In Mark Chapter 7, we read of Jesus having just finished a triathlon of teaching, healing and feeding people. He had (ironically, as we see later) just wrapped a sermon on how no created thing or person is "unclean" or unacceptable - challenging the paradigms of Jewish society. He was tired - exhausted actually. He longed to be alone.
Seemingly alone, he retreats to Tyre, a place on the north coast and off the beaten track. (I was just in Long Beach, Washington - there is nothing like going to a beach to get away.) He does so secretly, wishing to be anonymous.
But word gets out, and along comes someone in need. A Greek woman, consumed by the plight of her little girl. We don't fully understand her daughter's condition, "possessed by an evil spirit," but it probably meant mental, spiritual and physical torment. She and her mother would have experienced a great deal of fear and isolation, likely rejected by family and community. This was a desperate individual.
Jesus was a Jewish man of some status and privilege. She was a gentile woman, a person with no status or privilege. She approaches Jesus, begging him to deliver her girl. We would expect him to kindly grant her request. Instead, this:
"It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs." or, to paraphrase: "not now woman, you don't deserve what my own people get, you come later."
Is this the Jesus we know? It appears that in his full humanity, he is spent, physically and emotionally. He has poured himself out on his overwhelmingly needy and often obstinate people and now in retreat he is confronted with more need - and a gentile woman at that. He was caught off guard and spoke from a place of discouragement, frustration and a resultant narrowing perspective.
The woman could have slunk away, shamed and offended. But she didn't. Her desperation was greater than her fear and indignation. Her bold response could be read as a righteous rebuke: The crumbs from your table - the scraps your children won't eat - grant me these.
In that moment, we see a cosmic shift take place. Some have even called it a conversion.
Jesus concedes: "For such a reply, your daughter is delivered." You are right.
There is enough. No need to ration God's grace and power. There is more than enough for anyone, anywhere and anytime. Receive God's gift - your child is healed.
What a beautiful example Jesus is. He allows the most unlikely person, a vulnerable someone with no status, to speak into his heart, to change it. He allows the least to challenge and mould his ministry. Here I don't find that unchanging/immoveable God of western enlightenment theology. I find a real, dynamic, responsive and merciful Jesus.
How does all this make you feel?
It challenges me to rethink my static and domesticated images of Jesus, wherein he is so divine that I don't see his humanity. It reminds me how Jesus grants me the same mercy when I come to him in my desperation. It also pushes me to be respond in kind to those around me. Am I truly open to others, especially those whom I wouldn't expect to inspire and teach me? Is my heart tender and humble enough to be challenged and changed by the broken and needy friends (and even enemies) around me? I hope so, because to be open like that is to be like Jesus.
My friend Gordon, who died just over a year ago, was just that unlikely voice into my life. After severe wounding from his father's (a public church leader) abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and family break up, his final battle was with a gruesome cancer. In his last days, in great weakness and suffering, spoke deeply into my life from a place of great wisdom and astonishing grace. He left me with this: "Learn to love. All is hard but doable. God is watching and taking care, whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not."
This story of the woman and Jesus is significant in Mark's gospel. If one looks closely, it represents a shift in Jesus' mission. He continues on from Tyre more openly, gently and inclusively. Read on in the chapter to a vivid description of how his next miracle was to heal another gentile, the deaf and mute man, with exquisite care.
This needs to be our path. It needs to be the way we evolve and move, outward and upward. As people, as a church, as a society, and as humankind. We need to move from stinginess to generosity, from excluding to including, from hoarding goodness to giving it away. Our futures, and indeed the future of our planet, depends on this.
May we always be listening and responding to those around us. Especially to the "least of these". And may we be ever more open to challenge and to change.
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