Far and Near

September 9, 2018/Mark 7:24-37


This morning’s gospel reading brings us not one but two miracle stories – two encounters that end with Jesus offering healing.  But there’s a third “healing” of sorts that takes place within these stories, and it is that healing that has the most to teach us.

The story opens with Jesus moving into Gentile territory, where he attempts to hide away.  He had certainly had a long period of ministry – preaching and teaching and feeding and healing – and so he may have just wanted a break, some quiet time, some down time to put his feet up and eat a meal without anyone asking him for anything.  In any case, the writer of Mark tells us, Jesus “did not want anyone to know he was there.”

But word obviously got out.  Maybe the homeowner bragged at the grocery store while she was buying a roast to cook for dinner.  “You won’t believe who is at my house right now!”  Or maybe someone saw him slip through the front door and recognized him.  Maybe it was even someone who had been in the crowd on the mountain that day – one of the 5,000-plus people he had fed.

In any case, people immediately heard about him, Mark says.  Immediately, word got out.  And a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, entered the house and threw herself on the floor at his feet.  This woman had a lot of things working against her.  “She is a woman in man’s world (and a single mother), the wrong religion, and the wrong race.”[1]  To top it off, she has a little daughter who is possessed by a demon.

It is that latter thing that has brought her to Jesus.  She obviously has heard of his exploits, and she wants some of that healing for her own family.  So, sitting there on the floor looking up at him, she begs him to heal her daughter, to remove the demon that holds her captive.

Here’s where things get interesting.  Presbyterian Outlook editor Jill Duffield says, “This Gospel reading always makes me uneasy because Jesus comes across as dismissive and mean-spirited.”[2]  This is not the “Perfect Jesus” another writer remembers from her Sunday school days.  You probably grew up with him, too.  “‘Perfect Jesus’ was technically human, but his incarnation fell several steps short of actual human-ness.  He never messed up, never fell short, and never had to say he was sorry.”[3]

Well this Jesus definitely needs to apologize.  Looking down at the woman begging at his feet, he calls her a dog.  “I’m not giving the children’s food to the dogs,” he tells her.  His meaning is clear.  “You’ve stepped out of your place.  You’ve come where you don’t belong.  You need to back away.”

You may have been so shocked at Jesus’ words that you didn’t really notice the woman’s response.  She doesn’t really disagree with Jesus.  In fact, she seems to affirm that his first priority should be his own people.  “But,” she points out, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus is brought up short.  The teacher, the one who had lectured the Pharisees and scribes about the importance of getting your heart right instead of worrying about outward things, the one who had accused them of hypocrisy, is himself taught a lesson.  “She does to Jesus what Jesus does to the Pharisees and Sadducees.  She takes his response, stands up to what that response means, and then turns the response upside down and inside out.”[4]

Jesus hears her word – her logos – and he is changed by it.  His heart is opened by it.  “Jesus shows us – in real time, in the flesh – what it means to grow as a child of God.  He embodies what it looks like to stretch into a deeper, truer, and fuller comprehension of God’s love.”[5]

Barbara Brown Taylor describes the moment this way: “You can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.”  The Syrophoenician woman’s faith and persistence teach him that God’s purpose for him is “bigger than he had imagined, that there is enough of him to go around.”[6]

Jesus left that house and returned to the Sea of Galilee by way of the Gentile regions of Sidon the Decapolis.  Scholars are quick to point out that this route makes no sense, that Jesus would have traveled far out of his way to journey in such a circuitous fashion.  I think the writer of Mark knew exactly what he was doing when he described Jesus’ journey.  The teacher’s encounter with the woman left him profoundly changed, opened up from the inside.  Her words pushed Jesus “to live into the expansive, boundary-busting, salvific work of God.”[7]  He journeyed home not by the most direct route or the shortest route, but by a route that would bring him directly into contact with others like that Syrophoenician woman – others who didn’t belong, who were outside, who were not “his people.”  And whereas he healed the woman’s daughter from a distance, this time, he got up close and personal with a man who could not hear, who spoke indistinctly.  He placed his fingers on his ears and touched his tongue, and looking up to heaven, he sighed.  “Be opened.”

Be opened.  Be opened to the truth that God isn’t done with you yet.  Be opened to the destabilizing wisdom of people who are nothing like you.  Be opened to the voice of God speaking from places you consider unholy.  Be opened to the widening of the table.  Be opened to Good News that stretches your capacity to love.  Be opened.”[8]

[1] Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, 87

[2] Jill Duffield, “Christianity 101,” Presbyterian Outlook, Looking into the Lectionary, September 3, 2018

[3] Debie Thomas, “Be Opened,” Journey with Jesus, 2 September 2018

[4] Brian K. Blount, “Makes Me Wanna Holler,” Preaching Mark in Two Voices, 131

[5] Thomas

[6] Ibid.

[7] Duffield

[8] Thomas

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