An edited version of the sermon preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost at St. Francis Church. Sermon text: Mark 7:(1-23) 24-37
In the first twenty-three verses of the seventh chapter of Mark - last weekend's Gospel reading - there is a dispute between Jesus and the religious authorities. He has been teaching in and around the Sea of Galilee, about 100 miles north of Jerusalem. In the very first verse of the seventh chapter of Mark, a group of Pharisees and scribes arrive from Jerusalem. They are not coming all the way to Galilee to become his disciples. They have been sent to discredit and ultimately to silence him. By way of analogy, think nuns on the bus and Vatican officials.
First-century Judaism was diverse, complex, and contentious. (Sounds a lot like 21st century Christianity, doesn't it?) A whole bunch of debates were going on within Judaism about the future of Judaism. So what is happening in the seventh chapter of Mark is not a clash between “Jews” and “Jesus” but a highly emotional argument among Jewish people. The truth is that the scribes and Pharisees didn’t agree on everything themselves, but they were allied in their shared commitment to put a stop to this rabble-rousing rabbi.
The conflict is over how to interpret and apply the Holiness Codes from Leviticus. What does it mean to be an observant Jew? The official interpreters of the tradition had elaborate rituals and rules about what you could eat and how you could eat and with whom you could eat. (And similar rules about keeping the Sabbath holy.) These were all part of the “tradition” that seemed to have a clear mandate in the Book of Leviticus. Yet Jesus (or more precisely) Jesus’ followers have been routinely violating the purity laws and rituals around eating; at least that is how the authorities see it. They refuse to wash their hands, not because they are against hygiene, but they are pushing the envelope against those who see themselves as the arbiters of what is acceptable.
So an attentive reader would be wise to ask why? Why are Jesus and his friends always “rocking the boat?” Why does this guy without any theological credentials challenge the theologians and engage in debate with them and escalate the conflict? Didn’t Jesus’ mother teach him that you get more bees with honey? The short answer is that Jesus is constantly pointing out to the scribes and the Pharisees that their application of the Torah is selective and therefore hypocritical; that they have blinders on. That it may work for them, but they make the faith harder on others than it needs to be by missing the forest from the trees. At one point Jesus famously notes that the Sabbath is for people, not the other way around.
It is interesting to me that Jesus and his followers—from the perspective of outsiders—see as obvious what the insiders with their vested interest are blind to. And I think that’s critical to grasp. These Jerusalem elites are not bad people. But the rules they make work for them; not Galilean fishermen. In those first twenty-one verses of chapter seven Jesus is surrounded by powerful people trying to intimidate him into silence. Yet he stands his ground, and won’t back down. He is a prophetic figure speaking truth to power, to people who literally have blinders on and can no longer see what really matters.
Anyone who has ever tried to speak truth to power knows how exhausting that can be. So Jesus needs to get away from it all. He needs a little Sabbath himself. As we heard today he heads about forty miles north; crossing over the border into what we would call Lebanon today. He crosses into the region of Tyre and Sidon, knowing that the Jerusalem leaders will not follow him there because it is Gentile territory, and their theology of purity keeps them from stepping foot into such a place. So he is presumably safe there.
The evangelist is very clear: he slips into a house “because he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there.” He’s trying to find some peace and quiet. “Yet,” Mark tells us, “he could not escape notice.” This unnamed woman who finds him there is yin and yang with Jesus: he is male, she is female; he is Jewish, she is a Gentile.[i] So we should also notice what Mark has done as a shrewd gospel writer: he has just turned the tables on us. Jesus is now completely in the opposite role that he was a few moments ago. In the first half of Mark 7, he was the outsider—the one without social power. But now, by comparison, Jesus is the one with all the power.
And what is interesting is that he seems, at least momentarily, a bit off his game and one might argue as blind as the scribes and Pharisees when in that position. Maybe that is what being in a position of relative privilege does to us; it makes us myopic, and even blind. Just a short time ago, Jesus was arguing for a more compassionate reading of the Torah, for a “kinder and gentler” Judaism, if you will. Yet now he sounds almost like those very scribes and Pharisees with whom he was arguing. He calls this woman a “dog.” There’s really no way around that, even if his insult is an indirect one.
Essentially he is saying that he has to set priorities in his ministry and that he hasn’t got time or energy to waste on casting out the demon from her daughter, because he has to use all of his limited resources to focus on the children of Israel—the very people, by the way, whom we just saw were chasing him away. It’s understandable, of course—especially if Jesus has just attended a time-management seminar or a course on “learning to say no.” He’s setting priorities and putting first things first: Jews first, Gentiles second.
But this woman refuses to stay invisible. She persists. Maybe even she is a little bit annoying as the truly desperate usually are. She insists on being heard because she is a desperate mother with a sick child. The tables have indeed been turned on Jesus, and she bests him in a theological debate: “even the dogs get some crumbs.”
Now some people don’t like this gospel reading because they want Jesus to never be shown in any way other than bathed in heavenly light. A self-respecting gospel writer like John would never give us a story like this. But Mark isn’t John, or even Matthew or Luke. Mark is so focused on the humanity of Jesus that he doesn’t have a problem with portraying Jesus as tired and cranky. Perhaps he is in fact just baiting her, helping her to find her voice. Either way, she is the star in this encounter because she refuses to back down. And clearly Jesus appreciates her chutzpah. So he says to her: “for saying that…the demon has left your daughter. Go home and see for herself that she is now well.”
We have a fascinating case study here that I think is very relevant to our daily lives. There are no doubt times in our lives when we should “stand our ground” as Jesus does in speaking truth to power. But in this situation, he is open to seeing his own blind spots. I’m going to let the second half of this gospel reading stand on its own since I spent so much time leading up to this encounter, except to note that Aramaic word Jesus utters as he heals this deaf man with a speech impediment immediately after his encounter with this Syrophoenician woman: Ephphatha, that is: "be opened." Jesus shows us how to not be afraid to enter into a conversation and ultimately to open our hearts and minds to the other. Because you don’t grow spiritually (or in any way) with clenched fists and your eyes closed. Be open. Jesus really listens and really hears this woman this woman to speech and it’s pretty obvious that she has spent most of her life being silenced and made invisible. Hearing her story changes his theology; it changes him. And of course it changes her, too.
Think for a moment what this suggests about prayer. I don’t think Jesus means for us to be passive and pious people, but like this woman to cry out for justice, to push back, to engage, until we find our voices. Jesus can handle that, as he shows here. We need more Christians with the kind of chutzpah this woman shows, because it leads to deeper faith. What would happen if we engaged in that kind of conversation more often—in our prayer lives and with one another, in our homes and workplaces and at church? What would it be like for us to let go of our agendas and certainties long enough to be truly open? Ephphatha. Open to speak our truths and to hear the truths of others. I submit to you that it is not weakness to do this, but a giant leap of faith. For when we engage with others in this way, the healing power of God truly is unleashed. Reconciliation is possible.
Mark shows us a fully human Jesus, and a fully human Jesus shows us how to be more human; and ultimately how to be instruments of God’s peace in a broken world.
[i] We might notice that this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman echoes Old Testament encounters between Elijah and the widow of Zarepath (1 Kings 17:8-24) as well as the story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4:18-37).