PROPER 18 B,
Isaiah 35:4-7a, Mark 7:24-37
“Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.” Tyre was a Phoenician city on the coast northwest of Galilee, about 40 miles from Capernaum. This means that Jesus was in Gentile territory. It sounds like he was looking for some peace and quiet. “He went into a house and he did not wish anyone to know about it. . .”
Last week we heard about how some Pharisees had come from Jerusalem to check out Jesus and to catch him in some offense. We’ve seen earlier this year that Jesus was not respected in his own home town, that Herod saw him as a menace. In other words things were getting hot for him, even in Galilee. And yet the crowds followed him relentlessly. He had fed the 5000 and cured many, but they always wanted more.
Notice that they did not demand sermons; they demanded miracles. How discouraging must that have been for Jesus? Reminds me of the people of Rome demanding bread and circuses. Throughout Mark the question is who is Jesus? The miracles are clues, if you will, they are signs that point to something else, that point to God and tell us something about the nature of God, but like the disciples we are awed by the miracle itself and fail to look further.
But there is no escape for Jesus. The Syrophoenician woman, frantic to find help for her daughter, seeks him out. When she makes her petition to Jesus, his reply is startlingly rough: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This translates pretty clearly to us across the centuries. “Why should I waste my time and energy on healing gentiles, when my mission is to the Jews? I think we get it that the Gentiles are the dogs. We know they are considered to be unclean by the Jews. Barclay says that to call the woman a dog in that time was pretty much like calling the woman a bitch would be today. However, he also points out that Jesus softens this insult by using the Greek word for lap-dog, rather than a wild dog of the streets. He might have softened it further by tone of voice or by smiling. Or he may just have been too tired to rise to his usual level of care and concern for the other person.
Remember that the woman is bowing down at his feet. And her response may well have taken him by surprise, because it was quick and very clever. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” This earns her Jesus’s respect and also his willingness to cure her daughter.
“Foreshadowing” is a literary term that describes the technique of hinting at dramatic events that are to come, so that the reader is not taken completely by surprise. This story certainly hints in several ways at the extension of the Jesus movement to the Gentiles. Jesus does in fact cure the woman’s daughter. He is escaping from the rebuffs and dangers he faces in his own Jewish community. Just so, the Jesus movement will later spread to the Gentile community when it is rebuffed by the Jews. This is the traditional view of the story.
I wonder if it might not be the other way around. That the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman may have opened Jesus’ eyes to the possibility that his message could be spread beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community, that other people were also hungering for the kind of spiritual food that he could provide. There’s no way to know, but this strikes me as one of the turning points in Mark’s gospel.
Jesus leaves Tyre and goes to the Decapolis, an area of Roman communities on the east shore of the sea of Galilee, another Gentile area. The first thing Jesus does is cure a deaf-mute and then try to keep it quiet. We’re told that his attempts did not succeed and the story was proclaimed zealously. The people were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
This reminds me of the disciples who were so relieved that Jesus calmed the storm that they didn’t even look at the meaning of the miracle. I suspect the same thing is going on here. To say that “He has done everything well,” is a kind of damning with faint praise. They are not looking at all beyond the physical healing to what it might imply about Jesus.
In the Isaiah lesson today it is proclaimed that when God comes to us, “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer , and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” So why don’t they get it?
The people are too astonished at the power of Jesus to heal. They want him to heal them or their friends or their family members. They don’t even think about whether Jesus is a messenger of God, much less God himself, or where his power to heal comes from, or what that might say about his teachings. They just want the miracles. They don’t see the miracles as signs of who Jesus is or what else he might bring them. What about healing of inner blindness? What about healing of the soul? What about healing of anxiety or evil thoughts? They all seem to be operating at just the literal level, as we so often do ourselves.
In their blindness they do not see Jesus for who he is. How often do we make the same mistake, not just with Jesus but with other people around us? How hard is it for us to see them as children of God? How often do we just live on the surface of life and spend our time and energy trying to avoid the depths?
The problem with this approach is that the life of the spirit, the spirit that dwells in each of us, is carried out in the depths of our being. If we avoid going there, if we avoid reflecting on our lives and our own strengths and weaknesses, if we avoid reflecting on what we’ve seen and heard, and don’t attempt to understand not just what happened but what it means, we weaken the spirit. Interpreting the signs is soul work.
And the signs are not just in the Bible but come to us in everyday things as well. The signs, the clues to God’s being, are everywhere – in nature and in people. Gather up some fall leaves; better yet, do this with a young child. Take a good look at the first snowflakes of the season. Think about the people who have inspired you.
We must pay attention to our spiritual life and nurture that part of ourselves to keep the spirit healthy, so that it can work with all the other parts of us to make us the best human being we can be. And we have to pay attention to the spirit in others if we’re to have any chance of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
That’s part of what we mean when we say, “Go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit!” Not just the power of the Spirit “out there” but the Spirit “in here” and the power of the Spirit in our neighbor. Recognition of that spirit in others helps us to love them in spite of their flaws. And always remember that it allows them to love us in spite of our flaws too. Thanks be to goodness of God!