First, this: I have struggled with my writing now for like many, I hardly know what to make of the scene we witness in Mark’s Gospel today. What you have here are my first thoughts on a difficult passage. I would welcome your thoughts as well.
I know the woman Jesus meets in our Gospel lesson today. I know her for I have seen the desperate, pleading look in her eyes, heard the grief-stricken yearning in her voice a hundred times. You know her, too, this one who would travel any distance, cross over any barriers, risk any social shame to save the life of a beloved child, sibling, parent, friend. We know her well and recognizing her heart-deep struggle, is it any wonder that we are troubled by Jesus’ first response today?
Indeed, I have perused the commentaries and not a one seems able to adequately explain or ‘explain away’ Jesus’ seeming effort to dehumanize this woman and her child by comparing that suffering little one to a ‘dog…’
Oh, one might surmise that Jesus was just tired. That perhaps his retreat into the region of Tyre was meant to be just that: a retreat from the constant pressure bearing down on him from countless needy, suffering people and those with earthly authority who would seek to stand in the way of what and who he was called to be and do. Maybe Jesus’ weariness is what is heard in his seemingly instinctive response.
And so yes, maybe this is so, that in this short vignette we realize that Jesus was every bit as much actual flesh and blood and bone as he was divine. As for me, there is no piece of scripture that brings this across more clearly than this one.
So this is why I cannot help but wonder if this story is a powerful reminder to us that Jesus — and therefore God — is not static. That he was shaped and influenced by real forces all around him, born into and living in a particular time and place with all that meant. Indeed, could it be so that in the Gospels we actually bear witness to the story of one who was a ‘work in progress’ and that we are privileged to see his growing into the one who would lay down his life not just for those who came from the same place that he did but for all the rest of us as well?
For there is certainly evidence elsewhere for this understanding of who and how God is. We can travel back to the time when Abraham walked with God and argued that Sodom be spared God’s wrath. If God was open to that sort of conversation which would change God’s mind then… might this still be so? (Genesis 18:16-33)
And oh, it is so, that one of my favorite understandings of the last week of Jesus’ life was that when he came to that last meal with his followers, the image of Mary in John’s Gospel kneeling to anoint his feet stayed with him in such a way that he actually emulated her in kneeling at his disciples’ feet a few days later. (John 12:1-8, John 13:1-11) Could it be that Jesus was somehow ‘changed’ by what Mary did to and for him?
Oh, perhaps it is not comfortable for us, is it, this understanding of the Son of God somehow being changeable while he walked among us? And yet, I cannot come up with a more reasonable way to hear what is before us now. The implication of this, of course, is that if this is so, it may also be possible that our ongoing relationship with Jesus is one where there is ever and always such give and take. For it is so, isn’t it, that our ancient understanding is that God made us in God’s own image as partners in this holy work of caring for the earth? (Genesis 1:26-30) And this being so, wouldn’t one partner have influence on the other? Might that just go both ways?
It is perhaps a risky understanding, this one. Oh, how much more comfortable it seems to believe that God is unchangeable. And yet, even with this being so, in many ways I am convinced that God does remain the same. That God is ever and always One of love and grace, of forgiveness and hope. That God does not will suffering for any of those whom God has made in God’s own image. Or for this beautiful creation which God has gifted us. And that you and I are invited into a relationship of partnership and friendship with the One who made us and set us on this earth in the first place. So could it be that while in some ways God remains the same, God is also changeable?
So it is risky, this. But in the end, perhaps it is more life-giving than the relationship that many have chosen which is in itself static, and too much top down, and in no way marked by the sort of lively conversations shared with God by the likes of Abraham and Moses and countless others since.
In the end I have to say that I am not now and never will be comfortable with the Jesus we first encounter today. As I have already said, it is hard to make sense of God’s Own Son speaking in such a degrading way to a desperate mother. And yet, we also know this from these first short verses:
- That Jesus stepped into actual physical territories where he would not be ‘at home.’ In doing so he was automatically more accessible to those with whom he would perhaps share little other than a common humanity.
- Though his words may have been meant to dismiss her, he did not ignore her.
- And Jesus was not above admitting that he was outwitted in that theological exchange they share. Though not explicitly said, by granting her heart’s desire for her suffering daughter, he admits he has been bested.
- Indeed, Jesus was open to having his mind changed. Jesus was open to being changed. He was willing to be moved.
So, my friends, I am not exactly sure how this preaches, but preach it we must for we cannot very well let Jesus’ words be spoken next Sunday without taking time to wrestle with them, with him, with our own understandings of who Jesus was and is and continues to be with us and for us.
And in the end, might it be Gospel words to all that if Jesus could be changed — if Jesus’ imagination could be expanded to understand that God’s love and grace and healing and power were meant for all people — might ours just be as well?
- How do you understand Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman? What do you make of his singularly degrading comment and her subsequent ability to best him in the argument?
- What message are we to take from this all too disturbing story? What words of hope are there for us to share?
- I am suggesting that perhaps the fact that Jesus is changeable points to the fact that our relationship with Jesus is meant to be just as lively and that this is the gift of this story. What do you think?