Mark 7:24-37 – The 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 9, 2012
“…He 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…’” (Mark 7:27)
Years after first overhearing it, I still agree with—and use—the trope, I don’t take the Bible literally, but I take it seriously.
Too many differing human views created the Bible for it to be read as a literal thus-it-was-written, thus-you-will-do-this sacred text.
It’s not trustworthy for astronomy, despite our affection for the wandering Bethlehem star. It’s not trustworthy for history, though an ark-full of ancient scholars (and some contemporary ones) happily, haplessly, calculated the first tick of creation through Adam and Eve’s arrival. It’s not trustworthy with names . . . for example the Gospels’ list of Jesus twelve disciples has, er, an inconsistency or two. Thaddaeus’ PR team should have worked a bit harder!
But I take the Bible seriously.
And, for my faith, there is no more serious passage than Jewish Jesus’ brief encounter with a non-Jewish woman while he sojourned in Tyre (Mark 7:24-37 or Matthew 15:21-28). Just so you won’t have to prowl your house for a Bible, here are the key verses:
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him [Jesus] to cast the demon out of her daughter. He 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (NRSV)
How do you view Jesus? As . . .
A nice guy.
Son of God.
A fictional character.
Or, your choice: _____________
We debate all the labels, and have since Jesus (of Bethlehem or Nazareth) first called his disciples (maybe or maybe not Thaddaeus) to seek God’s Kingdom (which refers to a future paradise or a present transformational moment or both or neither).
Other than Jesus’ parables and the resurrection story, this give-and-take between Jesus and a mother with a sick child represents one of the most serious and seriously essential scripture for my understanding of faith.
Why in heaven’s name did Mark and Matthew include it? The Jesus revealed appeared to be petty, sarcastic and xenophobic. In other words, about as far from “perfect” or “divine” as you could imagine. And, for the sake of argument and with a nod toward conspiracy theorists, what if we imagined Jesus as fictional, an ancient character promoted through and obscured by clever church traditions? But even if Jesus was a fabrication—and I don’t believe, think or even vaguely consider he was—why keep this dreary, damaging passage where Christianity’s Christ acts like a guy with a chip on his shoulder?
In the stark language of Mark, we don’t know if Jesus was tired or troubled, hungry or sated, with his disciples or on his own.
Picture the Nazarene glancing sideways, spotting an approaching stranger. But this is not just any stranger. She’s a woman, a foreigner and a person with a different faith from Jewish Jesus. Three strikes against her before she even mumbled a word!
She begged Jesus for help. But not for her sake . . . instead, it’s for her daughter. A child! A sick child!! A sick, innocent child!!!
Listen to his response. Did he refuse her request? Yes he did. Did he insult her? Yes he did.
And with her assertiveness, the world shifts. Angels sing. Animals speak. The sun stands still in the sky. A bush burns. Manna appears in the wilderness. Lazarus staggers from the tomb. Sara who becomes Sarah becomes pregnant.
Of course . . . none of the stuff in the prior paragraph happened. And yet. And yet. And yet. In the stark words of Mark, in the tiny space between two sentences, and in the spiritual chasm between Mark 7:28’s end and Mark 7:29’s beginning, one of the Bible’s stunning transformations took place. Didn’t it? I dare to believe so! A notion—a revelation, insight, mindfulness (if I can unfairly borrow from Buddhism)—that was not even conceived of split-seconds before, abruptly surfaced and redefined Jesus’ relationship with God and neighbor.
Am I making too much of it?
I don’t think I can emphasize this encounter enough!
As I understand faith, I don’t believe Jesus was born perfect, designed and destined to be without sin. But however we discern or debate Jesus’ divinity vs. humanity, we are invited to take a journey where hope always trumps hate. And on that journey, we will change. Or we won’t. We’ll cling to our fixed notions of the way of the world and die while still breathing.
Picture someone—say, you or me—glancing sideways, and you spot a stranger approaching . . .