6 September 2015
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18B (RCL)
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
This Sunday’s readings all seem to center on the theme of openness to those who make us uncomfortable. The RCL is taking random bits of Wisdom literature for the OT readings, and we are reading the Epistle of James in course, so any commonality is accidental. And again, any overlap with the Gospel is unintentional, since we are reading Mark in course.
There is always a tension in any pattern of social ordering. Power must be modulated and deployed, and at the same time, the health of the whole must be guarded. These two impulses often tend to work in opposite directions, one tending to concentrate power in the hands of a few, which disenfranchises the many. The monarchy in ancient Israel was set up precisely as a counter to the tribal structure. Persons who received no satisfaction from the structures of tribal power could appeal to the king. Of course, that impulse quickly went off the rails, and David subverted the idea of justice by keeping a standing, mercenary army. Absalom achieved his revolt by sitting in the gate and hearing cases before they could get to the king, doing what the king should have been doing.
Proverbs is Wisdom literature, written to instruct young men in an appropriate ethic for membership in the king’s court. A good name will serve better than the accumulation of riches in the long run. And a good name is achieved by serving the justice the monarchy is intended to serve; guarding those at the margins of society. This is something the prophets would remind kings of again and again. But if one wanted to avoid the intrigues of court and the damage that could be done, one needed only to remember one’s good name, and be a person of justice.
James’ epistle brings this home to the Christian community. One wonders how often parishes unconsciously engage in exactly the behavior James calls out. None of us are so heartless as to be blatant, or even conscious, of that kind of partiality; but do we fawn over the couple with kids, while ignoring the young single man or woman who sneaks in hoping for a welcome? Do we, without even being aware, assess the visitor’s match to our demographic, whatever that may be? James has harsh words for us.
And then there is the Gospel. What are we to make of Jesus’ behavior. I have heard preachers say Jesus was just testing the woman, or that he was testing his disciples. All of this trying to wriggle out of believing Jesus would actually call someone a dog.
I don’t think Mark understands Jesus the same way we do. He is not worried about Jesus’ supposed omniscience. Instead, I believe the Gospel writers often use Jesus as a foil in their Gospels for the mind of the community. The biggest chunk of the middle of Mark’s Gospel is arranged into two major blocks of material, each bracketed by a sea crossing and a wilderness feeding. Between each sea crossing and feeding, Jesus performs three miracles, and gives some instruction. In the first set, Jesus is in the boat, and then heals the Garasene demoniac, Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood. All of these are “children of Israel” who are at the edges. After healing Jairus’ daughter, Jesus instructs those around her to “give her something to eat.” In the wilderness, with the crowd of five thousand around, Jesus gives his disciples the instruction to “give them something to eat.” The healing occurs in being brought to the table.
In the second block of material, Jesus is not in the boat as it is crossing in the storm, but come to the disciples walking on the water. They think there are seeing a ghost, but Jesus assures them by invoking the divine name – “I AM” – which we translate, It is I. Then he heals the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, the deaf-mute and several others. Again, notice that the argument is over food, and who sits at the table. At the end of this block, Jesus will again feed a crowd in the wilderness, and then chide his disciples for not understanding about the loaves.
I think Mark’s inclusion of the detail that Jesus is not in the boat signals that we are now dealing with a discourse within the community after Jesus’ resurrection. The community itself struggled with its decision to open its table fellowship to Gentiles. The woman’s argument gives us an insight into the intra-community discourse. It was not an easy conversation.
We face similar conversations. We can take comfort that the early community (and even Jesus himself as Mark portrays him) struggle with that radical inclusion. I wonder if the healing of the deaf-mute is supposed to speak to our situation. We don’t always hear what God is saying, and once we hear it, we stumble in proclaiming it. We, too, need to be opened.