A voice for the voiceless

9 September 2018
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18B (RCL)

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

This passage in Mark makes us uncomfortable. Was Jesus really this rude to anyone? Matthew attempts to soften the passage by having the disciples complain to Jesus that she won’t leave them alone. But it stands starkly in Mark. Jesus calls her a dog.

To fit this in context, I think we have to back up and look at the large picture in Mark. Mark narrates two sets of a series of miracles. First is a sea crossing, then three healings, and then a feeding in the wilderness. We recognize the outer part of these series as Moses typology. In the first instance, Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat. When they land, he casts out the demon named legion (drowning the Roman army in a herd of pigs!), strengthening the Moses typology. Then Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood. When he raises Jairus’ daughter, he instructs the people around her to “give her something to eat,” exactly the same instruction he gives his disciples concerning the crowd of 5000. The healings have to do with bringing people across dangerous social boundaries to table fellowship in new, wild, circumstances.

In the second instance, Jesus is not in the boat, but comes walking across the water. When his disciples see him, the mistake him for a ghost. He says, “Fear not. I AM.” This is a resurrection appearance, or an appearance of the divine. The follows the healing of many, the Syro-phoenician woman’s daughter, and the deaf-mute. If this duplicates the first set, the issue is crossing dangerous social boundaries into table fellowship, and it happens after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The Church was faced with the question of inclusion of Gentiles in its table fellowship, and didn’t know how to respond. In Matthew’s telling of the story, the tension is heightened by having Peter ask Jesus to ask him to walk on the water. Initially, he does, but then when he sees the storm, he sinks. Jesus scolds him, “You faithfless one. Why are you of two minds?” Compare this to what Paul records in Galatians 2, about Peter coming to Antioch and eating with Gentiles, until certain men from James came, and he withdrew (in the face of the storm of controversy!).

The woman’s daughter is not healed until she retorts to Jesus about sharing bread with dogs, make it clearer that this story is about table fellowship. She has to advocate for herself, and does so forcefully.

The deaf-mute (also presumably a Gentile, as he is in the region of the Decapolis) needs a group to advocate for him. Jesus takes him aside privately, which is an odd detail. The miracle cannot help but to become known, for the man can now speak clearly. I wonder if this indicates that a private meeting with Jesus (baptismal instruction?) leads to a clarity of hearing and speech. In any event, even when others advocate for a person, the person receives the attention of Jesus.

Both the Old Testament and Epistle reading fit well with this Gospel – about making distinctions. Even Jesus had to be challenged out of his habit of making distinctions, so it is no wonder that we find it so hard to see all clearly.

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