Readings for this Sunday:
Proverbs 1-2, 8-9, 22-23 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38
This Mark story has always been something of a troubling passage. Mark’s Jesus is all about pushing boundaries. Any read that pays close attention to Mark makes it almost impossible to see him as anything but a revolutionary, bent toward the idea that the well-being of the poor is inseparable from the well-being of everyone—that this physical reality, our bodily, earthly life, is at least one way we are to understand salvation. So he is constantly going farther and farther out to the margins where suffering is most visible and less easily hidden behind closed doors. And some have noted that this particular story of the Syrophoenician woman marks a clear transition in Jesus’ ministry that leads him outward from his Jewish mission to the Gentiles.
Traditionally, they say he learns something here. He was oriented toward the insiders, tuned to his “own kind,” as they say, until he encountered this woman who teaches him something about how truly expansive God’s love is, and the implications of this for baptismal living.
It’s a nice idea. I’ve always liked it because the idea of Jesus learning takes the idea of incarnation seriously—that matter matters, that Jesus knew what it was like to be human, to have limits and to grow and develop, to have compassion—suffering with us. And I like it because it turns from those old understandings of God that are rooted to crusty Enlightenment ideas that can only imagine God in opposition, in absolutes as compared to our limitedness—God as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-this or all-that. I mean, it’s a great way to talk about God and it works pretty well in helping us to think about the Holy as our encounter with limits, but it’s also pretty impersonal and off-putting, and it has the added defect of turning a deaf ear to those scriptures that say something different, like when God argues with Moses in Exodus and God changes God’s mind.[i]
The scripture, like life itself, is so much more nuanced—not a single narrow notion, not a crusty creed defined by a privileged few, but a library of ideas from a great cloud of witnesses, like us searching for language to describe their encounter with the Holy and the implications for life that follow. It’s filled with argument and questioning and someone riffing on one idea with another in a form of ancient hypertextuality. It is filled with creativity and possibility and tenacious hope. It is, in a word, inspired.
So it’s good to let these texts speak to us, with whatever it is they are trying to say, especially as they trouble us out of our trouble and into new possibilities.
And that’s what I think is going on here in Mark, and what the rest of today’s scriptures seem to be echoing. While I think these old ideas are great, it might also be of value to riff a little bit, ourselves, and let the story say something more.
You see, it is possible to see this text differently, in a way that I think fits better with the Jesus who occupies the rest of Mark as an insightful revolutionary, a social agitator committed to doing what he can to save the world from itself. Jesus sees how things work. He knows, like we do, that the deck is stacked for some and clearly against others. He knows that fairness is a great myth put forward by those who are comfortable. But on the ground it is rarely a reality.
He would understand that there is a difference between charity and compassion—that, at its worst, charity can be a tool to mitigate guilt while keeping things as they are. He would understand that charity never leads to justice and can never get us to peace. Only compassion can do that. Only feeling with another, suffering with another, getting to know another enough to walk in their shoes, to know their hurt, to love their children, and to see the ways that knowingly or not, we are complicit in their suffering.
He would understand that it is not enough to say that All Lives Matter, because it ignores that we have founded a society on favoritism in which after 250 years of slavery black lives still matter less, in which the price of error is higher for those with darker skin, in which those with money and connections get to the good schools while those who live on the economic margins settle for crumbs, in which we know that we do not, in fact, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but live according to what has been given to us and passed on to us. I’m not saying that we all don’t work hard. He would just understand that privilege has to do with being able to live comfortably in ignorance of the fact that the world’s brutality is not meted out equally.
That’s not something that we have to feel badly about. I’m not sure what good that would do, frankly. But it is something we should be willing to face honestly. It is something that this Gospel assures us we can face squarely, with eyes opened and ears unplugged, because it is the way of our salvation—so we can begin to live purposefully in the midst of this complex world, and imagine our way from charity to compassion and then to justice and finally peace and a life that promises a better future for all our children and grandchildren and for the whole earth. We will know the truth, and it will set us free.
And, you see, that’s what I think Jesus finds in the woman. Here is one who knows the code, who understands how things really work. She knows that even the crumbs meant for the children end up being scooped up by those political and religious dogs who hide under the table while they manipulate stock markets or dole out super Pac millions and a diet of contaminated legislation to policy shapers, and scream about taxes while hiding their fortunes in off-shore accounts.
Even the crumbs meant for the children get scooped up. It’s not a counter to what Jesus says, but an added insight. Yes, the world isn’t fair. Yes, the deck is stacked. Yes, there are still county clerks blind to the ways they abuse their government power by imposing their religious beliefs on other—unable to see how their refusal to issue marriage licenses is no different than refusing to serve blacks at soda fountains.
Solzhenitsyn wrote, “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he [or she is] doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes this in his book Between the World and Me, and adds, “This is the foundation of the Dream [of innocence in the midst of inherited privilege]—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.”[ii]
Jesus finds in this woman a believer—one who is savvy to the ways of the world, brokenhearted at her own loss, and yet, astonishingly unbroken, filled with hope and willing to do something with it. He finds a co-conspirator in this work that seeks to mend the world.
It is a famous story of the Reformation that Luther wanted to rid the Bible of James, but not because he didn’t also have some sense of the social, political, and economic issues hard=wired in Christianity’s DNA. He saw in James a tool for a corrupt church bent against the very people it existed to serve to further suggest that salvation was the church’s to dispense according to our works, rather than a gift, and everything else simply a grateful response to God’s love.
You see, this is what Jesus saw in the woman, and sees in us who are the church. We are co-conspirators in the confidence that we have all that we need, and that there is enough to go around, and we long to act from that firm foundation. You see the miracle at this table isn’t that this bread somehow magically becomes the resuscitated body of an ancient Galilean, but that you and I become co-conspirators—the body of Christ raised for this world for this week.
After Jesus encounters this woman he gets even more dirty than he was before. Just look at the next story. He’s like a pig rolling in the mud with the deaf man: He “put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.”
It’s not only kind of gross, it’s unclean, a clear violation of all sorts of religious purity laws. And I think it happens here because Jesus is so encouraged by this woman and us when we see past what is lawful to what is right, and by doing so, find our way to the peace that God’s Spirit in us longs for.
And you know it too. This is what you do.
Leigh Weber wrote me a text this week: “Here’s something for your gratitude prayers… Five minutes after we sent out a REACH email asking for help for TWO nights this weekend, it was the good saints of St. Andrew who quickly replied offering anything I need. What dear souls.”
And when I asked, Leigh said, “Please share. They need to hear how gracious they really are. Not sure they even grasp the very good work they enable us to do.”
To be the church is to seek the truth, to learn the code, to be savvy to the ways of the world and even more to the power of this Good News that we are already, and without our earning it, the broken, healed, loved, and raised creative body of Christ, inspired children of God, courageous menders of the world, repairers of the breach, co-conspirators with a God who aims for nothing less that the salvation of the whole world and you.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Cf. Exodus 32:14.
[ii] Coates, Ta-Nehisi (2015-07-14). Between the World and Me (p. 98). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
St. Andrew Sermons