“… faith” is hardly about getting Jesus’ name or titles right, nailing the right confession, or articulating proper doctrine. It’s about clinging to Jesus and expecting him to heal, to restore, to save.
This time of year, with the end of summer and people taking ‘get away’ trips the story of Jesus attempt to travel incognito to Tyre comes to mind. It was futile. His own compassion continued to get in his way. Today due to ethnic and religious warfare this trip would require a circuitous route of over three thousand miles and take over forty hours. Then, it was 35 miles Tyre is in southern Lebanon and is located on a piece of land that juts out into the Mediterranean. It was an island until Alexander the Great build a causeway in his attempt to sack it. The Romans loved it and built a Hippodrome. As it is today, for almost five thousand years, it has been a tourist Mecca and a sea port town.
Commercially it has been known for the production of an extraordinarily expensive purple dye reserved exclusively for the rich and famous made from its shell fish. It has been besieged more times than can be counted from mythological pre-history up until it was emancipated by the crusaders only to be lost again to the Turks. Today it is principally a Shi’a Muslim city with a large Palestinian Sunni refugee population.
It had been a very difficult and exhausting time for Jesus. First, he had gone to his home town and had been rejected. He challenged his followers to take on some of the work that he was doing, casting out demons and curing the ill – and learned that, in fact, they could. Then he learned that his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, had been beheaded. In the 31st verse of the preceding chapter Mark tells us that he sent his followers away to a deserted place to get some rest “for many were coming and going” and they hadn’t time to even eat without interruption. That didn’t work. On coming ashore they were met with a crowd of people, like sheep without a shepherd he called them and having compassion on them he taught them and then fed them.
He put his disciples on a boat and once they were gone he went up into a mountain to pray. What’s next is interesting, “48When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. I love this line where Mark speaks of Jesus’ intention. He intended to pass them by. 49But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50for they all saw him and were terrified. Jesus can’t help himself. He had compassion and addressed their fears. When they got to land again people recognized him and the text says: wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Just before our lesson the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus ran into a bunch of holier than thou Bible students who held to their very strict interpretation of the rules one should live by. These were Elders who came out from Jerusalem to where he was casting out demons and curing the sick, feeding hungry and teaching them. Instead of seeing the good he was doing they were disturbed by the fact that Jesus’ followers ate without washing their hands. Here is how the text reads: 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” I think I can understand.
It’s five chapters later before Jesus spells out his take on what he meant when he told his adversaries that they abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition. It’s a verse, actually two verses we all have memorized “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” His answer is a compilation of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with Leviticus 19:18b.
Since the time of the Exodus this was a perennial debate, “which was the greatest commandment?” Some would have the law of circumcision be the greatest, others the law of the Sabbath, still others argued for the law of sacrifices, each according to how it impacted their own lives and on which they spent their time and energy. The Pharisees figured that how ever Jesus answered their question it would incense some of the people against him because were he to chose one over the others it would serve to magnify one and thus he could be accused of vilifying the rest. Something like that seems to be happening today as we debate one law over another, one passage in our beloved ‘Faith and Practice” over another and in the meantime become so distracted by the debate that we forget what we as followers of Christ are all about.
Having enough of it, Jesus leaves. I don’t mean he just walked away. He went AWOL. He went to the vacation spot of the western Mediterranean. From there he 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.
The text mentions no one of his followers having gone with him. That fact that the trip is recorded at all argues that Jesus didn’t go alone. It leaves a lot of room for the imagination.
Try his best, he was still recognized. A gentile mother with a sick child heard of his being nearby. Bowing at Jesus’ feet she begged him to help her daughter. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What accounts for Jesus’ response? Why the palpable rudeness? Nowhere else does he refuse a direct request to heal someone. Nowhere else does he respond to a suppliant with a bald insult like this, calling her and her afflicted daughter “dogs.” Is he categorizing these people as unclean gentiles? Are they “dogs” because they are wealthy? Because the Syrians and Phoenicians had historically not been Israel’s nicest neighbors? Is he lumping the mother and daughter together with other Tyrians who had recently oppressed the local Jewish population? Although Jesus’ motives aren’t clear the thrust of his refusal is. This behavior is entirely out of character with our usual image of a generously compassionate savior. Is he 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 rather unique within Mark, and the woman the only person who has to endure and own a derogatory slur before receiving Jesus’ mercy.
Maybe Jesus means exactly what he says. He has no intention of expelling a demon from the this woman’s child. And it might not even be about this particular woman or child or even the fact of her ethnicity. He traveled to Tyre to get away. He tried to avoid, actually the Greek could be interpreted that he wanted to elude people.
Actually the text doesn’t say he won’t do as she asks, the children are to be fed first – but not the only ones to be fed. Does that imply that he is saying that the time isn’t right. Blessings are yet to come to the gentiles, just not right now.
This interpretation seems more in line with the spirit of the Gospel of Mark. It accounts for Jesus’ apparent lack of compassion or imagination. But there is another possibility. Imagine telling a distraught mother in an emergency room that in time her child might be cared for, just not right now.
In the 29th verse Jesus expels the demon ‘because of her reasoning’, because of her words. The text reads But 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. Could it be that the mother argues Jesus into doing otherwise. Her words. Her logic.
It’s not simply that she cleverly reconfigures Jesus’ metaphors of crumbs and canines to fit her desires. Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility. It appears she recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to. Is it hard to believe that a divine Jesus might be persuaded to change his mind about something?
It’s as if the anonymous woman inexplicably understands implications of what Jesus announced in Mark 7:14-23. Aren’t Jews and gentiles in the same boat, in terms of what makes all of them defiled? Then why should gentiles have to wait to participate in the blessings made possible through the reign of Israel’s God?
In any case, immediately after leaving Tyre, Jesus’ work goes a new way. He cures a man who cannot hear and can barely speak, then feeds 4,000 people. Those events occur in a region populated chiefly by gentiles. Although Mark doesn’t call attention to the ethnic identity of these people, it seems Jesus takes the 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. Thanks be to God for this tenacious Syrophoenician theologian. But don’t lose track of the simplicity of her achievement. Her theology doesn’t originate in books and study; it’s an expression of painfully experienced need and fierce motherly love. Who says things like desperation and tenacity aren’t the same thing as faith, when that desperation and tenacity are brought to Jesus? And in this case by a woman who is impatient for her at risk child. In Mark, “faith” is hardly about getting Jesus’ name or titles right, nailing the right confession, or articulating proper doctrine. It’s about clinging to Jesus and expecting him to heal, to restore, to save. It’s about demanding he do what he says he came to do.