Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Confronting Jesus: What Happened When the Messiah Encountered the Syrophoenician Woman

Was Jesus racist? Did the Messiah perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices of first-century Palestine?

Is it possible that Jesus had to be reconciled with his own neighbors before he could even begin to reconcile and redeem the whole world?

The writer of the Gospel of Mark thinks so.
"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." (Mark 7:24-30)
I am not sure I have ever heard a sermon, let alone a Bible study, on this text. I am quite certain this has never been engaged in youth ministry circles or preached at youth retreats I have attended.*

I know I have often glossed over this story, simply dismissing the awkwardness as though what was happening in this little tale was not really one of the most significant encounters in all of the gospels. I treated these seven verses as though they were not really as complex and border-line offensive, especially to those who first read them aloud.

I blame this on the reality that we do not like it when our Jesus calls a woman a "dog," similar to a variety of racially charged and slang terms we still toss around in the 21st century, and initially refuses to heal her little girl because of ethnicity.

Mark 7 flies in the face of all we have been taught about Jesus' love for all people, especially little children. So we don'd dare discuss this text. Yet, we should be put off when we read this story. If we are not, Mark would challenge us, have you really been listening to my gospel at all?

Mark 7 proposes, rather audaciously, the greatest news of all the gospels: all will be delivered and made whole just like this foreign mama's little girl. The good news of the kingdom of God, inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is for the whole world. The gospel is not only for the children of Israel, believing Israel, the modern church, or all those who profess a particular brand of Christian theology labeled true and biblical.

The good news of what God has done and is doing in and through Jesus Messiah is for the whole world. Syrophoenician women included. This blogger included. My Hindu neighbor down the road and across the ocean included.

This is something even Jesus apparently had to learn. After all, he was growing in wisdom and stature. You could say Jesus was challenged to rethink his mission and invite those who were used to picking at the scraps beneath the table to sit at more prominent positions around the table.

Maybe that's why Mark's next major pericope is another, albeit different, feeding story. Mark 6, five loaves to feed four-thousand, leaving twelve baskets of left overs. Five. Twelve. The Jewish story satisfied.** Mark 8, seven loaves for four-thousand, leaving seven baskets of left overs. Seven. Perfection. Completeness. The Gentile and whole world's story satisfied.

"Do you not yet understand?" (Mark 8:21)

And in between the feedings is a determined mother who doesn't give two rips about ethnicity or gender or the Hebrew Scriptures. She simply has a sick daughter who needs healing and is bent on Jesus being the difference maker. So she confronts Jesus' own racism, elitism, and exclusionary kingdom.

And her persistence pays off. Like Moses in the desert, changing the mind of God, Jesus is transformed and the gospel breaks open for her little girl and all those so used to being pushed aside by any religious story or socio-political system.
"This woman- marginalized by race, gender, and class- taught Jesus something about the inclusivity of God's realm. Jesus comes to see more fully the radical inclusivity of the gospel he proclaims through the trust and daring of this woman. He is moved from the social norms o first-century Mediterranean 'honor culture' that limited his vision and compassion. He is moved from a stance of excluding to one of including." (Ched Myers, "Say to This Mountain": Mark's Story of Discipleship, 84)
This Messianic move all started with a Syrophoenician woman's courage to confront.

So I wonder, what about the Jesus story do we need to confront? What about the witness of the gospel do we need to challenge? What about the mission of the church do we need to reimagine and broaden for the sake of our most vulnerable neighbors?
What does the kingdom really mean in the wake of pervasive poverty that cannot possibly be a part of God's plan? 
What does the good news mean for the gay community, who are so frequently relegated to the fringe or forced to sit in silence in our congregations?
What does the gospel look like for teenagers who fear walking down their hallways, uncertain who may be lurking around the corner?
What does God's dreams for the world look like in the midst of economic inequality and sexist pay scales?
What does the Messianic message mean for homeless veterans, unjust wars, illegal immigrants, dysfunctional school districts, on-going genocide, uninsured persons, or even who is granted access to pulpit, pew, or platform in a variety of religious and political conversations?
How does Mark's story of deliverance and salvation pertain to our own understandings of who is in and who is out both before and after the grave? How does the persistence of the Syrophoenician woman confront our own theologies of resurrection, eternity, and the scope of God's grace in the age to come?
I am not sure. I know I do not fully understand.

I also know that we all need confrontations here and again.

I also pray we all have the courage to confront when even the most sacred seems so desperately wrong.

*This past week we taught this story with high school youth using the Re:form: Ancestors Curriculum. Be sure to check it out: http://reform.wearesparkhouse.org/
**Many believe "five" referred to the Pentateuch, i.e. first five books of Hebrew Scriptures, and "twelve" referred to the tribes of Israel. Seven is an ancient, and still today, number of completion and wholeness. This may be the origins of "lucky number 7."