Take It Seriously

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.

She persisted.

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 . . .

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  1. I taught history courses. The textbook used to teach teachers had used the bible as a good example of clues to a document’s credibility. That was because the individuals and organizations that produced the bible and updated the language over generations did not delete or reword awkward stories like the one you discussed.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Lou! I am grateful for the “awkward stories” of the Bible. Drunken Noah, lustful David, clueless Peter and so many more. Their mistakes underscore God’s enduring, forgiving love for we foolish, wonderful humans.

  2. Thanks, Larry! You’ve just helped me a great deal with this week’s message. I’m working around a monolog I wrote from the woman’s perspective (which will be performed by someone else) which actually seemed to make my task harder, not easier. Always love your perspectives, especially the delightfully warped ones.

    1. Pam…you sure know how to woo someone…I’m so tickled to be viewed as “delightfully warped.” Makes me feel warm all over!

      And…I’m quite sure “writing for another” is tough. Retaining your voice as a writer while you craft words for the spoken voice of a performer sharing with an audience/congregation is demanding. I’d love to “hear” how it goes.

  3. The first time I went offshore to work (winter) after a sixteen hour boat ride we were told to gather on deck for personnel pick up. I looked around for the p8ck up boat… nothing. Them from the rig a ridiculous little cone shaped thing of nylon line and plastic. I wondered why and then saw the seasoned hands nonchalantly grab on and the rig crane lifted them 120 feet to the main deck. When I realized that I was either going to do the same or p[ay for a boat ride back I could not at first move or even think. It was a sort of baptism because I most assuredly died and came back to life during the trip to the deck.
    Such life changing moments are rare thanks be to a gracious God but6 I treasure them. I wish I could think of them as epiphanies and I call them that sometimes but they are really “Oh s** t” e.g. Butch and Sundance jumping off the cliff. Chiam Potok calls the burning bush incident a :”leap in being” but if I were Moses it is one of the moments I just mentioned. I have often thought that the moment Jesus looked toward Jerusalem and said (almost to himself) “Le5s a kernel of corn be put in the ground and rot” as the moment he truly and clearly saw the future as another of those profane holy moments.
    And now on this very day ( to quote my favorite TV program) you have added another of those world changing moments. Keep writing and thanks.

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