Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 5, 2021
Mark 7:24-37 Commentary
The lectionary perhaps does us a big favour by pairing these two stories together because the first half of our selection, when read in isolation of what came before and what directly follows, is one of those passages that challenges our picture—even our theology—of Jesus. The conversation between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is heavy and convoluted.
Broadly, there have been three general interpretations to verses 24-31. The first is to “whitewash” Jesus’ language. This hinges on the fact that the offensive words are in diminutive forms (in the Greek), so it’s more like he’s calling her a “puppy”—part of a household scene of a family (and pets) gathered around a table. A second approach is to focus on the possibility that the disciples were present, so Jesus is taking “the fall” and playing devil’s advocate, allowing himself to look foolish and mean, so that the disciples might learn what he meant earlier about the expansion of the gospel’s audience. A third view takes seriously the opening of the story: Jesus was tired and wanted to be alone, so when the woman finds him, he is likely annoyed, but ends up doing as God is sometimes depicted in the Old Testament: “repenting” or turning in a course of action.
I don’t find the first approach all that useful because instead of sitting in the piece of the text that surprises and upsets, it seeks to avoid the discomfort. Discomfort serves like a funnel in the Scripture: we aren’t meant to escape it but go through it, and slowly.
These days, I find myself somewhere between the second and third broad interpretations. We don’t have any clue which of the disciples were with Jesus as he sought out a resting place, so hinging the homiletical point of this text on their presence seems a bit tenuous to me. Though it is highly likely the twelve were with him, this story isn’t about them. And even if I’m quite comfortable with the possibility that Jesus is purposefully making himself look like a jerk, I also hold to the view that Christ was without sin and therefore did not sin against this woman by calling her an awful name. (Nor do I wish to support a reading of this text that allows for such language by Christians towards anyone today.)
And here’s where the textual context comes in to help. Last week, I concluded my commentary with a note that we are at a pivot point in Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Mark as it expands to non-Jewish communities. This encounter is the first of those, and nipping at its heels is the healing of the deaf man, and the set is rounded out by a miraculous feeding of the masses deep in Gentile territory. (The lectionary pairs the Syrophoenician woman and deaf man’s interactions with Jesus in our selection, but next week we’re skipping ahead, past the feeding miracle.)
Jesus, along with reorienting the source of purity, also took away a “religious” practice or tradition that singled and separated people as in or out. (Mark 7.1-23) Then the very next story is of Jesus facing that reality himself, head on. Commentator and preacher Brian Blount, talks about how Jesus reflects his own traditional understanding of his ministry and how what he has implied about God’s boundary-breaking, he is now faced with making explicit. (Preaching Mark in Two Voices, pg. 126)
The interpretative waters are muddied for us because we have a “complete” picture of Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity. I think, deep-down, most of us think that Jesus knew this woman was coming, even though the text tells us he was looking for peace and quiet. As God, he knows everything, right? This is what makes the second broad interpretation above so enticing: our neat and tidy picture of God stays intact; our love for his willingness to humble himself grows. But the Scriptures also speak of the second person’s kenosis (or emptying of his heavenly powers) in order to become fully human, and of the presence of the Holy Spirit with him, both filling him completely and then occasionally resting upon him for special works.
What if this passage is about Jesus himself realizing something wonderful and choosing to live kingdom values then and there? Do you notice the progression in the text? Jesus goes from teaching a value, facing a real-life situation where the value applies, then diving into the deep-end of practice by healing the deaf man and feeding the multitude of people considered “outside.” It’s as though, while on a break and wanting some rest, Jesus hears the woman persist in humble advocacy for her daughter and thinks, “Oh! This is that!”
For Christ, who kept all the purity laws perfectly, the best way to express the will of the Father was inclusion. We have moved from the principle (last week), to the realization of personal application and wholehearted expression. To realize how the will of God is meant to be expressed in your life, simply because it hasn’t been expressed thus far in that way, is not a sin; it’s an invitation.
This reading is supported by the metanarrative of Mark as Jesus changes the way he interacts with the Gentile community in a way that mirrors his presence in Jewish neighbourhoods. Previously, the only time Jesus was among the Gentiles was in chapter 5, when Jesus healed the demoniac and tells everybody to spread the word. Here, though, as R.T. France points out in his commentary, the Markan secret motif returns in verse 36. France further comments that the healing of the deaf man in our passage is a parallel to the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida—a passage that serves as another key pivot point in the gospel of Mark—a “symbolic introduction to the following account of the gradual enlightenment of the disciples.” In the parallel, can we infer a similar symbolic meaning for non-Jewish people coming to understand the truth about Jesus Christ? (The Gospel of Mark, p. 300-1)
We know that faith is possible among the Gentiles. We see it in the Syrophoenician woman. She calls Jesus, “Lord,” (perhaps translated as “Sir” in your Bible like it is in mine…) and some commentators believe that it is this title that Jesus responds to when he heals her daughter and says, “For saying that…” because “Lord” functions as a statement of faith. Either way, her response that the crumbs, the littlest bit of even the leftovers of Jesus’ work, would be enough, is a statement of all too unique faith.
There’s a lot of good news here. That not every missed invitation (thus far) is a sin of omission. That even Jesus “learned” about the fullness of the kingdom of God and all its glory and he shows us how to grow in our own expression of those values. That we are invited into that full and expansive gospel. And that, no matter who we are, who others see us as, how we’ve been cast out or regulated, the littlest bit of Christ is more than enough to welcome us into the family of God—and there’s nothing anyone else can say about that. And even if we’ve been gotten the message that we don’t deserve it, we can approach the throne of grace and advocate for ourselves and for our beloved to know the healing power of God.
In our paired healings, Jesus acts both in presence and from a distance. He heals with words and with physical action. It is, as the people who see the healed deaf and mute man say, “He has done everything well!” The English translation doesn’t quite capture their response even though it tries to by using a word a bit out of use today, “astounded.” (At least, when I hear it used, it’s in reference to being shocked in a negative way.) The Gentiles were overwhelmed by what they were witnessing. It was amazing! It knocked their socks off! They couldn’t get enough so they kept talking about it! “He has done everything well” becomes their awestruck sermon.
I remember the experience and privilege of mentoring an adult convert to the faith. We started out by reading the gospel of Matthew together, and from the genealogy, she kept saying, “This is amazing!” The Holy Spirit had opened up her eyes to see the greatness of God in its words, and to see her story in the text. She identified with various outsiders, like Rahab, who was welcomed into the family of God and used by God for his purposes. We kept reading and she kept reflecting on how God had done similar things in her life, though she didn’t know it when it was happening. She too believed that Jesus has done everything well.
How many people are sitting in our communities but still feel like outsiders? How many have refrains of faith going unspoken because they do not fit our comfortable and tidy pictures of God? How many are holding on to the smallest portion of faith in Christ and need to hear that that small seed is enough for now? Where do we need to “be opened” and step into wholehearted living of God’s kingdom values of inclusion? Can we challenge them, as the Syrophoenician woman did? How is God making the deaf to hear and the mute to speak today?
To further support the metanarrative interpretation of Christ’s realization of his own call among the Gentiles, Robert A. Guelich points out the way that the woman’s interaction with Jesus parallels the one that Jarius, a synagogue leader, has with Jesus in chapter 5. Jairus and the woman in our text today are the only two people to fall at Jesus’ feet (“bowed down”) in the Gospel of Mark. Both come on behalf of their daughters; both come in faith that Jesus can do something about it. The Gentile woman is implicitly raised to the level of an important Jewish man, equalized by need for Christ and by faith. (Word Biblical Commentary, Mark 1-8:26)
Poet Malcolm Guite has a piece on Jesus’ command in this passage. In the preface to the poem, he highlights how, when we read the text out loud, our own tongues get tied by the Aramaic words Jesus speaks to the deaf and mute man: “Ephphatha;” in essence, we are brought to a place of identifying with the man in need of healing. “Be Opened” serves as a call to our own plugged ears and tongue-tied-ness. What in us needs to be opened? Listen, read, and apply it for yourself: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/be-opened/
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