Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
According to Jewish law and the tradition of the elders, this woman is unclean: she is unclean because she is a strange woman, unclean because she is a Gentile. Her daughter is unclean for both these reasons, and more so because she has an unclean spirit. Although it may make us uncomfortable, Jesus’ rudeness would not have surprised Mark’s original audience; he was
simply addressing her as any Jew might address an impertinent, unclean Gentile woman with the audacity to approach him.
This woman does the same. She doesn’t say, “I’m not a dog,” or “it’s the Jews who are the dogs.” Instead, she says, “Let’s say for the sake of argument that you are right: that God loves you more than me, that I am a dog compared to you. Even so, by your own logic, aren’t dogs entitled—even expected to—eat the crumbs that fall from the table?”
In resisting Jesus’ racism, she actually takes the place of Jesus in this argument—using the underlying logic of the argument to prove her opponent wrong. In this story, it is the woman—not Jesus—who is doing Godly work by asserting her and her daughter’s place in God’s kingdom and their value in God’s eyes. What’s more, Jesus recognizes this—and acquiesces. He knows when he’s wrong, and when he’s been beat; and in his acceptance of her point, he uses his power to do God’s will, even though it is against his own, because he now understands that it is part of bringing about God’s kingdom.
The kingdom of God is an image often employed by the gospels, and it is a phrase that the evangelists like to play with because Jesus’ audience had certain expectations of what that kingdom looked like: they understood God’s kingdom as the promised restoration of the Davidic monarchy in Israel. For the Jews, this meant being free of Roman rule and reconquering all the land that they had lost since the founding of the nation, including Galilee and Samaria. It also meant their vindication as God’s chosen people, a holy and inviolate state exalted above all others, with peace and prosperity for all.
The single word that best encompasses Jewish expectations of God’s kingdom is shalom. The word “shalom” means “peace,” in Hebrew, but like most Hebrew words, its meaning is deep and rich. It means not only peace in the sense of an absence of war or conflict, but the kind of deep abiding peace that comes from a healing of all divisions. Shalom encompasses a sense of universal justice, of everything being right with the world. Shalom means that everything is healthy and whole and as it should be; and for the Jews, this meant God’s chosen people Israel being at the head of all the other nations—the world’s only superpower, we might say—embodying (or perhaps even enforcing) God’s shalom for all.
In the story, the movement towards God’s kingdom happens when the partiality towards Jews is broken down to the benefit of the outsiders, the Gentiles. From Tyre, Jesus goes north to Sidon, east and south to the Decapolis before turning west again to reach the Sea of Galilee: he takes a very roundabout way to get where he’s going, all (or almost all) of it through Gentile territory. Mark’s gospel doesn’t record what he does while he is there, but we can assume he does the same thing he was trying to take a break from in Galilee: teaching, healing, and announcing the coming kingdom of God.
After his encounter with the woman, Jesus’ movement towards God’s kingdom takes him away from Israel toward the very “dogs” he had so recently ignored. In this story, we might imagine Jesus’ eyes being opened to the full scope of the task God has sent him to do. He begins to realize that God’s kingdom isn’t just an image for the literal kingdom of Israel, but of God’s reign over the whole world. That shalom can’t exist while one people is privileged over another. He is opened in this encounter to God’s vision of shalom for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus went to be where there was nobody, only to find that all those nobodies are somebody to God.
The prejudices of Jesus’ time between Jews and Gentiles may seem far away, but, I assure you, they are not. Even now, we show the same partiality Jesus did when he first came to Tyre, believing as he did that we are justified in doing so. We turn away from our doorstep the people of Syrophoenician origin seeking asylum from war because we hate their religion and fear their culture will dilute or weaken our own; but it’s not just foreigners. Here in our own backyard, we disregard and disbelieve the stories of people with dark skin who deal daily with the fear and fragility of the privileged, and who suffer violence, addiction, incarceration and poverty because of that fear.
Today our neighbors are crying out together for peace with the words, “Make America Great Again,” but peace they seek is only an absence of conflict, a return to a time when the voiceless were more easily silenced and ignored. The shalom that God has in store is not a false peace that gags and smothers the vulnerable, but instead makes their voices heard, healing their dumbness and opening the ears of all to hear their pleas and take action.
In healing the man who is deaf and mute, Jesus returns his ability to speak, but then commands him to keep silent. This is the very definition of irony. Why should he keep silent, now that he can talk? How could he? He has “been opened” to the truth of God’s coming reign—is it even possible for him to not share the good news of what has happened to him?
Spreading the gospel isn’t about making converts to Christianity or getting more people to attend worship on Sunday morning. It is about telling the truth of what we have seen, what we have heard: that God shows no partiality, that under God’s reign there is a place for the people society so often ignores—the poor, the mentally ill, the convicted, the immigrant, the persecuted, the abandoned.
It is admitting the truth that the “good old days” were simply the times when we didn’t care what the nobodies had to say; that their distress is not new, it is only new to the privileged. It is about proclaiming the hope in a time when that distress will not be ignored or silenced, but healed; hope in a time when there will no longer be haves and have-nots, privileged and persecuted, rich and poor, loved and unloved, but when all people—together—will have a full place in society; hope in a time when all voices will be heard, when all needs will be considered. To those without power, the gospel is an eschatological promise, to the powerful and privileged, it is an imminent threat. Whether that message is one of hope or warning, spreading the gospel means telling others how our own ears have been unstopped and our own mouths opened.
This is what Brother James means when he says that faith without works is dead. We cannot proclaim the truth of the gospel without also living that truth, for to speak it with our mouths and not with our lives is to call ourselves liars, to betray our disbelief in what we claim to believe. It is to be healed of our deafness and muteness only to remain silent with our fingers in our ears. Faith that shows partiality in the form of racism, classism, political tribalism, or any other prejudice is dead faith that does not actually believe in the coming shalom of God’s reign, but trusts instead in the human divisions and hierarchies that break down and destroy peace in our attempts to create it.
The lesson Jesus learns in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is one he carries with him to the cross. There he offers his own flesh-and-blood self to expose the false peace of the religious establishment and the powerful empire, to tear down the walls of partiality and separation that we have erected, and to open a hole for God’s shalom to shine through. Just as Jesus’ disturbing rudeness grabs and holds our attention on this story, keeps us from looking away, in the same way his bloody death on the cross forces us to reckon with the consequences of what we call “peace.” Our peace is won at the point of a sword, at the muzzle of a gun. What we call “peace” is nothing but crumbs; but the Syrophoenician woman reminds us that we should not satisfied with crumbs.