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Jesus has a bad day??
(Chapter 7 verses 24-end)
Jesus 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.
What is your experience of church life? Has it been embracing of difference? Has it broke down barriers between people of different culture, traditions, and identities?
I hope you can answer, “Yes”! But I would not be surprised if you said, “Sadly, No!”
Right from its origins the church was a multicultural place. St. Paul, who was there at the very start of the Christian movement said this, “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” Ephesian 2:14
The Gospel passage above is from Mark. Mark’s community was Gentile, most likely in the very cosmopolitan city Rome. The gospel is written about 40 years after Jesus’ life. But here comes today’s big question! Why on earth did the writer include this story about Jesus in his gospel! It seems to totally undermine that cross-cultural barrier breaking Jesus. Rather Jesus seems as bigoted and intolerant as the most ardent traditionalist! What is going on? Was Jesus having a bad day?
Let’s back up a little & see what’s going on in the Markan narrative at this point.
This is a mini section within the gospel right at the mid-point of the narrative. It is a mini section that has two stories about feeding miracles. A feeding of 5000 and a feeding of 4000. These two stories work like bookends. The interesting and significant thing about these two feeding miracles is that the first is for Jews and the second for Gentiles. In between them Jesus announces that Jewish food laws no longer apply to the new community. After this he heads off into Gentile territory for the first time. The story of the Syrophoenician woman follows immediately.
The whole mini section ends with Jesus asking his disciples this question: When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand (Jews) how many baskets did you collect. They answer 12. And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand (Gentiles) how many baskets did you collect? They answer 7. Then Jesus asks them this question: Do you not yet understand? There is no answer in the narrative.
Do you understand? 12 and 7 are the perfect numbers in Jesus’ time. 12 is the perfect number for the Jews. (12 tribes of Israel). 7 is the number representing the perfection of God’s creation. Jesus feeds the needs of Jew and Gentile. In himself he unites and perfects all of humanity, Jew and Gentile.
That is the message of this whole mini section. But what about the awkward story of the Syrophoenician woman who Jesus insults? Personally I don’t think the writer of Mark’s gospel had a problem with this story. We have a problem because we are overly concerned about philosophical speculation about Jesus’ inner nature. This is not a concern of the earliest gospel. In this gospel Jesus is God’s anointed son. He has burst on the scene following his baptism and through his action God’s universal compassion is pouring out onto all, especially the sick and vulnerable and marginalised. This story of the Syrophoenician woman adds an extra important element to that story. What it says is that breaking down cultural barriers takes struggle and involves action. It occurs when people encounter one another and under difficult circumstances somehow find the courage to tell and hear each other’s story. It is a process, it is difficult but change can happen when people can cut through their cultural assumptions about the other and see them for who they truly are.
In this story the Syrophoenician woman represents an enemy race. These people traced their heritage through the Romans, the Greeks and the Philistines. This needy and distressed woman represents a triple-enemy race! But through her encounter with Jesus, through her manifest courage and through Jesus’ own ability to accept he was wrong, through all this amazing convergence, Jesus is able to see her for she truly is: not the representarive of the enemy race, but a woman with a sick daughter. The miracle is not just the healing of the daughter, it is that an adult Jewish male can move beyond his cultural assumptions. The writer of Hebrews explained it like this: He was tempted in every way like us, but without sin.
When was the first time you had a genuine mutli-cultural encounter? When was the first time you encountered intolerance? How has the grace of God helped you to break down barriers between people? How has the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ enabled you to see the other for they truly are and not who you had assumed them to be?
Mark Rogers, 11/09/2012
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