Imagine you are a first century Jewish Christian, listening to the gospel of Mark being read. You have just heard chapter six (or what will come to be known as “chapter six” because, of course, the chapter and verse designations were not inserted into the new testament until the 15th century, but just go with me here).
So you have just heard the stories of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water, and Jesus healing many, many people from all over the region of Gennesaret. And, of course, as first century Jewish Christians, you know Gennesaret is on the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Then you hear the next story where the scribes and the Pharisees who had come from Jerusalem, questioned Jesus about his disciples eating with unclean hands. (That is the story we actually heard in church last week) And when the writer of Mark is finished describing that confrontation, he adds a side note, just by way of making sure we understand what just happened.
“Thus he declared all foods clean.”
That one short sentence, would be shocking to us ,first century Jewish Christians, who were still observant of the dietary laws of Judaism. Because that is part of how we know who we are, by keeping our Jewish laws.
But we hear Jesus saying, in this gospel, “it is not what goes into your stomach that defiles you, but rather the evil that thrives in your heart.” (Kate Huey)
So we keep listening and the gospel story continues and we hear that Jesus decides to take a break from his own people and familiar territory and he crosses over into Gentile territory.
Jesus has gone through a lot. The people of his hometown have rejected him, he has been healing untold numbers of people, (presumably all Jews up until this point) and he has just challenged one of the fundamental understandings of what it meant to be Jewish, in a public argument with the religious leaders of the day.
We can imagine he needed a break; some time to take stock of all that had happened and to rest. Mark tells us that Jesus sets out and goes to the region of Tyre. We, first century Christians, of course know that Tyre is a pagan region.
Why in the world would Jesus be going to a pagan region?
Well, where does one go to get way from the demands of one’s vocation? Away from the place and the people one serves, perhaps? Jesus goes to stay in a house in Tyre, hoping to be left alone for awhile. He does not want anyone to know that he is there.
Unfortunately for him, there are people in that region who have already heard about him. One person in particular— a woman of Syrophoenician origin whose daughter had an unclean spirit. As soon as she hears that Jesus is there, she comes to him, bows down at his feet, and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But this woman is quick on her feet. She answers Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go— the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon was gone.” (Mark 7: 27-30)
Now remember, you are a first century Jewish Christian. You hear this story and you are shocked! Jesus healed a Gentile! He healed a foreigner!?
This the most shocking part of this story to you— that Jesus healed a Gentile, because up until this point everyone he has healed and ministered to has been Jewish.
Him calling her a dog? Well, it’s was the 30s. That's just what Jewish people called Gentiles back then. (As if we have never heard that kind of rationalization before. Just because "everyone" does something...)
The big deal is that this Syrophoenician woman barges in to where Jesus was staying and breaks a number of Jewish conventions-- including (and perhaps especially) touching him! That would have been a problem for Jesus, as a Jewish man to be touched by an "unclean" Gentile woman.
And, we can tell from the story, she was likely a woman of means. The end of the story says her daughter was lying on a bed and only wealthy people could afford beds.
So a rich, pagan woman is seeking healing for her daughter from a poor Jewish healer. This is not just unconventional for first century Palestine, it is down right inappropriate, shameful even! There is more than one border or boundary being crossed here in this story.
For first century Jewish Christians, trying to figure out what it means to be Christian, this is all very confusing. The hearers of this story would still have been reeling from Jesus declaring that all foods are clean, just a few chapters ago, and now he is having an intimate conversation and encounter with a foreigner, who is a woman!
It is as if all the tables have been turned. Jesus is making it harder and harder us to define ourselves over and against other people. All foods are clean and now it seems all people are clean…
The story continues and now we hear that Jesus is on the move again. This time the gospel says, “he returned from the region of Tyre,” and “went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.”
Now, we know our ancient Middle Eastern geography, since we live here right, so we know that to leave Tyre and go to Sidon, means that Jesus was actually going North, away from the Sea of Galilee.
Why would he do that? And why does the story keep telling us details about where he is going and how he got there?
The writer of Mark is pretty sparse on details, so for him to mention it, it must have been important. Every good story has a good narrative arc, right? We have been following Jesus on his journey; could this be that he has reached a turning point?
Could his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman changed the trajectory of him life and mission, and therefore how we are to understand the reign of God?
As he is walking north, we can imagine Jesus mulling over what has just happened; replaying the experience in his head over again and over again.
Hadn’t he just been calling the Pharisees and Scribes hypocrites because they cared more about the letter of the law than the needs of the people in front of them? Hadn’t he just preach the message that it is what is in a persons heart that is most important.
That woman, that Syrophoenician woman, was basically the exact opposite of Jesus. She was a woman, she was a Gentile, she was rich, she was pagan. And yet the love she had inside of her, the love she had for her daughter, was exactly the same Love that Jesus had come to share.
Could it be, that that encounter with her changed him forever? Is it possible that she had opened up his entire understanding of himself and his mission?
It seems entirely possible.
From then on, Jesus understanding of him self and how he behaves, changes. As if he finally understood that he had come to bring love and healing the world-- the entire world.
Jesus has nearly come full circle but he is not quite there yet. Now he is in the region of the Decapolis.
We are in unfamiliar territory now. This region is Greek. This is where the Others live.
“They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly." (Mark 7: 32-237)
Yes, Jesus healed another Gentile, but we are picking up on a deeper level to this story now. Jesus can open this mans eyes and ears and heart, because his eyes and ears and heart have been opened.
Jesus had been preaching the “overflowing, tender mercies of God," (Kate Huey) but his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman had shown him that in his human exclusion of some people he was keeping God’s divine mercy from those he was also called to embrace. The narrative arc of this part of the story is coming to a close. Jesus now has a fuller understanding of who he is.
If we keep listening to the story, we will hear at the beginning of chapter eight another feeding, this time of four thousand. Jesus is still in Gentile territory. He continues to put his new understanding into action, feeding those who are hungry, no matter who they are. Healing those who are sick, no matter who they are. Inviting everyone to the table, no matter who they are.
First century Jewish Christians who heard this story would have had to adjust their expectations about who Jesus was and who he had come to serve. And that meant they also had to adjust their understanding of who they were called to be.
For us, as twenty-first century Christians hearing this story, it can have the same powerful affect of opening us up—if we let it. If we hear its message.
In what ways are we being called to open our hearts, our ears, our eyes, our lives to people who have been beyond our focus, to people we have excluded, intentionally or unintentionally, people who are just as in need and deserving of God’s mercy and love as we are?
May we be open to the power of unexpected encounters with people we think are so different from us, but who may just be God’s disruptive Holy Spirit made flesh sent to open us up and change us for good. Amen.