Proper 18b 2015: Jesus, I beg you

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Psalm 125 James 2:1-10, 14-17 Mark 7:24-37
The rich and the poor have this in common. The Lord is the maker of them all.
Today we are listeners to a once in a lifetime (as we know it) story about Jesus. In our hearing, we are at the edges of the room while some impertinent person, a woman and a Gentile, bows down to Jesus. “Bowing down” lets us know that she took on a posture of worship in front of him, as if he is her Lord. She is breaking the rules, a Gentile woman does not speak to a Jewish man in public. She is breaking the rules, seeking Jesus when he was trying to be alone. She is breaking the rules, speaking up, not for herself, but for her daughter, for one who traditionally has no societal voice.

Our modern ears need a translation of this ancient conversation: “Jesus, I beg you, heal my daughter.”
Jesus replies in a typical putdown of the time. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “You tell her Jesus,” we want to cheer. “Get her out of here! She is an impudent woman, a Gentile at that, and does not know her place.” You see, Jesus has replied to her begging with a traditional Jewish insult. “The children” are the Jewish people, to whom Jesus has been ministering. To call Gentiles “dogs” is the insult, common at the time. Jesus is saying that it is not fair to take himself and his message from the Jewish people and to give it to the unworthy, to the Gentiles. “What a putdown,” we think. “That’ll teach her.”

But the woman comes back to Jesus with a fact about dogs and children, and she uses Jesus’ own teaching, if not his words. “Even the dogs (puppies) under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In that moment, in those words, the woman demonstrates exactly the kind of faith that Jesus has been promoting. She shows up inappropriately, puts herself at the mercy of Jesus, the one to whom she came in worship. What comes out of her heart is her faith in Jesus to provide for all of us, and this is exactly the message that we heard a week ago. It is what is in our hearts that matters; we are not unclean from things of the outside. What comes from this woman’s heart is her faith in Jesus and in his healing power. This woman and total outsider, has quite possibly changed Jesus heart. She at the very least sees that his ministry goes far beyond the people around him. The epistle, letter, of 1 John tells us that Jesus came for the propitiation, making well, the sins of the whole world. Perhaps Jesus had not thought of his own ministry in that way before now.

The Syro-Phoenician woman – we do not even know her name – argued with Jesus. We are witness to the only time in the gospels that Jesus loses an argument, and he loses to a nameless woman fighting for someone else.

It is no wonder (although I haven’t realized it before) that the next healing in Mark’s gospel is one of “Ephphatha,” of opening up. I wonder if the story is about the way in which Jesus was “opened up” to the fullness of his ministry. In any case, Jesus doesn’t argue with the unnamed man who seeks Jesus’ healing. Jesus heals the deaf man’s speech, just as the man has begged for. The moment of crumbs and putdowns has passed.

This gospel passage about the woman and Jesus is considered one of the difficult ones. It has been a popular treatment of the argument between Jesus and the woman to say that Jesus was testing her. I don’t believe that. The “test” idea might come from our own insecurity about who Jesus is over against the Jesus that we want him to be. Only the gospels do not support the idea that Jesus was testing her; at least, he tested no one else in this way. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. I choose to believe that Mark gave us a glimpse of Jesus’ humanity, and shows us that even Jesus’ faith and mission can be stretched. Mark gave us the gift of showing us how to stand up to Jesus, if not for ourselves, than for those who desperately need the Lord’s help. Mark gave us a gift in showing us that the voiceless can win, that those with no voice (woman, child) or an impaired voice (the deaf man) can be heard and can be healed. That is Good News.

Having faith in Jesus takes courage. We might find ourselves wrestling with Jesus. Many of us are wrestling with our faith today. When, we want to know, will the murders stop? We are murdering our police officers, our neighbors, our children, each other. Some days it takes courage to listen to news; our hearts are broken in finding out “who shot whom” today. We don’t know how to heal hatred. To be sure, nothing is healed within the bounds of our humanity: we need the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. We are allowed to take ourselves to unexpected places to ask for healing. We are allowed to speak when others think that we have not voice. We are allowed to spar with Jesus, to beg for the desperate needs of our hearts. We need Jesus’ humanity to heal our own. We need Jesus’ divinity for the source of his healing power.

Have courage. Be heard. Get quiet, and know that God in Jesus is present. You are heard. You are loved. With whom might we share the healing power of Jesus?

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