Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 6, 2015
Mark 7:24-37 Commentary
Comments and Observations:
Kalos panta pepoieken
“He has done everything well.”
That’s the bottom line reaction of the crowds that were still thronging around Jesus here in Mark 7, but it seems a bit over the top when you think about it. After all, we’re by no means sure how well-known Jesus’ exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter was. From the looks of the text, this did not cause any particular buzz in the crowd (though maybe it became well-known after all). We do know that Jesus’ healing of the deaf and dumb man created a bit of a stir and got noised around rather quickly (despite Jesus’ typical attempt to keep it all hush-hush).
But even taken together, it’s a little hard to see how these two miracles would cause as grand a pronouncement as “He has done everything well!” And yet . . . maybe these people were saying more than they knew. Because especially when I look at the Greek of that phrase, I hear echoes of Revelation 21:5: kaino poio panta, “I make all things new.” Maybe the people that day, even though they had seen but the merest snippet of Jesus’ healing and restorative work, saw farther and deeper into a bright new future and toward a time when not just one woman’s daughter and one man’s sad condition would be healed but when all things—ta panta—would be made new.
And, of course, at the end of the day, that is what all of Jesus’ healings were pointing toward. As we all know, even when Jesus was on this earth, not every sick person was healed, not every death was prevented (or reversed)—no one could claim that so long as Jesus was on the earth, “everything was done well” to each and every person. In fact, though we know and savor the miracles of Jesus, they end up being relatively few in number, touching an exceedingly small sliver of the people in Palestine during his lifetime.
So why did Jesus do miracles at all? When I was in Kindergarten, my teacher, Mrs. Luyk, had a rule: if you were going to bring candy into the classroom, you had better have enough to share with everyone. True, that tended to limit how often anyone saw candy in the classroom but at least when it did show up, no one of us was left on the outside looking in on a lucky person or two smacking his or her lips over some M&Ms!
So if Jesus did not have enough healing to go around—or, better said, if it had never been his intention to extend his (presumably limitless) healing power to everyone—then why do these miracles at all? Why leave so many unhealed people on the outside looking in?
The answer to such a question is fraught with enough complexity that I won’t even pretend to offer up anything like a complete answer here. But John at least was surely in touch with part of the answer when he chalked up all such works as “signs,” as arrows pointing toward something larger and grander that one day Jesus, as God’s anointed Christ, would bring for all people. But getting there was going to be tough and would finally require something more than miracles that dazzled and astonished and titillated the masses. For reasons that traffic in deeply mysterious realms, what would be needed to make all things new one day would be the very sacrifice that Jesus will begin to talk about in Mark’s next chapter.
Of course, no sooner does Jesus start to talk about taking up a cross and leading a downwardly mobile life of sacrifice and the very crowds who were so wowed at the end of Mark 7 start to thin out. That will keep happening until finally even the inner circle falls away and the Son of God who had healed so many others will be utterly alone on a cross, taunted to “save” himself the same way he had saved so many others. His refusal to do any such thing that day at Golgotha looked like defeat, certainly to those who were hurling the taunts. But in the great mystery of salvation, that apparent defeat finally spells victory for the whole lot of us, for the entire creation, for every creature that will one day thrill to hear not only that “he has done everything well” but that behold, he has made everything new!
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
In the last few years a number of articles have been published that claim Mark 7 shows us a time when a woman actually became Jesus’ teacher. Jesus had been carrying around in his head some incomplete assumptions about who should, or should not, receive his ministry. So this lowly Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman challenged Jesus, called him on the carpet, and then, amazingly enough, Jesus changes his mind as a result.
This interpretation has proven controversial. It makes people nervous. Was Jesus capable of really learning something new? Or did being divine make Jesus immune to any real learning? When Jesus was in Kindergarten, did he only pretend to learn his ABCs for the sake of his teacher (when really he already knew every language in the world)? Could he ever really have been startled or surprised? We’ve all had those times when we’ve been so lost in thought that when suddenly the phone rings or someone taps you on the shoulder, you about jump out of your skin! Could that ever happen to Jesus? Or did he always know ahead of time when someone was going to knock on the front door or quietly come up from behind?
These are sticky questions! And, of course, we should admit that it’s one thing to wonder about whether Jesus really did learn math when he was in school, and it’s one thing to ponder whether or not a loud noise could ever make him jump. But it is quite another matter to wonder whether Jesus could have learned a new thing related to something as vital as the very scope of his own ministry. Yet Mark 7 foists this issue before us. What shall we say in answer to these thorny questions?
First, is it possible that this encounter did help Jesus to widen his own perspective? Did he really think that his main focus needed to be on his own “children,” his own kith and kin? Although this specific issue is more weighty, there is a sense in which this question is similar to other questions regarding Jesus’ ability to be surprised or startled. But if so, it is very important to distinguish between those types of things and sin. It is no sin to make an honest mistake, no sin to get startled, and no sin to be unaware of something. So if Jesus really did think at some point that he was supposed to limit himself to Israel, that was no sin. Maybe part of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human was that he had the genuine ability to learn, that he willingly allowed limitations to be placed on his own knowledge even as, for the time he was on this earth, he allowed himself to be limited to being in just one place at a time (instead of being everywhere at once as is normally the case with God).
We know for sure that by becoming human, God’s Son introduced possibilities into his existence that had not been there before, chief among which was the possibility of suffering and, finally, even of dying. Jesus shared our sinful situation without himself being sinful. That was true in terms of his vulnerability to suffering, and perhaps it was true also in terms of his ability to learn through experience the same as we all do in life.
But as interesting as all of that may be, the real lesson of this incident–the main reason why Mark made sure to record this story in the first place–is to challenge all of us in the church to imitate Jesus in being willing to extend the gospel to all people, starting with the ones who, for whatever the reason, we may initially deem beyond the pale. Maybe Jesus really did learn something through this woman, but what is vital to see is that Jesus’ heart did not change from stingy to loving. Jesus was always loving. It was more a matter of priorities that got shuffled around. Mark wants us to see that even though we may think we know exactly what (and who) needs to come first in our ministries, the main thing is to remain open to the people God sends our way. We, too, may think that when it comes to “first things first,” taking care of in-house folks has a higher profile than reaching out to the community. But if we, like the Lord Jesus, are going to be open to God’s Spirit, then we need to be willing to change everything if that’s what it takes to be loving toward everyone we meet.
As preachers, we may feel on “thin ice” when dealing with some of the complexities of this story. But we err if we too quickly wash out the apparent scandal of this story by saying that Jesus was only kidding, was just joshing around in referring to this woman as a dog. We don’t need to attribute sin to Jesus to suggest that he may have been reflecting the conventional wisdom of his day. In any event, the grace of Jesus shines through the most clearly in the story’s conclusion. Whatever his contemporaries thought, whatever the disciples thought, whatever may or may not have been in his own mind when first countenancing this foreign woman, in the end Jesus shows that he is everyone’s Savior by healing this woman’s daughter right there on the spot. We can but pray that our own encounters with people from the outside will consistently end just this graciously.
Mark continues to throw in his favorite adverb euthus or “immediately” in these two stories. Deep though we are into Jesus’ ministry now, it’s clear that even as in Mark 1 & 2 the ministry took off like a rocket, so things continue to happen in rapid-fire fashion no matter where Jesus goes. When Jesus shows up—even when the place to which he comes is way out in the sticks and even in foreign regions—IMMEDIATELY great things begin to happen to reveal the presence of the kingdom of God!
From Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Problem with Miracles” in Bread of Angels (Cowley Publications, 1997, pp. 136-140.)
“Sometimes I wonder if the miracle stories in the Bible do more harm than good. They are spectacular stories, most of them, and there is a lot of comfort to be had from watching Jesus still the storm, heal the sick, raise the dead. His miracles remind us that the way things are is not the way they will always be . . . The problem with miracles is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own . . . [But] most people do not get a miracle, and one of the meanest things religious people can do is to blame it on a lack of faith. I remember when I was a chaplain on a cancer ward at Georgia Baptist Hospital that we finally had to start frisking visitors at the door. A couple of patients had complained that perfect strangers were coming into their rooms, holding hands around their beds, and praying for an increase in their clearly inadequate faith. It turned out a local church was doing this—uninvited—as a part of their healing ministry, only it did not have a healing effect. It had a bludgeoning effect as people who were already sick got a strong dose of guilt and shame to go along with their chemotherapy. I believe the church people were well-intentioned. I also believe they had gotten mixed up about what causes miracles. They thought faith made miracles happen. They thought miracles happen along the same lines as those strength tests you used to see at county fairs. It was all a matter of how hard you could hit the thing with the sledgehammer. If you were really strong, you could ring the bell. And if you were not, well, better luck next time . . . It helps me to remember that Jesus prayed for a miracle on the night before he died. ‘For you, all things are possible,’ he prayed to his abba. ‘Remove this cup from me.’ Only when he opened his eyes, the cup was still there. Did he lack faith? I do not think so. The miracle was that he drank the cup, believing in the power of God more than he believed in his own. I do not expect any of us will stop praying for miracles. I hope not because the world needs all the miracles it can get. Every time you hear about one, remember that you are getting a preview of the kingdom. There is simply no formula for success, which is a real relief for those of us who cannot seem to ring the bell.”
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