Jesus, I Thought you’d be Nicer
Ah, but I forget that the appointed text includes the rest of Mark 7 – both the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man with a speech impediment in the Decapolis. Hurtado includes both passages in his commentary and notes that the exorcism and the healing both happen in Gentile territory. He argues that these stories give encouragement to Mark’s Gentile audience that they too are included in Jesus’ kin(g)dom project. Hurtado suggests that Jesus’ initial rejection of the Syrophoenician woman “sounds very much like what the ‘historical’ Jesus would have said. He is not remade by Mark into a cosmopolitan missionary who preaches to all nations,” Hurtado continues (page 115). He points to the fact that Jesus gives the woman what she wants. And Jesus describes a two-step process for the inclusion of the Gentiles. They come after the “children” have eaten their fill.
Hurtado notes that the woman throws herself at Jesus’ feet and describes this behavior as “determined and reverent.” The lesson the Gentile audience should take from this account, he proposes, “is that Gentiles who show the same kind of readiness to recognize their need and to trust in Jesus can be saved” (page 116). If the woman’s prostration were the only behavior in question, I might find this proposal more convincing. But there is that little “you’re a dog” thing as well. It still seems, if Hurtado is correct, that the real lesson is that Gentiles need to eat crap for the sake of the Gospel in order to be included in the family. I’m not sold on that idea.
In his text notes, Hurtado expresses several of the “Defending Jesus” ideas common in that position. When Jesus uses the children/dogs images, Hurtado says it’s not clear whether Jesus is relying on the view of the Hebrew Scriptures that Jews are the “real” children of God and Gentiles are not really or these images are “simply an analogy based on common household life of the time – the family eats before the house pets” (page 118).
That’s not how it works at our house, but that’s another story.
Hurtado also notes a peculiarity in the vocabulary of the passage. He agrees that Jews of the time sometimes referred to Gentiles as “dogs, but this may not be relevant here.” Instead, he suggests, “The Greek term Mark uses seems to refer to household dogs, while ‘dog’ as a slur used a Greek term applied to wild dogs or to scavenger does of the street” (page 119).
This part of “Defending Jesus” argues that Jesus calls the Syrophoenician woman a cute puppy rather than a Gentile dog. We may get the chance downstream to revisit some of the implications of that vocabulary choice. But at the moment, I don’t find the argument particularly compelling. We can’t determine the tone of the remarks, but I don’t know if I would find the diminutive label less offensive. Let’s keep that in mind.
Hurtado argues that the woman’s response fits the framework of a discussion of household pets under the dinner table. He suggests that “she cleverly points out to Jesus that, although children are fed first, these dogs can get scraps without disturbing the meal” (page 119). Hurtado proposes that the woman convinces Jesus that helping her will not deflect him from his main mission. She’s only asking for a few crumbs of his time, energy, and attention.
This position is not as hardline Jesus-defending as the one adopted by Wright. Hurtado punts on the issue of Jesus’ offensiveness and focuses on the nature of the Gentile woman’s faith. “The tenacity and humility that assents to Jesus’ mission,” he writes, “thought she does not understand it, wins her Jesus’ blessing” (page 119). Hurtado backs into the position that the woman changes Jesus’ mind on the matter, and he blesses her for getting it right.
Hurtado’s second point in his commentary is more convincing. He notes that the two-stage description of Jesus’ mission – feeding the children (of Israel) first and then the rest – “was used by Mark to mean that the restriction of Jesus’ own ministry to Israel both was proper and did not preclude a later mission to the Gentiles” (page 116).
He notes that the current chain of events happens between the two feeding stories in the gospel according to Mark. In the first feeding, the children of Israel are fed in abundance (chapter 6). In the second feeding, it’s a Gentile crowd that goes from little to leftovers (chapter 8). This framing makes the current text “part of Mark’s effort to get the reader to see that Jesus’ ministry in Israel was a preparation and basis for a later, wider proclamation of the gospel” (page 116).
The story of the Syrophoenician woman is followed by the healing of a deaf and stammering man in the Decapolis (still Gentile territory). Hurtado reminds us that the story contains very specific and detailed references to Isaiah 35. The description of the man’s condition provides a direct link to that text. The Isaiah 35 text is a song of return from exile. This is an example of extremely little text (just a word or two) taking us to a very important context (the prophetic oracle). As Hurtado suggests, the interpreter will be well-served to read Isaiah 35 in reflecting on this story in Mark 7.
It’s worth slowing down for a moment and taking this in. Events that evidence the return from Babylonian Exile in Isaiah 35 are now happening in Gentile territory on Gentile bodies. It’s not surprising to remember that Mark sees the Good News of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, as the fulfillment of both the Exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylonian Exile. To see and hear those events taking place in Gentile territory is revolutionary.
Isaiah 35:8 describes the “Holy Way” upon which the returning exiles shall travel home. The “unclean” shall not travel on it. This takes us back to last week’s conversation about who is clean or unclean, and how that happens. Those who return are “the ransomed of the Lord.” They come to Zion with songs on their lips and everlasting joy upon their heads. In Mark 7, the ransomed of the Lord are now Gentiles. What Jesus described earlier in the chapter is now enacted on Gentile bodies.
Jesus studiously avoids Jewish territory (at least the territory controlled by Herod Antipas) as he moves from Tyre and Sidon to the Decapolis. Perhaps the execution of John the Baptist and the notoriety of becoming a “bread king” made the Galilee a bit too hot for Jesus and his crew at the moment. Nonetheless, he continues in Gentile country, back in the place where the Legion of demons fled into a herd of swine.
When Jesus released the Gerasene demoniac from his bondage, the people there had begged Jesus to leave. Perhaps they were afraid of the trouble his success might cause with the local Roman authorities. Now that he has returned to that general area, people seek him out for healing. The deaf and stammering man has friends who bring him to Jesus and beg for healing for him. We get some remarkable details in this healing, and it works.
The response is fireworks, billboards, and full-page ads in the local papers. So much for Jesus’ orders to keep it all on the hush-hush.
The summary statement, “He has done everything well,” could indicate the end of a large section of Mark’s account. But I don’t think that’s right, given the previous discussion. This section of Mark must continue probably through Mark 8:22. We don’t get any of this first part of Mark 8 in our lectionary selections here, but it’s important to keep this story structure in mind.
“Mark 8:14-21 makes it evident that Mark saw both feeding miracles as important revelations of Jesus’ significance,” Hurtado suggests, “His devoting space to two accounts of the same sort of miracle suggests that each one had for him a special significance,” he continues, “and that neither could be omitted without losing something important” (page 121). One of the reasons the lectionary folks probably omitted the second feeding is precisely the reason why the composer of Mark’s gospel included it.
I struggle with how one reads this whole text in public worship and preaches on the broad sweep of the story. That’s Mark’s intention, certainly, and I’m sure it can be done. I am concerned that each of the stories has elements which will take captive the attention of the listening audience. It’s hard to get past “Mean Jesus” in the story of the Syrophoenician woman. I’m not sure we can read that text out loud without giving it some detailed attention and exposition.
The “Ephphatha” story has such power in advocating for the inclusion of those excluded by the able-ist assumptions and prejudices of our dominant culture. Certainly, the preacher can reflect on the inclusion of these two Gentiles who have additional boundary-breaking identities. But I worry that there is the danger of minimizing the pain and trauma of either or both characters and the communities they could represent.
“Back in my day” (ouch!), the “Ephphatha” story created the opportunity for a whole Sunday devoted to ministry with and for those with hearing impairments and speech impediments. Service ministry agencies provided resources and encouragement to preachers and congregations in that regard. In hindsight, there was much that was minimizing, colonizing, and condescending about that approach, but the effort was laudable and well-intentioned.
I say all that as a way of wondering if the preacher needs to pick one or the other of the texts for reading and interpretation on this Sunday. I know that takes a scalpel to texts that ought to be read together. But I lift up the concern for reflection, knowing that I don’t have to actually make such a decision this year. At this moment, I’m uncertain what I might do (context would likely make the decision for me). Perhaps by the end of the week I’ll have a clearer sense of that issue.
References and Resources
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Liu, Rebekah. “A Dog Under the Table at the Messianic Banquet: A Study of Mark 7:24-30.” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 48, No. 2, 251-255. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3082&context=auss.
Skinner, Matthew L., “”She Departed to Her House”: Another Aspect of the Syrophoenician Mother’s Faith in Mark 7:24-30″ (2006). Faculty Publications. 193. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/193.
Sun, Poling. “Naming the Dog: Another Asian Reading of Mark 7:24-30.” Review and Expositor, 107, Summer 2010, pages 381-394. https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/51627184/Naming_the_Dog.pdf?1486166793=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DTHE_GOSPEL_OF_MARK_Naming_the_Dog_Anothe.pdf&Expires=1629922639&Signature=fehZP7odtynKeFSy1fzAvFRtDVal6YS~V46kODdJJ02umisAs6dCxtI4~JSOJMfyk5qZZ2QufzBFgz8AJv2Xf88aUUSVI-9rHk2D144YJmmgp6tZgdGxYRQo06HC~8knVV6x-721~NKG9coCYxo4zVyk4Y5ostcsx4yFpZe7F8NpFOk8dxcbOPKuhncCX2MU8KY8EgjRJ9kzm3BwuDK~FZERu9k~ZhNvRff5K3jHSQ6-M78ndYjU9L3MzT7qoUMvZsoHQGnA2HNfeIR55mYi5zeCcQ4OD2bh15zlZBK3BjBR5VsN8PcFDGS9hN-Eh4~qOQg1CIz4~fmfS-sI4I1vaw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.