Be Opened: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Sixteenth Week after Pentecost
Sixteenth Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 7:24-37
1) This is the second of twelve weeks walking chronologically through the Gospel of Mark (next year, beginning with Advent, we’ll be walking primarily through Luke). For many churches, this coming Sunday also serves as the kick-off of programming for the fall. The elemental themes in this week’s readings - both the tenacious, active character of genuine faith and the ever-opening-outward character of God’s mission - are well-suited to help launch the fall season, precisely because they push us to ask ourselves and one another, "What’s faith really all about?" and, "What mission are we on?"
2) The overall geographical choreography in Mark provides a crucial key for interpreting this passage. In Mark 5 and 6, while primarily in Jewish territory, Jesus heals a desperate woman and then goes on to miraculously feed a crowd of five thousand; and in Mark 7 and 8, now traveling primarily in Gentile territory, he heals a desperate woman’s daughter (this week’s story) and then goes on to miraculously feed a crowd of four thousand. The overall dynamic in Mark, whose audience was primarily Gentile, is the saving, healing, liberating work of God expanding in scope from Jewish circles to eventually include all people. And though Jesus has interacted with Gentiles before in Mark, this week’s story is a decisive pivot point in this larger narrative of scandalous, widening inclusion.
3) Tyre and Sidon were both coastal cities in the Roman province of Syria, as well as historic centers of the Phoenician naval empire, an ancient nemesis of Israel (see, e.g., Ezekiel 26-28). Thus for Mark’s audience, these cities simultaneously evoked not just foreign but also hostile territory.
4) As we saw last week, Jesus has just declared that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:14-15). In a debate with some religious leaders, Jesus doesn’t condemn ritual purity practices outright, but instead strongly emphasizes the importance of purity of heart - and this emphasis could cause some listeners to say, Well, if it’s purity of heart that matters most, doesn’t that put everyone on a similar footing? In other words, doesn’t Jesus' way of looking at things potentially open up the circle of salvation to all, Gentiles as well as Jews? As if in answer to these questions, Jesus turns and heads deep into Gentile territory...
1) Jesus is exhausted. Seeking restorative solitude, he quietly retreats to a house in Tyre - but soon enough, word gets out. A Syrophoenician woman, desperate because her young daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit, hears about where Jesus is, and comes to see him. But please note: she does not knock. She does not wait and plead her case from outside on the street. She enters the house on her own - and throws herself at Jesus’ feet. Her sheer audacity, reminiscent of the audacity of the woman with a hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34), is nothing short of scandalous in its first-century context (and in ours!). Neither kin to Jesus or even known to him, she enters the house and boldly makes her plea. What’s more, she thereby traverses barriers set not only by patriarchy and other cultural norms, but also by religion, ethnicity, and longstanding enmity between peoples. For she is a Syrophoenician (a Gentile), and he is a Jew.
2) Jesus’ initial reaction is in keeping with this old enmity: “Let the children [that is, the children of Israel] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). Come again? Did Jesus just call this woman - a dog?
3) There are at least two ways of interpreting this passage. One is that Jesus articulates this proverbial animosity not in order to endorse it, but rather in order to dramatize it, to bring it center stage precisely so it can be conspicuously set aside (an object lesson for his disciples’ benefit, and for ours). He intuits that the woman will audaciously, insightfully push beyond the conventional view, just as the woman with the hemorrhage did (Mark 5:25-34) - and he cues her up to do just that by expressing the prejudice in its popular, folk-wisdom form, perhaps with a satirical gleam in his eye. But isn’t it true that we shouldn’t give the children’s food to the dogs? Isn’t that what everyone says? What do you say? And sure enough, the woman adroitly turns the metaphor on its head: even the dogs gather the table’s crumbs; the logic of abundance implies that God’s grace is for all people, right here and right now. Jesus immediately concedes the point (this is the only verbal fencing match in Mark that Jesus doesn’t win), thus establishing the woman as an exemplar of faith, a model theologian, an outsider who understands better than the insiders do. And then, as if propelled by this surprising reversal, Jesus goes on to heal another Gentile in Sidon, and then miraculously feed a large crowd of mostly Gentiles (Mark 8). The Gospel is now officially on the loose, and the Syrophoenician woman is a pivotal hero in the story, the tenacious mother who helps Jesus open up the circle of salvation to the wider world.
4) A second interpretive possibility is that Jesus is initially blinkered by the conventional thinking of his day, and ends up learning from his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. According to this line of thought, Jesus changes his mind - in the tradition of God’s changes of mind when confronted with, say, Abraham’s insistence, or Moses’ insistence (Genesis 18:16-33; Exodus 32:14). Like every human being, Jesus learns and evolves. And the Syrophoenician woman herself therefore stands in that ancient lineage of lamentation and struggle with God. Like Abraham and Moses, she argues, and stands her ground, and prevails. Like Jacob, she's not afraid to wrestle with God and insist on a blessing (“Israel” literally means “struggles/strives with God”).
5) So which is it? Many interpreters write and preach as if we have to choose between lines of interpretation like these - but in fact Mark’s account is permanently open to them both. Jesus’ tone of voice isn't specified; it could be satirical or serious. Nor does Mark comment on Jesus’ motivations. And so a third option is to hold both of these interpretations open and confess that we don’t know for sure what Jesus had in mind - but that either way, for her part, the Syrophoenician woman is a radiant model of bold, creative, resourceful faith. And either way, her story is yet another example of an outsider seeing and understanding what insiders don’t, a motif in Mark that continues all the way to the centurion's cry at the foot of the cross (Mark 15:39).
6) And speaking of insiders: despite these events, Jesus’ disciples don’t get it. After healings and a miraculous meal in Jewish territory, Jesus expands the circle to include healings and a miraculous meal in Gentile territory. To borrow the term Jesus uses in Sidon (ephphatha, “be opened”), Mark portrays salvation as continuously being opened up, always moving outward, beyond all attempts to contain it. Our cup runneth over - but too often, we remain closed. For Mark, the deaf man’s restoration in Sidon stands in sharp contrast to the disciples’ continuing inability to hear and understand: “Do you have ears,” Jesus asks them just a few verses later, “and fail to hear?" (Mark 8:18).
1) This is the perfect week to reflect on the nature of genuine faith. It’s not a type of certainty, as if its opposite is “doubt” - rather, it’s a type of courage, and its opposite is timidity. As the Syrophoenician woman demonstrates, genuine faith is bold, daring, and insistent. It puts first things first (a daughter’s health, for instance). And it marshals every resource available, from wit to wisdom, insight to impertinence. It seeks God out with vim and vigor, and is finally unafraid to wrestle, to strive, to struggle with God. In short, faith is living and active. As James puts it, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2:17).
2) Likewise, this is the perfect week to reflect on God’s living and active mission, the same mission in which the church is called to participate. Its characteristic mark is that it is always being opened, always surprising us - scandalizing us, even - with its ever-unfolding breadth and generosity. And this begs the question: Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, whom do we fail to include in our working understandings of God’s grace? To whom are we closed off? Those across the political aisle? Those in another part of town? Those who have done unspeakable wrongs? Those who belong to another religion, or culture, or set of values? Other creatures in God's creation? In what ways do we, too, need to hear Jesus’ challenging, liberating words, “Be opened”?
3) Finally, this story is a case study in how scripture is sometimes best interpreted in ways that leave multiple doors open. A kind of “subjunctive imagination” is best suited to such passages, a “could be this, could be that” approach. The late, great Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock was a master of this mode of thought in his preaching. He would say something like this: Now, wait a minute, what is Jesus up to here? Is he pronouncing an age-old prejudice like a slow-pitch softball floating over home plate, precisely so this gifted, fierce young mother can take her bat and knock it out of the park? Perhaps… Or is he bogged down in what his teachers taught him, as we so often are? Does he learn something from the woman in this back and forth? Does she change his mind? Is she the rabbi here, the one who will open his perspective a bit more, a bit more…? You know, later on he says to the man in Sidon, “Be opened!” - but could it be that Jesus only does so because the Syrophoenician woman has already done the same for him? Perhaps… Or is there instead a twinkle in Jesus' eye, even from the outset? Does he know very well that God's geometry cannot and will not be contained to one small circle only, but finally must become a great Circle that includes all other circles? Does he in fact know this perfectly well - but takes more pleasure in *her* making the point as only she can, rather than making it himself? He makes so many points, after all - why not make room so that she can make this one? She certainly makes it quite well, and this way, not one but two points are made: about inclusion, yes, but also about the power and wisdom of the supposed outsider, the foreigner, the enemy, the supposedly second-class... I don’t know. I suppose we’ll never know. But here’s one thing we do know: she sure did hit that ball out of the park. Oh yes! And whether or not she opened Jesus’ mind in the process, I’m confident she opened more than one mind among his disciples that day, at least for a fleeting moment, before they fell back into the old fears and resentments. I’m even sure she’ll open one or two of our minds here today if we’re not careful, virtuoso of faith that she is, profile in courage, champion of chuzpah. Do you have eyes to see, ears to hear? Be opened, she says, be opened...