Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 9, 2018
Mark 7:24-37 Commentary
Digging Into the Text:
The RCL throws another curve ball this week. Last week it was cutting out part of the text; this week it’s piling one story on another. So, the choice is to either preach both, or skip one of them to concentrate on the other. Preaching both might not be the best choice, since each story has its own unique message.
One thing that unites them, however, is that both take place deep in Gentile territory. Tyre is way up in the north, and the woman is clearly identified as a Gentile. The Decapolis is closer to Jesus’ home territory of Galilee, but it is largely populated by Gentiles. In this way, Mark follows up the controversy over washing hands and its emphasis on Jewish distinctiveness with a foray by Jesus into the heart of Gentile territory.
I will be concentrating on the first healing story, Jesus’s healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman. This is certainly the one of the two that that demands attention because of the strangeness of Jesus’s words and reactions. I will then follow with a few comments on the second story of the deaf mute.
Right from the start there’s something strange about Jesus here. With no real explanation, Mark writes that Jesus “entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know it.” (vs 24) Is it because he’s in Gentile territory and he doesn’t want to mingle with them? Is it because he’s tired and needs a break? In either case, this doesn’t fit our usual picture of Jesus as an exemplar of love and availability. As is often the case in Mark, he paints a much more human picture of Jesus.
But the news of Jesus’ presence cannot go unnoticed. How does this woman know about Jesus? Mark explains none of this. This woman’s daughter is trapped in the heart of darkness, possessed by a demon, and the mother is desperate to find a way out. She fell at Jesus feet. Strangely, that’s all the text says. In this account she never actually says what she needs from Jesus. Perhaps her request is assumed in her falling at Jesus’ feet.
But Jesus is quick to reply, and it certainly sounds like an insult. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs [Gentiles].” We need to fill in that she us a Gentile, which Mark evidently assumes because he has already made clear that Jesus is among the Gentiles. (vs. 27) (It seems somewhat odd that Mark, who is often quick to explain Jewish words and practices, fails to interpret Jesus words about feeding the children’s bread to the dogs.)
Commentators and preachers find lots of ways to soften the blow of Jesus’s apparent rudeness and rejection. Clearly Jesus is saying (as the parallel passage in Matthew makes clear) that it’s not time yet for the Gentiles. Some suggest that Jesus may have been smiling, to entice her response. Others make the valid point that the Greek word may actually mean a little or a household dog. In that case, at least the Gentiles are at least part of the same household.
But there is really no way to soft-peddle the harshness of Jesus’s reply. “First the children, then the dogs like you.” It’s not nice. It seems a heartless and cruel way to get rid of this hurting mother. Matthew’s parallel account (15: 21-28) at least makes it much more clear that for Jesus it’s a matter of timing. The Gentiles will get their gospel opportunity later; Israel comes first. Still, surely there are other ways of saying that.
I tend to think that it is typical of Mark to present a much more human, more vulnerable picture of Jesus, and this text fits. Clearly, Jesus wants to get away and be alone for a while, and this woman is a disturbance. And there’s no reason to think that Jesus wasn’t convinced that the time of the Gentiles had not yet arrived. So he sends her away with a verbal swat. Ever felt that way, Pastor?
I think that our theological commitment to the divinity of Christ may push us too far away from the reality of his humanity. Did Jesus get tired, disgruntled, irritated, or angry? Well it’s clear from the gospels he did; he was not unfailingly nice. He was human.
Let’s face it, it’s the woman who is the star of this story, not Jesus. She smartly retorts, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus pictures the gentiles as housedogs in the same house as Jews, and the woman takes it from there.” Well, the dogs can eat at the same time under the table, can’t they?” Is anyone so touch and courageous as a mother whose child is threatened?
And Jesus immediately recognizes her truth and backs off from his pronouncement. Unlike Matthew’s somewhat cleaned up version of the story, Jesus doesn’t say anything about the woman’s faith. He remarks at her words (Greek: logon). Jesus points to the logic, the convincing cleverness, the sheer chutzpah of her response.
But that is also faith. Her believing in Jesus meant that she would not take no for an answer because she knew, deep down, that he could not turn her away. She believed that the covenant God of Israel at least had room for the dogs under the table. In its rawest and most basic form, faith is the stubbornness that will not accept a “no” from God. And Jesus found it irresistible. Now I perhaps see a wry smile on his face. “You won. Go home and you will find your daughter’s been healed.” And she did.
The story of the healing of the deaf-mute that follows, which is also part of our lection, has some interesting ties to the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Both likely have to do with Gentiles (taking place in Decapolis), and in both cases Jesus acts in ways we may find strange.
What strikes me in this episode is the deeply human and intimate way Jesus dealt with this deaf-mute. Think about how a deaf-mute might respond to this situation with a stranger–fearful, uncomprehending. Jesus leads him away from the crowds to gain his full attention. And instead of words, he uses actions to signal his intent– fingers in the ear and spittle on the tongue. The spit might be a stretch, except that spit was thought to have some healing qualities.
And then the deep sigh, the single Aramaic word that sounds like a sigh, “Ephphatha!” (“Be Opened” is the motto of Gallaudet University, the national school for the deaf.) It’s interesting that Mark should keep this word, so strange to his Gentile audience. Perhaps he is intent on capturing exactly that deeply human element in the story for his readers and for us.
Jesus’s “Don’t tell anyone” is almost a joke. You heal a deaf mute, of all people, and instruct him not to tell anyone. If it were a leper, that might work, but how are you going to keep a healed deaf-mute from talking about it?
Finally, Mark wants us to notice the crowds and hear their response. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (vs. 37) I take it that they are impressed not only by Jesus’s healing action, but by his manner, by the way he treated the man.
Preaching the Text
1). My suggestion would be to choose one of the episodes here for both reading and preaching. Taking on both would, in my opinion, only confuse the congregation. There is certainly enough in either one to launch a sermon. Perhaps you have preached on the parallel in Matthew recently, which makes this a good time to explore the second episode here.
2). A good rule of thumb in dealing with a narrative text is to stick to the story. No matter how familiar it might be to you or even the congregation, the narrative has power to take us places that other forms of communication do not. There’s a natural progression that carries people along. As I have pointed out, there are theological issues to be dealt with here, such as the character of Jesus’ humanity or the nature of faith, but let the narrative lead you there. I think that the best methodology for preaching a narrative text is to re-tell the story as imaginatively as you can, and then pausing to raise questions or deal with theological issues as you go along.
3). One of the remarkable aspects of this story is the fearless persistence of the woman. She will not take no for an answer. In that way she is a model of faith for us all. Faith is sometimes just hanging in there, trusting in God’s grace and goodness even when it seems far away or impossible. This kind of persistence is evident throughout the Bible, from Moses’ hard bargaining with God over Sodom (Genesis 18) to his refusal to allow God to abandon or destroy Israel after they built the golden calf in the wilderness (Exodus 32). Like the woman who stood up to Jesus’s refusal, faith means we sometimes stand up to God with the kind of no-holds-barred feistiness we see in the Psalms.
4). I think this text also provides an opportunity for some teaching on the humanity and divinity of Christ. I find that many Christians are deeply confused about the two natures of Christ. Jesus’s actions in this story are so different from what we might expect. One way to approach it is to invite people to imagine how, with their own image of Jesus, how he might have responded differently to the woman. Out of that you can ask whether in their picture of Jesus he can be irritable, or tired, or need a response like this woman’s to set him straight. If Jesus is really human, if he is truly embodied as we are, perhaps we need to rethink what his humanity looks like.
One of the ways we describe his humanity is that he is without sin. What does that mean exactly? Does it mean that Jesus was never tired or irritated or angry but always nice to others? A quick reading of the gospels will dispel that notion. I wonder if we should look at Jesus’s sinlessness not so much as a kind of nit-picking legalism, or an unperturbable niceness, but as the struggle of a real human being to do God’s will.
Luke tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature.” (2: 52) The word translated “grew” implies a struggle, a battle. It didn’t come naturally. In Hebrews, it says Christ “learned obedience” through what he suffered with “loud cries and tears.” (5:7) Jesus’s sinlessness was not that of a divine being stepping lightly through the sludge of human sin and temptation. It was a real struggle to be the one true human being who is obedient to God.
5). Like snappy titles? I came across this title for a sermon on this text from Heidi Husted: “The Gospel Goes to the Dogs.”
CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
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