Dear Grace Church Family,
During times a great stress, such as now, it is easy to forget who and whose we are, to strike out at others who irritate us, and especially those we might hold responsible for having increased our stress. It becomes too easy to think in an us verses them perspective. A story from Mark’s Gospel has something to remind us of; that we are God’s children, and as Jesus’ disciples our job is still to help others see that truth in themselves.
Mark 7: 24-37: A life-changing encounter with Jesus. I don’t get this! How could Jesus be so cruel? This lesson from the Gospel According Mark is shocking! I read it two weeks ago in our Daily Lectionary, and it’s been with me ever since. First, Jesus seems to be skulking around in strange places, on his own, trying to hunker down and not be seen. Second, he is downright cruel to someone coming to him for help, calling her a dog, and only relents to help her after she keeps at him. The whole story seems so incongruous with what we know of Jesus and his love.
Both of these problems, though, actually drive us toward the point of this passage. We will see that with some background information, and a little help from Matthew’s account of the same event. With that additional input, we find that Jesus is not on his own; the Disciples are all there with him. Jesus is there because he has just finished some epic battles with the Pharisees in Jerusalem, and, yes, he needs a break. This region of Tyre, to the north of Galilee, is totally pagan, and supremely Gentile. If we have read the preceding chapters of either Mark or Matthew, we see that to this point, Jesus’ entire ministry has been understood as a purely Jewish mission; he is the savior, the messiah, for Jews alone. In this territory, no one will know him, no one will disturb him. He and his Disciples will be able to catch a break and rest. This is how the Disciples see it anyway. When this Syro-Phoenician woman recognizes Jesus and seek him out, it is the Disciples who want Jesus to send her away. She is disturbing them, they say, with her cries for help.
Instead, Jesus begins to interact with her. His manner seems gruff to start. But remember, the Disciples are watching, and this is what they would expect from a holy rabbi when encountering someone the text is clearly identifying as a pagan, and worse, a gentile; one they would themselves routinely refer to as a dog. (Hebrew slang for a pagan worshiper of idols.) To them, all of this is a given as to how things are understood to be done.
Now, suddenly, Jesus and this woman will turn everything the Disciples understand to be “a given” upside down. He banters with the woman, using the very ethnic slur the Disciples are already thinking, reminding her that since she is a pagan, she is unworthy of the gifts of God reserved for God’s people alone. The woman now responds with an amazing statement. Incorporating that very slur into her defense, she reveals a profound personal faith in the blessings of Jesus’ God, and most especially in Jesus himself, despite being the pagan-foreigner-gentile that she is. To the Disciples she is worthless. She is not a Jew. She is not one of the Chosen of God. She is not even among the tolerated of the gentiles who are known as proselytes. She represents the worst of the worst; she is completely irredeemable.
Yet, she has enough faith to recognize Jesus and seek him. Even Jesus seems stunned by the depth of her profession of faith. Jesus now sees a child of God, and this conversation has revealed her as such to the Disciples. With this moment his whole ministry changes. Very shortly after this encounter, Jesus takes his disciples on a mission trip that will cover all the outlying pagan/gentile regions surrounding Galilee. Neither Gospel account records any objection by the Disciples to this change. Perhaps, for this moment anyway, they get it. His is no longer a parochial, limited purpose. He is now the Savior, the Redeemer, of the World.
As the Covid-19 virus variant invades our land, we are being compelled to distance again from each other, and to return to careful hygiene and masking practices as much as possible. We are hearing again (or in some cases, continuing to hear) of some striking out at those they personally see as irredeemable: those that differ from them ethnically, racially, socially, and especially politically. Fear and separation can cause any of us to do terrible things, to forget that we are Jesus’ disciples today, and to revert to thinking as the Disciples did before Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman. In this respect, this story provides us with a “check” on such behavior. It reminds us of whose we are, and whose purpose we serve in this world. Whatever our circumstance at this time, our purpose is to represent The Redeemer of the whole World.