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Wisdom from the Underside

Mark 7:24-37

Proverbs 22:1-2,7-9,22-23

Did Jesus ever make a mistake? Did he ever have to grow in wisdom, to change his way of thinking, to grow to be a better person?  It certainly seems so in our gospel  today. At first Jesus, is closed to the request of a woman for healing for her daughter. She was of a different ethnic group,  a Syrophoenician woman, Not only does he seem not open, he actually suggests she is a dog, not worthy of the family’s food. Whewww! Quite shocking stuff! 

As shocking as the story in the paper yesterday of the bus driver who refused to answer a recently arrived Pakistani immigrant who asked politely for the time in English, and  who when he persisted in asking,  kicked everyone off the bus and called the police.  At least Jesus didn’t do that, call the police, But the Jesus we meet in our story  is someone  who needs to experience a shocking awakening that opens him up. When it happens, when he opens himself to this  voice of an outsider, to this wisdom from the underside, it changes the direction of his ministry. 

This woman had three strikes against her according to the purity code of Jesus’ day.

Strike one. She was a woman. The religious Jewish male began each day with the prayer, “Lord, thank you for not making me a slave, a Gentile, or a woman.”

Strike two. She was a Gentile woman.

Strike three. She was a Gentile woman of Canaanite descent. The Canaanites, you may recall in Old Testament days were the hated enemies of Israel. Such feelings were slow to die.

She is a Lebanese woman…wanting healing for her daughter from a Jewish rabbi; as strange then as now.  She was from the opposite side of the wall, a wall not made of concrete as is the modern wall, but a wall just as powerful,  built up by centuries of  distrust, racism, enmity, a wall of  xenophobia, of the seeing of the other as not sharing common humanity, but rather as somone to be feared and avoided. 

Of course, this is not something that only happened in Jesus’ day.  Many of the atrocities in modern time come from one group of people treating another as if they are less than human.  The history of our times is littered with these atrocities… The holocaust, Rwanda, the  Arab/Israeli conflict, Abu Garib,  Guantanamo Bay are just extreme examples of something that goes on all the time.  Blacks in Montreal speak of being racially profiled by police and other institutions. Moslems speak of the “othering” they experience when they travel since 911.  We see our own government’s unwillingness to support Canadians abroad like Abousfian Abdelrazik, and Suaad Hagi Mohamu, even Omar Khadr.   One wonders were these  people of a different race and faith, would they have been as invisible and labelled as people unworthy of attention and the protection Canadian citizens expect of their government? 

Usually Jesus has no problem going to bat for Gentiles, who were outsiders. But in this gospel, it sounds as if even Jesus had some learning to do in this area. It is curious to me that Jesus, who has just declared all foods clean, and who has just declared that his fellow Israelites need not fear outsiders, now contemptuously refuses to share “food”(healing)  with the mother of the possessed child. Maybe Jesus is like a lot of us.   It’s easier to affirm something in theory than to live it out in practise. On the one hand, he has no problem going to bat for the Gentiles and other outcasts with the Pharisees.  But, a tired Jesus, desiring seclusion, frustrated with his own followers’ obtuseness, has precious little love or energy to share with a real live Gentile in need who interrupts his retreat in Tyre.. Sometimes it is a whole lot easier to love humanity, than to love the person beside you who snores, or has other annoying habits.

In this situation, God’s unconditional love grows conditions.  In order to get the bread, you have to be a Jew . If this happens even to Jesus, it makes me ask (How/when/where do I suddenly grow conditions to love????)

God’s limitless love develops limits -Jesus moves into poverty, not enough, thinking. There’s only so much to go around. We have to careful that we don’t give it all away.  Have to keep some for the kids after all. And so I ask; how/when/where do I move into poverty thinking-that there is not enough? rather than opening myself to  God’s generosity?  Where do I  save up love instead of loving someone??? When do I hold on inappropriately  to what I have, rather open up to offer?

Inclusivity is always easier to affirm in abstract,  than to live it in concrete terms. This Jesus learns. Fortunately, he doesn’t shut down or turn completely away. And fortunately this Other, does not stop demanding what she needs, healing for her daughter. She presses her demand upon him. with wit. An exhausted Jesus says, “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs”…Now that is an insult in whatever culture one comes from, but especially in the middle east to this day it is a gross insult to call someone a dog. But she driven by her need for her sick child does not back down.  She  retorts..”But even the dogs under the table eat the family’s leavings”

In my imagination I see Jesus breaking out in a broad knowing smile, perhaps even in laughter. I imagine him having one of those AHA moments, when we see ourselves in a life-changing way.  You know, the kind of aha moments your kids, or your partner force on you from time to time.  An “OMIGOD is that really me” moment. Her wit cracks him open;  helps him to see things differently, and he relents, and practices what he preaches.

Some other questions come to me as I reflect on this passage imagining myself into the woman’s position?   What did she know of Jesus?   How did she get access to the house?  Where did the courage come from to go stand up to  this rabbi and break all the rules of contact?  How long had she been following him and begging for help???? the account of this story in Matthew seems to suggest that it was quite some time and that it was the disciples who had asked Jesus to do something about her because she was hounding them like  a dog.   One wonders if this was where Jesus got his material for the Persistent Widow parable? Just what will mothers do for their sick children? What desparation drove her to this bold act?  What kind of mental/emotional “demon” could frighten a mother so?

Some recent scholars  see this story as a “transformative moment” in the ministry of Jesus. “When Jesus leaves her, having granted her request, he doesn’t go back home;. to business as usual…he goes directly to Decapolis, a network of ten Greek cities,into Gentile territory and engages his liberating, healing ministry there. When it says he went into Sidon then to Galilee, it amounts to going due north to get in a south east direction.  Such a change in directions hints at the ongoing influence of Jesus’ encounter with the woman – Jesus’ ministry crosses boundaries both geographical and religious. It takes new directions.

A turn, a transformation has occurred. And the pivot point is the narrative crying out of this Syrophonecian woman.”  ‘She stands there toe to toe with not only a middle eastern male(unheard of) but with somebody she thought had the ability to control cosmic and demonic forces and she challenged what he was saying.’ Here’s power! The power of a woman so determined to see her daughter’s life transformed that she would dare to challenge the very system of salvation. She couldn’t wait for the ‘not yet.’ Her daughter needed Jesus’ power now. And so she acted now!  And this changed Jesus!  

The very next thing Jesus does in Mark’s story is is heal a deaf gentile man. “Jesus looked up toward heaven, and with a groan he said, ‘Effatha!’ which means ‘open up!” Is his groan and his cry of “open up” just for the deaf man or is it for both of them. 

When Jesus touches a leper, drives out unclean spirits, goes to Gentile territory (Decapolis) at a grave site with pigs present (!), is touched by a woman with a flow of blood, and lays hands on the corpse of the child, he crosses social boundaries that marginalize and exclude those who actually need help the most. The kingdom of God reverses the usual flow: in the culture of Mark’s story, people normally withdrew from uncleanness to avoid defilement;  Jesus crosses boundaries to spread (w)holiness by the power of the “holy” spirit.  and it is called forth by this woman’s bold act.

This story was probably told to speak to the resistance in the early church to including Gentiles  and may contribute to Mark’s harsh tone in telling this story. The change in Jesus toward this woman and his ensuing journey to Gentile towns like Sidon and the Decapolis may speak to the church’s later opening to Gentile Christians.

It is a reminder to the early church that was struggling with inclusivity that even as Jesus experienced conversion and turned his ministry around, so must the church OPEN UP, clear out its ears, cross  boundaries, reach out and touch and heal.   It is still a good reminder to modern churches to listen to wisdom from the underside..to open to listen to voices we may sometimes ignore. May this place continue to grow to be an open circle of healing and wholeness.

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