Recently you and I have witnessed scenes of human tragedy on a biblical scale. At our southern border thousands of migrants endure a trail of hardship. For months they travel hostile lands, seeking a better life for themselves and family. They endure physical violence, emotional hardship, mistreatment. Too often their journey ends in death from heatstroke or drowning in their struggle to reach the river. Beyond that river lies hope of freedom. Beyond that river flies the American flag. That flag beckons the young Guatemalan mother. Exhausted, she collapses with her children, just short of the river. She and her three-year old child will survive. Hope for her nine-year old daughter is lost as the child expires from heatstroke and malnutrition.
The American military has withdrawn from Afghanistan. Uncounted numbers of Americans and our friends are left behind enemy lines. Many are rescued. Many more remain beyond that wire that marks the uncrossable border into freedom. Struggling within the press of humanity seeking passage to freedom, we witness the courage of another mother. Desperate for her child’s safety, she braves mortal danger to reach the wire. At the wire, she allows her child to be raised out of the struggling crowd into the protective arms of a United States Marine who extends his arms to the child over the concertina wire. In this act of love, in this display of faith, this mother knows she may never see her child again.
Only a mother can understand the sacrifice she makes for the life of her child. This morning we meet another mother determined to save the life of her child. Jesus has arrived in Tyre, north and west of Galilee. He is deep into hostile Gentile country. His 35-mile journey from Gennesaret to Tyre has been exhausting.[i] He is pursued by hundreds seeking his healing power. He has been walking in the heat for perhaps eleven hours. He seeks a place of refuge and rest in this Gentile territory, a land traditionally hostile to the Jewish people.
The Syrophoenician woman knows Jesus. She has heard stories of his powers from the voices of the crowds who seek him. Desperate for the life of her child, this Gentile mother humbles herself before Jesus and pleads for the health of her daughter. Jesus then appears to reject her plea. Jesus utters these sharp words of rejection. “Let the children, that is, those who are of the family of God, be fed first.[ii] It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
If we are to accept his words as written, Jesus insults the woman and her daughter as ‘dogs.’[iii] He insults the Gentiles, all those outside ‘the family of God.’ Jesus has just stepped totally out of the character we have known throughout Mark’s gospel. The Jesus we know brings healing to the outsider, the poor, the sick, the oppressed. The Jesus we know seeks out the blind, the deaf, the lame, those possessed by demons, some of whom are Gentiles. Yet in this passage are we to believe he rejects this daring mother’s plea for her child? The plea of this educated Greek woman who prostrates herself in a sign of worship? This mother seeking health for a daughter possessed by seizures, foaming at the mouth and life-threatening disease? What are we to take from this passage?
Our instincts cause us to pause. Perhaps you and I might take another look. Perhaps we will discover a different meaning hidden within Jesus’ harsh words. This morning we have only the written text. We don’t hear the tone of his voice. We cannot see his facial affects or the body language that so often signals a speaker’s intent. Remember that email or tweet we sent? We intended humor or irony. Later we learn our message is misinterpreted, or even worse, conveyed an insult! If only we had delivered the message in person! A smile or raised eyebrow would have revealed our true intent.[iv]
This mother will not be turned away by Jesus’ rude dismissal. She knows Jesus. Now Jesus will come to know her as she rises as a worthy debate opponent. She will not be put off. Like the mother who battles her way through the crowd towards the welcoming arms of that Marine, she will not be dismissed: “I agree, Lord, but even we who are unworthy also receive the crumbs. We also receive the Word of the Lord.” That is, “Here’s right back at you, Jesus. Here I present to you the faith of this woman.”
Might Jesus, then, intend us to take a different meaning from his response to the Greek woman? Consider, then, that Jesus’ wildly out-of-character response is intended to set up their ensuing debate as a test of faith. Mark introduces her to us as already committed through faith. Through Mark’s artful staging this determined mother rises to the challenge. She convinces Jesus to recognize her as a member of the family of God. Through her intellect, persistence and verbal moxie she arises as a worthy opponent to Jesus.[v] She meets the challenge and proclaims her faith and trust in God. Jesus acknowledges the power of her faith by healing her daughter from afar, reinforcing the power of prayer.
Change of Mind
But this gifted woman does more than confirm her faith. She changes Jesus’ mind. Until now, Jesus directs his ministry to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Remember his instructions as he sends out his disciples: “go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans.” (Matt 10:5-6) “Out of her difference in race, social status and gender this woman represents the cultured and wealthy Greek world, where Jesus is a Jewish man who lives as an itinerant teacher.”[vi] This woman could not be farther from the lost sheep of Israel.
In her display of faith, she turns the tables on Jesus. As one scholar remarks, ‘yet there is no diminishment of Jesus’ power, but an expansion of it.”[vii] Jesus will now expand his ministry beyond the Judeans, beyond ‘the children of God’ into the lands of the Greek, the Gentile and the regions beyond.
In a few moments we stand witness to another mother. Christina Fitch LookFong will joyfully raise their daughter, Talia, into the welcoming embrace of Jesus Christ. Through the gift of baptism she will receive, Talia becomes the child of God. The instant she rises from the waters of baptism, and the sigh of the cross is placed upon her forehead, she is marked as Christ’s own, forever.[viii] She will go forward in life to walk the path to the Risen Christ, armed with the strength to face life’s challenges, both as woman and perhaps, one day, as a mother.
Talia’s parents understand that the world Talia enters is a dangerous place. They know this all too well from her father’s presence in Afghanistan during those final desperate days. Our safety lies in our willingness to proclaim the good news of Christ Crucified.
As our Gospel reading concludes, it reveals the healing of a man who is both deaf and mute. As the man regains his sense of hearing and speech, Jesus orders all those who witness to tell no one of the healing. But the more Jesus orders them to remain silent, the more zealously they proclaim the good news. Let us follow the example of those witnesses. Let you and I join those witnesses. The safety of Talia and all the children of our world lies in our proclaiming the saving health of Jesus. Now is the time to open the ears of the deaf to hear. Now is the time to loosen the tongues of the mute to speak. Let us go forth to soften the hearts of those on the far side of the river, those on the far side of the wire.
Roger C. Bullard, MDiv
September 5, 2021
[i] Walking with Jesus (Mark 7:24-37) https://inhispresencedaily.com (downloaded August 23 2021)
[iii] Warren Carter, Wisdom Commentary, Mark, (Kindle p. 312)
[iv] Carolyn Sharp, Preaching on Mark, March 16, 2020 lecture.
[vi] op.cit, Carter (Kindle p. 317)
[vii] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm. Preaching on Mark, (Kindle p. 186)
[viii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, p.31