Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Did Jesus Know? And When Did He Know It?

This week's scriptures are Mark 7:24-37.

When you get to church on Sunday you'll notice that I have divided this scripture into two readings: the first is the story of the curing of the Syrophonecian woman's daughter (an incredibly disturbing story) told in verses 24-30; and the curing of a gentile deaf-mute in verses 31-37.

The thing that makes the first narrative so disturbing is Jesus' response to this gentile woman who comes to him pleading for her daughter's healing. Her daughter apparently has a demon. We don't know what kind or what it causes her to do. That doesn't appear to be important to Mark. What is important is that she comes and throws herself at Jesus' feet, begging for his help.

Jesus' response is designed to send preachers and commentators running for cover. He says to her, "It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Whew! This isn't a statement we associate with the compassionate Jesus, Savior of the World, Cosmic Christ....take your pick. Frankly it's a crappy thing to say. So why did Jesus say it? And why does Mark tell us about it where and how he did?

One could make the case that Jesus, in his humanity, is just plain tired. Verse 31 tells us that he "went into a house and didn't want anyone to know that he was there." He's exhausted; and like you and I when we're tired and put upon and feel like the world is sucking us dry, he snapped at the first person who invaded his quiet time alone. I could handle that better if he snapped at Peter or James; screamed, "Can't you leave me alone for just one minute? Can't you see I'm exhausted? I can't take much more of this!" But this woman...suffering, seeking, begging. She doesn't even have a male relative to approach Jesus for her (a cultural requirement) which, like the woman who touched Jesus robe, indicates how truly alone and desperate she was. And Jesus calls her and her child a "dog"?

Some commentators make the case that Jesus, like you and I, had an ever growing, ever unfolding understanding of his call by God. They make the case that Jesus is growing in his understanding of what the Kingdom of God looks like, and who it includes. They say that this woman, in her challenge to Jesus (again, an incredibly feisty and couragous thing) when she says, "yeah, but even the dogs get the scraps off the table" brings Jesus to a new awareness of what it means to bring in God's Kingdom.

Now this is intriguing. What did Jesus know about the Kingdom? And when did he know it? Did a blaze of complete understanding come down with the dove that descended at Jesus' baptism? Or did the times that Jesus went off by himself in prayer indicate a growing understanding. One could make the case that right up to the prayer in the garden: "Lord, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me" that Jesus was involved in an ongoing dialogue with God about the nature of his call and his ministry.

I like that. I don't say that you've got to believe it; but the idea that Jesus, who was "tempted in all points like we are" dealt with the shadows and questions of what it means to be called to live his life gives me comfort. You and I don't have the luxury of a full picture of what it means to be called to live our lives as God's people. We move forward in the little patches of light we're given, one step at a time. We sweat and struggle with our choices and wonder 'is this right?' 'is this what I'm called to?' and we throw ourselves on God's mercy that God will take our efforts and bless them in love and mercy.

Now I think that Jesus was much more tuned in, much stronger, more obedient, totally God-in-the-Flesh. But....I also find comfort in the idea that Jesus listened and prayed and was obedient....even when he couldn't see past his little patch of light. That makes Jesus "fully human" to me and offers the possibility that my obedience might, possibly look more like his than my own selfish, bumbling, sinful efforts; and that Jesus understands my struggle.

But it still doesn't answer the question: why would Jesus talk to this poor woman this way?

I'm moving toward an answer. I don't quiet have it yet...and I don't want to let Jesus off the hook either. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to invite you to church on Sunday. I'm going to promise you that I'm going to study and pray and struggle with this question; and Sunday morning I'm going to give you my best response to the question. Please come join us at 10:00 a.m. at Broadneck Baptist. And if you can't be there, the sermon will be posted for this ocming Sunday in the sermons on this site.

I'm not going to duck and dodge and give you an easy answer. This passage is really troublesome. I'm going to give you my best. In the meantime; I ask that you struggle with it too. This is what Baptists mean by the "priesthood of all believers." That each of us struggles and sweats with scripture and with what it means to us personally.

If, after Sunday, your struggle with this passage has taken you somewhere different than me, or if you have ideas you think I need to consider before then, please respond here. Let me, and others, know what you're thinking about this passage. Join us in the unfolding of our identity as God's people in this time and place.

What did this incident mean to Jesus? What does it mean to us?

Hope to see you Sunday.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

I'm looking forward to your thoughts on this, Stephen! I've only started to get back into things, and here we have a really rough passage. I can only say that I've always been bothered by the issue you describe here. While it would be nice to know why exactly Jesus responded this way, I would "accept" what we were supposed to take away from this passage. Of course, both of these things are linked, but I'd settle more a little understanding instead of what I have right now (which is pretty much null).

This is made more confusing to me when I think of the difference in cultures when it comes to animals and pets. In Georgia, dogs are everywhere and treated as garbage by many, while others treat their dog well and abuse other dogs. Maybe we aren't understanding some sort of cultural exchange in this interaction, but still - what are we to learn from it?

You point to Jesus' humanity - perhaps that's part of it. But that still doesn't really seem to get to my question and deep reservations with this scripture. I don't know really where to start!