attitudes of many “good Christians” as we make judgments about issues in our public life (especially, God have mercy on us, during this long election season)–issues like immigration, health care, hunger and poverty, including the scandalous income gap in this nation).
Is it possible to name “outsiders” who “deserve” (or receive) only crumbs, or less, from our table of plenty? How do the notions of “crumbs” and “abundance” play out in the rhetoric of church meetings, political campaigns, and even in our household budget discussions? Who receives the “crumbs” of “our” public resources?
Extending God’s overflowing compassion
The second part of our Gospel reading tells another story of being opened up, in this case, through the healing of a man who can’t hear. Yes, we might say that his ears are opened, but the enthusiastic reaction of Jesus’ “astounded” audience illustrates even more powerfully what it means to have one’s eyes and ears and heart finally opened to God at work in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Could the second feeding, of another hungry crowd, this time a Gentile one, that follows these shocking words of Jesus and his even more shocking deeds, be a sign, a bookend with the earlier one, in Chapter Six?
The plea of the Syrophoenician woman and her bold claim on the overflowing, tender mercies of God, in a sense, challenge Jesus to the logical conclusion of what he has just been saying. And so he follows up his words about food with the action of feeding the crowd of “others,” in Gentile territory, who hunger physically and spiritually as well. (Because we read from the lectionary rather than straight through the Gospel, many listeners are not even aware that there are two feeding-of-the-crowd stories in Mark.)
The crumbs from our table
Just as Jesus declared all foods clean, then, he declared all people “clean,” acceptable, included at the table. The healings and the mass feeding that follow make that evident in more than words, but in actions as well, just as our own statements of faith should be followed up by action. If “he has done all things well,” can we say that we have done even a few things well?
It is ironic that in a nation and world where so many of God’s children don’t even receive the crumbs from our table, churches are still arguing over who’s included, who’s acceptable, and who is born outside the embrace of God’s grace. Do we turn any of God’s children away from more than one kind of table, one kind of loaf?
Looking into our hearts
Perhaps we need to take a hard and painful look into our own hearts: Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon, “Owning Your Own Shadow,” on the earlier passage where Jesus declares all foods clean, connects with this understanding of the Syrophoenician woman’s story. Jesus, Taylor writes, knows the truth about us and our judgments about one another, especially when we place some of God’s children on the other side of a line that we draw.
She observes that “the danger” is within us, not out there, in those “others” unlike us: “There is actual evil in the world, no doubt about it,” she says, “but until we meet up with the evil in ourselves, we cannot do battle. We cannot fight the shadow we will not own.” Will our own hearts and minds, then, be opened up to receive, and share, God’s abundant, and overflowing, grace?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Pema Chodron, 21st century
“If your everyday practice is open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that–then that will take you are far as you can go. And then you’ll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught.”
John Cleese, 21st century
“We all operate in two contrasting modes, which might be called open and closed. The open mode is more relaxed, more receptive, more exploratory, more democratic, more playful and more humorous. The closed mode is the tighter, more rigid, more hierarchical, more tunnel-visioned. Most people, unfortunately spend most of their time in the closed mode.”
Albert Schweitzer, 20th century
“Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 20th century
“Mothers are all slightly insane.”
Barbara Kingsolver, 20th century
“A mother’s body remembers her babies–the folds of soft flesh, the softly furred scalp against her nose. Each child has its own entreaties to body and soul.”
Robert A. Heinlein, 20th century
“Being a mother is an attitude, not a biological relation.”
Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Life, 20th century
“An encounter with other cultures can lead to openness only if you can suspend the assumption of superiority, not seeing new worlds to conquer, but new worlds to respect.”
Nancy Schoellkopf, 21st century
“How to open your heart? Step one: listen.”
Kate McGahan, One Heart’s Journey, 21st century
“Keep an open mind. The right person coming to you at the right time will change everything you ever thought was true.”
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