Rev Andrew Prior reflects on the gospel for the week
What would Jesus do?
This is a serious question. In all the variety of Christian expression some folk may imagine a Jesus whom we struggle to recognise as Jesus at all. But he is the distinguishing mark of Christianity compared to other religious faiths. And to ask seriously and honestly, “What would Jesus do if he were here, in my shoes?” can be a life changing experience. Sometimes we discover he simply would not wear our shoes!
But using Jesus as a life model can also be daunting. If we come from a part the Faith which venerates him so much that he is barely human, he can seem an impossible act to follow. “How can I be like this man who was God,” we ask ourselves, “How can I live up to that?”
We will have heard the doctrinal shorthand about Jesus Christ being “fully human and fully divine.” “Fully human” means he really was a human person. Just like us, he knew anger, pain, envy, disappointment, rejection. Jesus reveals to us what God is like. And he also reveals to us how a human being just like us can relate to God.
The lectionary reading this week shows us a very human Jesus. (Mark 7:24-37) In the story so far, he has been teaching a radical understanding of God. He has been going back to the old prophetic roots of Israelite faith and speaking of a God who cares for the ordinary people, and who desires justice and peace for all people. The religious police have been sent down from the city (Mark 7:1) to check him out again, but weeks before, both sides of politics had united in a decision to get rid of him: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:6)
Under pressure, he heads north out of Galilee to Tyre. This coastal city was in Gentile territory. In the time Mark was being written “the Tyrians were the bitter enemies of the Jews.” (Matthew’s telling of this story identifies the woman as a Canaanite; that is, as a native of the land which Jesus’ people had invaded and over run.) Perhaps Jesus is over tired, for when she arrives with her plea for healing he is “caught with his compassion down,” as Carl Gregg puts it.
The story shows us a man from the dominant conquering culture calling an aboriginal woman a dog. The Greek form of the word “dog” could be translated as “puppy.” Was he simply testing her, and being a bit playful, some people have wondered— perhaps he said it teasingly, with a smile on his face? I wouldn’t call my Sudanese friends little black puppies in any circumstances— the condescension makes it worse!
The uncomfortable fact is that the Jesus we look up to is shown responding with what sounds like a stock racist excuse used to avoid ordinary human obligations toward Gentiles.
What a woman this is! She responds with the deference expected of her: “Sir… “she begins. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Jesus’ people often called themselves the children of Israel.)
It’s just as clever as the ‘witticism’ of the racist axiom that Jesus had probably learned as a village child. It opens his eyes. He is appalled at his own lack of compassion. He sees what all his teaching about God’s compassion and inclusion implies: God’s mercy is not just for the children of Israel! There are no ‘dogs,’ there are no outsiders; there are only people of God.
We all pick up the shadow side of our culture. It begins to stick to us along with the dirt in the playground when we are little children. Our church and school and family give us a way to see the world, and they close our eyes to other ways. We inherit the shortcomings and failings of our people. We would not be human if this did not happen. It’s how the world works.
Our sin— our falling short of what God hopes of us and for us— is not defined by our blindness and ignorance. Our sin is defined by our response when our eyes are opened.
Jesus was, as my children would say, publicly ‘schooled’ by this woman. The rabbi with the legendary debating skills was beaten by a gentile woman, humiliated. Sin is when he gets defensive and attacks her like men so often do when women expose our shortcomings. Sin is when he makes a mealy -mouthed half-apology and goes on behaving just the same. Sin is when he explains to her that she doesn’t really understand what God is about; he is not racist, she’s just an ignorant woman who doesn’t’ see the complexity of the world.
Except he does none of that. “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Mark’s text is typically lean, but it’s clear Jesus not only accepts the truth of what she says. He praises her for it! No excuses. No hesitation. Instant repentance. Repentance means changing how we live, and he does. He heals the child.
What would Jesus do? He wouldn’t be perfect. He would listen to the ones who are downtrodden. He would be compassionate. He would own up to the times when he was wrong, or blind to injustice— even his own.
I find this incredibly encouraging and hopeful. It means I don’t have to be perfect. It means I am allowed to be wrong. It means I am not following an impossible act. I am simply asked to learn and to change. That is what Jesus did. I can do it.
Jesus does something else in this week’s reading. His actions are completed in the beginning of chapter 8 in the event we call The Feeding of the Four Thousand. That story is not included in the lectionary, which jumps ahead to the crescendo moment at the end of Chapter 8 in Mark when Peter recognises that Jesus is the Messiah.
We will miss something of what Peter sees if we don’t understand what Jesus does after Tyre.
After healing the little girl it says Jesus “returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Ten Cites.” (Decapolis means ten cities.) Looking at a map of the time, that’s like saying he’d gone from Adelaide up to Clare, and then taken the short way home by going on to Peterborough, and coming back to Adelaide via Burra and Murray Bridge!
Jesus’ criss-crossing of the country here, and in other stories, has led people to wondering if Mark knew the geography of Palestine at all. Perhaps he was just putting stories together whilst not realising that Jesus was ‘all over the place.’ But Mark knew what he was doing.
He begins with an introduction to Jesus and then has Jesus moving across the land of Israel healing and teaching. I’ve already spoken of Jesus’ going back to the old prophetic roots of Israelite faith and telling of a God who cares for the ordinary people, and who desires justice and peace for all people. Those actions meant that the readers of Mark instantly heard echoes of the Time of the Messiah in the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 people in chapter 6. That feeding was an acting out of the great messianic feast which many people expected would come with God’s Kingdom.
And unlike me when I first read the story, Mark’s readers recognised Mark was telling the same story again in chapter 8. They saw the numbers were changed! And they saw that the feeding of 5,000 was a “Jewish” story and the feeding of 4,000 was a “Gentile” story. (You can read details about this here.) And then they may have noticed that once he has fed the 5,000 Jewish people, Jesus then goes off and heals and ministers to the Gentiles and feeds them!
In other words, by the time Peter recognises the obvious— that Jesus is the Messiah— we have been shown the Messiah is for both Jews and Gentiles, and ministers to them all.
After Tyre, Jesus goes on a road trip through Gentile country healing and ministering there. We can miss what this involves. We can simply say he did more miracles. But what have we learned in our time about our healing when we are driven by things inside us, and forces outside us?
Whether we are the person at the traffic light who pointlessly sits on their horn in gridlock, or are a violent spouse, or are struggling to live with serious brain malfunction as we are stabilised in the mental health ward, there is one constant in our healing. It is people who take time to honour us with their attention and compassion; people who simply care for us.
That kind of caring only comes from listening to the world of the one who suffers. It means being immersed a little in their world. That’s why we talk about the ministry of healing. Ministry means serving. It means honouring by listening.
So while Mark’s key concern in showing us Jesus’ road trip is to make the connection that Jesus is for Gentiles as well as his own Jewish people, he has uncovered other truths for us: ministry takes time, and ministry listens. These things are at the root of healing.
So what would Jesus do? Instead of making a quick, embarrassed apology to the one he had wronged, and then retreating, Jesus would give them time. Jesus would immerse himself in their reality. He would honour them by ‘visiting country.’ He would not pay lip-service to an issue and move on. He would immerse himself in it. Would we?
You can listen to a podcast of this commentary here.
Mark 7:24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 28But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.