Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 5th, 2021


Manage episode 278337798 series 1950523
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We continue our slow walk alongside Jesus in Mark’s narrative portrayal, back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, Jewish and Gentile sides, and now widening his trajectory and entering the historically prosperous coastal regions of Tyre and Sidon, and on into the Decapolis. Track One likewise continues to march through the literature associated with Solomon, moving from Song of Songs to a short trek through the Book of Proverbs. And as well, we are following in both Tracks a continuous reading through the Epistle of James. In both Tracks, Psalms appropriate to the OT reading are provided, in Track two, geared to the symphony of Gospel and OT reading both.

The Gospel account for today, Jesus encounter with a Greek speaking Syrophoenician woman, has in recent times been, the recipient of some remarkable interpretations. Jesus was put in his place. Jesus changed his mind because he was properly upbraided. The Syrophoenician woman served as a mirror reflecting Jesus own xenophobia back to him, causing him to rethink his attitudes towards Gentiles. A google search will pull up dramatic titles for recent studies of the text, like “The woman who changed Jesus.”

So let’s start with the Gospel and take a closer look at Mark’s narrative line.

It is obvious that Jesus is increasingly encountering those in need of healing and who lived on the margins: Jews dead or dying—Jairus’s daughter—the woman with a flow of blood, and now Jesus starts to enter traditional gentile regions, in Tyre and later in the cities of the Decapolis where he will heal and encounter those in need who throng to him, having heard of his fame. Lots of cultural questions hover around our text. The region Jesus enters is a gentile one wealthier than the Jewish Galilee and the agricultural labor there from which they benefited – taking food and leaving scraps for dogs, one might say. The woman Jesus encounters is a Greek speaker, and could that mean culturally upper class? Tyre is famous in the OT for wealth, trading, and commerce. Read Ezekiel’s three chapter exordium (26-28) for a sober account of the ravaging by Tyre of neighbors and her sea-faring commerce without peer.

One thing is for sure. At the center of many Marcan stories is the theme and the question of faith. Jesus responds to faith – so the woman with the flow who reaches out in faith, and the ruler of the synagogue: “do not fear, only believe.” To the father of the epileptic child in chapter nine: “all things are possible to him who believes.” “I believe. I have faith,” he says, “help my unbelief.”

In addition, the idea of a history of salvation, first to the Jew, then the Gentile, is resident in Acts and in Paul, and we see it as well in the Gospels. Go nowhere but to the lost tribes of Israel. Let the children first be fed. Five thousand are fed, with twelve baskets left over, on the predominantly Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee. Four thousand are shortly to be fed, after them, during Jesus’ fresh journeys in largely Gentile regions.

Jesus has upbraided the Jewish leaders for hindering the law’s good intent, and as the law’s good giver he has himself gone into the regions of uncleanness and brought forth healing and life from the dead. He now begins a trek into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, as his fame has become known to a strong character in the person of a woman of standing with a daughter possessed by a demon. He is hidden away, Mark tells us, and he wants to remain so. But this persistent woman breaks through, for such is the powerful draw of Jesus for those in need. Dog is clearly a pejorative term, and most dogs were undomesticated scavengers. A dog under the table is closer to our understanding, awaiting his food. The image can appear in Jewish texts, representing the gentiles who come within their feeding range and dine after them at the final eschatological banquet.

Falling at Jesus feet and begging is indeed her canine posture, and she does not bristle when Jesus confirms the order of salvation. Indeed, she underscores his own point by speaking it back to him. Yet she stands ready in just that posture to receive the food she and her daughter need. Great is her faith. Absent is the pained cry in chapter nine, “help my unbelief,” for she is all in. For saying this, Jesus responds, she has shown her great faith and her daughter’s healing is assured. She went home, found the child in bed, the demon gone.

It is just this strong faith, we may assume, that explains Jesus’s steady movement now, out of the Sea of Galilee western regions, into Tyre and Sidon, and then into the gentile cities on the other side, the region of the Decapolis. Great faith is great faith, and great faith in him is saving faith, spilling over the messianic banquet table and manifesting itself before his eyes. Hidden away, as Mark seems symbolically to imply, in the order of salvation, but breaking forth now. Isaiah had spoken this beforehand, in what Paul calls a mystery, hidden though present beforehand, and now breaking forth in the fulness of time. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The same text quoted in Acts 13 by Paul and Barnabas to confirm their outreach beyond Jewish Israel, even as their persistent preaching in the synagogues never ceases throughout the ensuing chapters.

Chapters 40—66 of Isaiah are renown for these notes of outreach, of salvation breaking forth among the nations, as Israel’s punishment by the nations becomes, in the order of salvation, the means of their knowledge of God, diaspora Israel in OT times to become in time the synagogue Israel of Paul’s eventual mission in that context.

Chapters 34 and 35 of Isaiah serve as a harbinger of the latter chapters and anticipate many of the themes found there. So our OT reading chosen for today. Wonders of healing and reversals of affliction, without respect to the recipients save their need. Be strong, fear not. And what an example in the woman in today’s reading. Followed by the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promises in the healing of the deaf and mute man in Gentile Decapolis.

Alleluia is the refrain of our psalm, picking up from where Isaiah started. Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their refuge, the elect of Israel or those of us adopted into that banquet.

The Epistle reading from James is a familiar one, reminding us that faith without actions that it compels is not the faith of God’s gifting in Jesus Christ. Jesus showed no distinction in allowing the cry of the woman from wealthy Tyre to sound forth, even as he spoke from within the saving presence of the God of Jacob. When she affirmed that saving order of things, she received not crumbs but new life for her daughter.

Our track one reading from the middle of Proverbs, chapter 22, has likely been chosen out of other possibilities in that long collection, as in track two, because of themes it reinforces in the Gospel lesson. So we hear in verse 8: those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. The gentile women from Tyre may not be poor in worldly means, but she is desperately poor because of the affliction tormenting her daughter. Jesus may not appear generous at first, but is prepared to do everything asked of him by those with the faith of this same woman, as part of the history of salvation at whose center is Jesus Christ himself. For the Lord pleads their cause, as our Proverbs reading puts it.

Those who trust in the Lord, though they may be in Tyre, are like Mount Zion itself, which cannot be moved, but stands fast forever. In the Lord’s compassion, crumbs become basketfuls of leftovers, and food from his table life-changing, hope-providing nourishment from heaven. He has done everything well, the deaf hear, the mute speak, the demons are routed.

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