Lebanese Mother Takes Jesus to Task

As Gospel stories go, this one is truly odd. It tells of Jesus leaving Galilee and walking to what is present day Lebanon. So, I asked myself,  why on earth would a Galilean Jew make the trip to Tyre? First, it was a long way to walk.  Depending on the route Jesus choose the trip would have been about 85 miles one way. Tyre could not have been more different than rural Galilee.  It was a booming seaport city with two harbors serving strong economic forces in the region.  Among other things Tyre was known for a much sought after scarlet-purple dye that it produced and glassware and was a leader in shipbuilding. They even minted their own coin. Before a causeway was built, Tyre was an island sitting a half mile out into the Mediterranean.   It was home to a Roman hippodrome that seated 20,000 spectators, a huge triple-bay triumphal arch, an aqueduct and Roman gymnasiums and baths.  It was a center of Canaanite paganism with temples to Astarte and other deities. It was a vacation destination.  It was a pagan play ground and known to be heathen by the Jews.  So why on earth would this itinerant rabbi choose to go there?

Mark’s Gospel tells us what led up to this odd story.  Jesus had only recently learned that Herod had executed his  cousin and mentor, John the Baptist.  Jesus had gained notoriety as a traveling miracle worker.  Following his feeding the five thousand wherever he went people laid out their sick  and begged him to let them simply touch the edge of his cloak. And it adds,  “and all who touched him were cured.”  Evidently seeking to combat the growing popularity of this miracle worker a group of Pharisees and religious lawyers encounter him.  Instead of being struck by the greatness of Jesus’ ministry they point to the fact that  his followers didn’t wash their hands before eating.  He told them that it was what came out of a person, not what went in that defiled  Maybe they were mostly interested in protecting their belief system from the disruptive view of this itinerant upstart. Or maybe they were more interested in following their own traditions than living in obedience to the commandment of God.  Jesus tells them it’s not the dirt on your hands that defile you. It is what comes out of you, not what goes in,  that defiles you. Mark has it right.  He called them hypocrites.

He could deal with the people misunderstanding his ministry, he was trying to deal with his grief over the death of John and the attacks of the religious leaders of his day were to be expected.  But for Jesus it got even worse.  When, alone with his disciples they too challenged what he had said.  After all this time with his disciples, after sending them out two by two in ministry, disheartened he ask: “Are you as dull as the rest?”  He spells it out for them.  It is from inside, out of a person’s heart from which come evil thoughts, acts of fornication, theft, murder, adultery, ruthless greed, malice, fraud, indecency, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. “…evil things all come from inside and they defile the man”.  The next line in Mark is ‘Then he left….’  I can’t blame him.  This is where our text takes up… Mark 7:24-37

24From there he (Jesus) set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Mark says Jesus went away to Tyre and found a house to stay in and he did not want to be recognized.  I really have to wonder who accompanied him?  Did he go alone?  Traveling with his usual entourage, his disciples or even a select few would have been counter to his intended anonymity.  According to Luke and Mark, long before Jesus ventured to Tyre the people there knew about him and the things he did because some had experienced the healing grace he had offered and then returned home.

Probably the biggest issue for us is how to deal with  palpable rudeness of Jesus in this story.  It is so contradictory to our understanding of his character.  Nowhere else does he refuse a direct request to heal someone. Nowhere else does he respond to one seeking aid with a bald insult, calling her and her afflicted daughter “dogs.” Is he categorizing these people as unclean gentiles? Are they “dogs” because they are wealthy? Was it because the Syrians and Phoenicians had historically not been Israel’s nicest neighbors? Is he lumping the mother and daughter in with other Tyrians who had recently oppressed the local Jewish population?  Although Jesus’ motives are not clear, the thrust of his refusal is. And it is entirely out of character with our usual image of his being generously compassionate.

Somewhere along the line I’ve probably made the argument that Jesus’ initial denial was uttered with a playful gleam in his eye, that he’s giving the woman a chance to express the faith he knows dwells within her before he gladly heals her daughter. This would make the story unique within Mark, and make the woman the only person who has to endure a derogatory slur before receiving Jesus’ mercy. I don’t think I can support the idea that Jesus was making her pass a test before he ministered to her and her daughter.

I guess if you get really literal in his saying “Let the children be fed first,” Jesus is implying that the time is not right. Blessings may come to gentiles, in time, but for now his work is on behalf of Jews. His answer is not  “Absolutely not,” rather  “Not just yet.” It’s the strange lack of compassion or imagination on Jesus’ part that makes us resist such a reading. For some of us it is our reluctance to believe that a divine Jesus might be persuaded to change his mind.

But perhaps Jesus means what he says and has no intention of expelling a demon from the Syrophoenician girl. Given that interpretation it is all about this mother arguing with Jesus until she wins.

She doesn’t demand to be treated as one of the “children.” Look, Mister, I’m not asking for a seat at the table. My daughter is suffering. All I need from you is a crumb or two. I know that will do the job. But I’m going to need it right now. Parents of really sick children don’t respond well to told to wait.

The text says that Jesus expels the demon dia touton ton logon — “because of this reasoning”  thatthe woman puts forward. It’s because of her logos, her statement that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her argument. Her logic.

It’s not simply that she cleverly reconfigures Jesus’ metaphors of crumbs and canines to fit her desires. Her words contain tremendous theological insight. She recognizes the potency of this “food”.  She recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about what Jesus brings.  Go ahead, children, eat all you want. But what if your table can’t contain all the food Jesus brings?  The excess must therefore start spilling to the floor — even now.

In any case, on leaving Tyre, Jesus’ work is changed. He cures a man who cannot hear and can barely speak, then feeds 4,000 people. Those events occur in the Decapolis, a region of intentional refuge mainly populated by gentiles. Although Mark doesn’t call attention to the ethnic identity of these people, it seems Jesus has taken this Syrophoenician mother’s wisdom to heart. The timeline has been accelerated; gentiles receive blessings, too, even now. The woman’s persistence benefits more than just one little girl.  Her persistence persuades Jesus to do new things in his ministry.

So thanks be to God for this tenacious Syrophoenician theologian and mother. But don’t lose track of the simplicity of it all. Her theology doesn’t originate in books and study; it’s an expression of painfully experienced need and fierce motherly love.

Jesus commends the woman’s logos (“reasoning”) and says nothing about pistis (“faith”)  and that is strange indeed in light of other the many passages in Mark that connect faith to receiving blessings.   For some interpreters, this makes the Syrophoenician mother mostly a model of determination or verbal dexterity rather than faith.  I rather think she makes us rethink what  “faith” means. Did you notice her persistent efforts, refusing to go away until she gets what she came for,  her hopeful insight by refusing to believe even a tiny speck of grace isn’t out of reach and knowing just a scrap can make the difference for her, and — in the end — her trusting acceptance, her willingness to take Jesus at his word and journey home alone to confirm her daughter’s healing.

Faith is hardly about getting Jesus’ name or titles right, its not about reciting the right creed or articulating proper doctrine. Faith is about clinging to Christ and expecting Christ  to heal, to restore, to save. It’s about demanding Christ do what Christ says Christ comes to do.   Let her faith compel all of us to recognize new implications in a truly abundant gospel.

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