This is one of the most difficult passages in the Gospels – Thanks for inviting me to preach! Seriously, I have known Curt for fifteen years – thanks for inviting to preach on this text. It’s one of my favorites, maybe because of the complexity!
Today we get Mark’s version of this story – and that’s important because it is missing some of the key features of the same story re-told in Matthew. We know that Mark was probably written before Matthew, so this version does not have the softer corners of the Matthean version, plus it’s for a different audience. You probably remember that Mark seems to have been written for people who were not of Jewish ancestry – those who weren’t insiders. This passage is a great example. Did you notice how careful Mark is in letting us know that the woman is NOT Jewish? It’s almost humorous – First the location, then the fact that she is “Gentile” and then “of Syrphoenician origin.” Could she be any more different than HIM? He’s in Gentile territory – in a region that if you were Jewish, you would know was infamous for another woman, Jezebel – one of the MOST notorious non-Jewish women that we know of. In this region, the Gentiles were the people in power – those who held the good jobs, the chosen people. Maybe this perfect storm of location and people and circumstances is what has Jesus on edge; what makes this the most difficult passage…
In one way, this is the Jesus I know and love – he’s visiting friends, looking for quiet, always looking out for the underdog. He’s in a place where his Jewish friends are treated badly, not treated like God’s chosen people, maybe struggling for financial security, maybe even struggling for enough food as they are treated as second class citizens. He embodies what we just heard in the James passage – not putting the rich on a pedestal while denigrating the poor. So maybe he’s a bit defensive when he steps out on the street, hoping to NOT be noticed. Also, he certainly knows the story of Jezebel and he’s certainly never going to be de-railed by a woman like that. Maybe that’s why he is SO HUMAN in this. It’s hard to watch it happen though isn’t it? Cute, cuddly, brown-eyed, perfect Jesus – is rude. He not only implies that she’s a dog, but since she is a female that slur is taken one step further… He better be glad his mama wasn’t there!
How can Jesus behave this way? We can certainly understand his being wary of this woman – but to behave in such a way – what about perfect God and perfect Man?? And there we land on what makes this passage so difficult. Jesus is perfect God and perfect Man, and we start to question him on that here. How is Jesus still perfect when we’re left wondering if he kisses his mama with that mouth?
There is a difference in the Greek idea of perfection and the Hebrew idea of perfection… the Greek idea would have Jesus never cry as a baby, never have to be put in time-out as a small child, never worry his parents by wandering off, never try to disobey his mom at a wedding, never speak to a woman this way. The Hebrew idea of perfection is more nuanced – an evolution. Once you know better, you do better. Once presented with a situation, you make the best choice and learn from there. In the Hebrew idea of perfection, minds and behaviors can be changed, people can learn and grow, even if they are God also.
That’s what ultimately happens here – Jesus gets his mind changed. I truly believe he had no intention of helping her or her unseen daughter. As hard as it is to imagine, I believe Jesus starts on the side of his friends and has no intention of sharing a blessing with this woman. But she is smart and quick and relentless in her argument. She doesn’t pause at his slur – she doesn’t cry or beg. She answers him back. She sees him as his own disciples don’t yet – and won’t ever in Mark’s gospel. She makes him see that in this case, she is not the rich oppressor but the poor parent concerned for her child. The mom willing to kneel at his feet and risk that slur. She shows him that she and her daughter are also created by God – and deserving of his ministry. After all, by accepting the crumbs, she’s not taking anything away from his friends, merely accepting the leftovers that would have gone to waste. She realizes and then shows him that it is not a zero-sum game. Just because he blesses her, no one else has to do without. She changes his mind.
The second part of this story is often overlooked. We’re so shocked and intrigued by the woman that we forget about the deaf man with the speech impediment. It’s a normal healing story by comparison… a bit grody… but much more in the vein of healing stories that we’re used to. It’s easy to overlook. I think that’s a mistake though. I find it ironic that Jesus uses the phrase “Be Opened” because I believe that’s what just happened to him. He had to be opened to speak to a Gentile, he had to be opened to hear the woman, he had to be opened to having his mind changed, he had to be opened to healing a Gentile child. And now he says “Be opened” – he is preaching what he has just experienced – preaching what he has practiced – and the people follow his example. They begin to speak about his great deeds, his mighty acts. They begin to tell the story of his perfection…
Part of what makes this Gospel so difficult is all of the nuance. It’s complicated. We are much like Mark’s audience in trying to understand stuff that’s not native to us… yet we can grasp the juxtaposition of Jesus. Be opened. Let us go from here this week, opened to those we dislike because of their station in life. Let us go from here and move through the week being open to what the person directly in front of us is saying in every moment of every day. Let us go from here and be opened to the possibility of seeing a new way as we grow in perfection towards our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Audio Here: https://vimeo.com/49116417?action=share
Audio Here: https://vimeo.com/49116417?action=share