“From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him 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.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’”
For the last few weeks, the lectionary texts we have preaching on have focused on John – we have witnessed Jesus making a theological exposition about being the bread of life, about needing to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to be saved. And while such talk might be hard to fathom, the obscurity and theological emphasis of the writer John can in some ways can allow us to sit back with an espresso and have a high-brow discussion on Jesus’ dual nature of humanity and divinity.
This is not the case in Mark. In Mark, most likely the earliest gospel and where the lectionary returns today, we see a writer close to the action, perhaps even a bit too close for some. Along with capturing Jesus’ teaching and deeds, his miracles and parables, he captures the brute physicality of the gospel being performed. Reading through Mark, we hear Jesus’ voice rise on occasion. He groans when he heals a deaf man. We hear him uncomfortably distressed in Gethsemane, and on the cross he does not go quietly but with a loud cry. The gospel of Mark has not had time to be fine-tuned or have the edges refined. In this gospel we witness the ministry of Jesus not simply as a mental or theological exercise, but as part of a mission to do battle with demonic powers. There is deliberate conflict, and in essentially every story of Mark we witness Jesus out to destroy the demons infesting people and institutions.
But, perhaps much to our surprise, Jesus does not win every fight. When he goes to Nazareth, his hometown is so full of unbelief he “could do no deed of power there,” and he has to limp away, at least that day, without victory. Jesus as written about in Mark is no sure thing.
The possibility of defeat is seen here in the Syrophoenician woman also. Although Jesus has left Palestine to hide in Tyre, his reputation precedes him and soon there is a Gentile woman who has come to ask for healing for her daughter. Essentially Jesus is blowing up -his twitter follower count is seriously rising. News is spreading about his healing abilities. We would think that Jesus would want to show off this power, to continue the battle against the evil forces in the world. But he does no such thing. Has he met the limits of his power? He does not even let her down gently, but instead strangely rebukes her – even not so subtly insinuating she is a dog!
This passage offends many people, and rightly so. We have been brought up believing that Jesus stands at the door of our heart and knocks, right? He is our homeboy, after all? We have domesticated Jesus so much that we miss the important point that is occurring here, a point so important we overlook it since recognizing it would scare us to death; it would destroy the order of things and the picture we have of Jesus.
What is going on here? Something similar to what Littlefoot experiences in the Land Before Time. If you remember, Littlefoot asks his mother why he can’t play with the three-horn Cera. And Littlefoots mom replies, “Well, we all stick to our own kinds. The three-horns, the spike-tails, the swimmers, the flyers…we never do anything together.” When Littlefoot asks why, his mother says “because we’re different. It’s always been that way.”
The terrifying reality we witness in this passage is that Jesus does not serve the vague “God of everybody.” He serves the scandalously particular God of Israel. In this way, he is only called to be faithful to Israel’s God, to the people of Israel. Mark portrays Jesus not as Superman but as a faithful servant and prophesied Messiah for the people of Israel. If Israel’s Messiah is going to cast out the demon of a Gentile girl, it is going to take a miracle.
At the same time, the woman is going to have to make a sacrifice and take a risk. She is going to have to betray her family and culture, her own people who hated the Jews. She realizes no one from her people can save her. She is going to have to put up with being called a dog. By Jesus!? How do we get around this? We could conclude that Jesus is a racist. Or that this was a cultural thing. Or that he was testing her faith. There are many ways to color this. But the response of Jesus to this Gentile woman more profoundly reveals that Jesus is not first and foremost our friend. We really have nothing that God needs, and any righteousness we think we have because of our upbringing or heritage is worthless. But in spite of all of this, we recognize that we still need Jesus, even if all we are able to receive is crumbs from the table. And it is in this frail, desperate response of the woman that we witness a Gentile’s participation in the work of God. By humbling herself, by begging, this woman enables a miracle to occur through Jesus. By risking, by abandoning herself to Jesus, she is able to push with Jesus against the powers of darkness, of separation and exclusion. Just as five different types of dinosaurs set off for the Great Valley, so we are invited to swallow our pride and ask for the crumbs of grace, crumbs that can wage a war against the powers of darkness.