Isaiah 35:4-7a † Psalm 146 † James 2:1-7 † Mark 7:24-37
I had a conversation this week with a mom whose child is something of a challenge at the moment. Her description of the behaviors, the wild fluctuations between kind and crazy, tenderness and nastiness, tolerance and small-mindedness brought me back to my own days as a college student and young adult. I remember even today the struggle that raged within myself. There were times when it almost seemed like an out-of-body experience—I was angry and ugly and yet there was a more mature adult part of me that watched from the outside fully aware of a better way to be but not sure how to get there.
I hope I was helpful to the mom as I was able to reassure her this is a part of the growth from childhood to adulthood—that the work of transitioning from one to the other involves weighing the values and beliefs and perspectives we’ve inherited from our parents and other adults, evaluating them, testing them, and ultimately accepting some for ourselves, making them our own, while perhaps rejecting others.
Many developmental psychologists have spoken of this work and of the importance of creating space for this work to happen. It can be incredibly painful at times for us because, if you’re a parent of mentor, it can feel like you are being rejected, but in the long run it is what’s necessary for identify formation.
There is a sense that there’s some developmental work that Jesus is doing in this story in Mark. It’s a curious thing to consider as we play with these classical Christian notions of Jesus’ identity as both fully human and fully God.
By the way, that’s what these two candles represent on the communion table. Two candles for the two natures of the Christ. And I suppose it takes four gospels and many other epistles and books to try to get at all the permutations and implications of this tension much less our own complex natures.
We all know that John’s gospel, for example, seems to emphasize Christ’s divine nature. In John, Jesus seems to know everything and he has it all under control. Not so much in Mark—at least according to some interpretations, and this story, in particular, has many scholars suggesting that Jesus is in the midst of some changes in his perception. Mark is suggesting, it seems, that Jesus might have something to learn, and it just might be happening here in this encounter with this mother.
It makes some sense, especially when you take together the two stories we have today in Mark. Jesus has this exchange with this woman that seems to defy our understanding. There are references here, insinuations that we don’t understand. These two seem to get something that we don’t—almost as if they are speaking in code. And, it turns out, that may be the case. But hold that thought. First I want us to notice the change in Jesus that seems to come as a direct result of this encounter. He heals the woman’s child with a word, but then he goes and he gets dirty. He gets filthy—absolutely unclean in the next story.
Jesus could just say the word, like he did for the Syrophoenician mother’s daughter and the healing could be done. But he is all in. Jesus puts his finger in the man’s ear. He spat and touched his tongue.” There are all sorts of red flags flying and alarm bells ringing for those of us who have done boundary training. And then he looked up into heaven and said what my twenty-something self struggling between childhood and adulthood longed for: “Ephphatha.” Be open.
Here’s the thing about the encounter with the Syrophoenician mother. I’m with the scholars who think they may be speaking in code of a sort. There’s a clue in the translation of verses 27 and 28. This is how it reads:
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
It turns out this may not be the best translation. A better translation might be this:
“Lord, and the dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.”
It’s subtle, but the suggestion is that these two are in cahoots—that they understand something that others don’t, perhaps because of their common experience. You might say, in a way, that they are “woke.”
Take the dog reference. This is a pretty slanderous and coarse thing to hear from Jesus’ mouth directed toward another ethnicity. It should trouble us. But it also may be that he’s speaking not of Gentiles, but of the rich who set up systems that continually benefit themselves. It isn’t too far removed from the idea suggested by the Princeton study a few years ago that presented data demonstrating that we no longer have a representative democracy, but a plutocracy that tips the scales in favor of the wealthy. In the words of James, “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?”
And the woman. She doesn’t take offense at a slight against her. She just adds to the idea as another who understands the unjust reality in which they live. You’re right Jesus. The rich do get what belongs to the children. They don’t even leave any crumbs for the most vulnerable.
So Jesus finds in this woman a human being who shares and even adds to his understanding. He finds a companion, a co-conspirator, an encounter that enlarges his heart and home. And suddenly any juvenile struggles he might have had are over.
You see, that’s what I found moved me when I was in that difficult place between my old and new self. As much as mindfulness or self-understanding is the word of the day, it wasn’t deeper introspection that helped me. It was experiencing more deeply the lives of others. It was sharing their stories, walking in their shoes.
Perhaps I’m thinking about this because we’ve chosen to welcome a new face into our home for the next ten months. We are looking forward to getting to know Rafa more and anticipate that we will grow fonder and closer as the months progress and as we are able to share our stories and communicate more complex thoughts and ideas. Right now, we’re working on the simple stuff—getting used to one another, helping him to grow in the confidence that our place is his place, a home for him as it is for us, and attending to those ways where that may not be true for us and we have room to grow.
But our four days with him, and the experiences we have already shared seem to suggest that there’s something about taking a chance, getting dirty and going deep, about spending time in and out of season that grows tolerance and, as James describes it in the second reading, fulfills the royal law, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
There’s also something about taking a chance like this that is just plain fun. Yesterday was a perfect example of this. When we met Rafa at the airport on Wednesday night, we were making introductions when another group of people walked up to us. It turns out that, by chance, Rafa had run into a man named Ryan who had gotten to know Rafa when Ryan was a volunteer at Rafa’s NPH home in Peru.
Ryan and his husband and in-laws were on the flight from Miami because they are taking an Alaskan cruise. And the chance meeting led to another call Friday. So Rafa spent yesterday with Ryan and his family at Mount Rainier, and I’m proud to say that, after an hour of conversation with Ryan, we now have friends in Miami along with Rafa. This is the way this Spirit works when we take a chance, when we allow ourselves to get a little dirty, when we give ourselves to the struggle that rage in and between us, when we give ourselves to faith and the possibilities for goodness that come with this territory.
Thanks be to God.
St. Andrew Sermons