Friday, July 31, 2009

Even the dogs underneath the table eat the children's crumbs

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.’

- Mark 7:24-37

Reading Mark's gospel, one gets the impression of a young man who has witnessed Jesus' preaching career, his ministry. Over and over again, we seem to be told of the awe-inspiring power that comes from Jesus, infuses all that he does, all that he teaches, every word, and makes such an impact on his audience. Mark's gospel continually takes us back and forth between the Jewish and Gentile regions to which Jesus went. His startling healing of the demoniac named "Legion," whom Jesus sent out to tell of the good news, was in a Gentile region. And so, today, we find ourselves back in Gentile territory. Only this time we start off with the notion that Jesus, who cannot be left alone anywhere and has repeatedly tried to avoid the crowds that follow him, really wants to be in a place where no one has heard of him. In the feeding of the 5,000 he also started off with the intention of withdrawing with his disciples to a lonely place - yet finished as host to thousands. So we begin in the region of Tyre with today's passage.

Jesus enters a house and doesn't want anyone to know he's there. I'm continually reminded - as are others - of a popular "star" who wants to be left alone. I don't know in what literary form this "type" first appeared, but we certainly have it in some sense in Jesus. Although this "star", Jesus, usually wants to be left alone for a purpose - most of the time he wishes to pray. Before the feeding of the 5,000 it was so he could discuss with his disciples and apostles what was happening with their first missions. It's often, also, out of concern for his humility and honesty - his revelation of himself is to be done properly in the right time, with God's will and perhaps most especially with the proper understanding of his teachings. He does not want popular notions of Messiah as a political leader or king to be projected onto him. But, seemingly everywhere he goes, he's recognized and followed. So, even here in Tyre, the Syrophoenician sees him and begs him to heal her daughter, who has a demon. Again, there is this constant picture of a humanity that is so deeply in need of help all the time. The demands are endless. Jesus is one human being, but what he has to offer is something - according to this gospel of Mark - that is deeply responded to in the hearts of people wherever he goes. That is, with the exception of his own home country and kin ("a prophet is not without honor...") and of course the majority of the religious leadership.

So it is here, where he does not wish to be recognized, that she comes to him and asks for healing for her daughter. Jesus' response is startling to us: ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ And then we're told that her witty response comes next, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ I find this exchange really interesting in the first place because I think of Jesus as a classic Near or Middle Eastern speaker: his parables are vivid word pictures, sometimes with something in them exaggerated to make this image stronger for us; he uses great colorful language even when he's chastising and criticizing at his fiery best; and here he's boldly speaking to the woman who asks him for help. (The Greek word here for "little dog" is a diminutive form of "dog" that is also used metaphorically to refer to someone who is "impudent.") But the great part about this, for me, is his response to the fact that she comes right back at him with his own metaphor and stands up for herself. He may be Lord, healer, teacher and the one with the help she so desires, but she comes right back at him with a witty response, and Jesus loves her spirit. She has responded to his challenge with tenacity and persistence - she will argue with the teacher. Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, (Gen. 32, Hos. 12) our Syrophoenician woman is ready to be persistent in her engagement with the Teacher - and for that she is rewarded. This teaches us about engagement - our Teacher wants us to be engaged with him, to wrestle with these difficult ideas and concepts, to struggle and to think and to try to understand - and to communicate, through prayer, who and what we are. Just as with Jacob, this struggle is most of all about the tenacity and persistence and sincerity with which we desire what the Teacher has to offer. It is through relatedness that these teachings work and function; through the every day human story of daily struggle to gain in faith and spiritual acceptance. It's there in that "wrestling" that the real struggle for faith goes on and through which we grow and come to terms with who we are and how we worship. As human beings, we are not meant necessarily for cool and detached perfection; rather, this Teacher is with us in our struggling, our ups and downs, highs and lows - as is evidenced throughout these gospels in his wonderful, colorful speech and all of his own experiences and engagement with those like us.

In light of this engagement, I find it of no little "coincidence" that the next paragraph is about healing a man who is deaf and cannot speak properly. What could be more symbolic, a better metaphor, of our need to engage with the teacher? For that we need both ears to hear and a tongue that can speak and express itself well. Jesus also tries to do this in secret, in private, and forbids that newly freed tongue to speak about it along with the witnesses. But this is Mark's gospel, and everywhere Jesus goes his fame grows, despite himself and his teachings. The Messianic signs, here, are unmistakable. I think that the signs that he wishes our engagement with him are of the greatest importance. Worship and praise is in church everywhere, every Sunday, everywhere there is a service. But the spirit Jesus embraces is of those who do well to speak up, to engage, to question, to communicate with him - who sincerely desire what he has to offer. This happens "in private" in prayer. It is relationship, relatedness. We should never forget this great, powerful gift and the specialness of that embrace of all that is human in Jesus with the great love and grace that accepts who we are, and challenges us to grow, with Him.

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