Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the next three weeks, we’ll look at three texts from Mark in which a person or a group comes to Jesus with a request or a demand.

September 6, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 7:24-37

In the next three weeks, we’ll look at three texts from Mark in which a person or a group comes to Jesus with a request or a demand.

The Syro-Phoenecian woman (7:24-37) wants her daughter to be healed. Peter (8:27-38) wants Jesus to change his sense of self and mission to fit Peter’s. The disciples (9:30-37) want the best seats in the house of the life to come.

Sometimes in the Gospels, Jesus is stationary and people come and go. For example, in the story in John 4 about the woman at the well, Jesus sits at the well the whole time while people come and go. In the Lord’s Supper accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus sits at the table in the Upper Room, offering his life for those who sit around it, while Judas leaves and Peter makes dramatic professions of undying support, and people come and go in the city around them.

But in Mark’s gospel, I get the sense of a Jesus who is on the move. People who want something from Jesus approach him on the road. He is on his way to the cross. Suffering is front and center. In Mark’s gospel, he’s coming by, but if you want something from him, you’d better work your way through the crowd and make your requests known.

One of the questions I find most helpful in approaching texts for preaching is the “What if?” question. What if Peter had kept his eyes on Jesus and made it all the way to him across the waves? What if God had answered Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane and taken the cup away from him? What if King Saul had not craved popularity so strongly? What if Jesus had turned the stones into bread as Satan tempted him to do in the wilderness?”

Over the next few weeks, I want to explore the theme of “What if?” It would make an interesting sermon series. Let’s take our text for today, Mark 7:24-37. Four “what if” questions come to my mind as I read it.
1. What if Jesus had been able to escape notice?
2. What if the woman had not had the courage to approach him?
3. What if he had immediately healed her daughter, with no verbal interchange?
4. What if he had refused to heal her daughter?

1. What if Jesus had been able to escape notice?
By the time we get to this story, Jesus seems to have been seeking quiet time for quite some time. Jesus said to the apostles “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (6:31) “After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.” (6:46)

The implication here is that he is seeking respite from the crowds outside by going inside. From a human perspective, Jesus yearned to escape notice at times. Because of his divine identity and power, he could not. If Jesus can escape our notice in our house today, it must be because we’re not alert to his presence; we’re not respectful of his power.

This brings us to our second “What if?” question.

2.  What if the woman had not had the courage to approach him?
She has several counts against her. She is the wrong gender, the wrong race and the wrong religion to approach Jesus. On top of that, she has a daughter who is demon possessed. That makes at least five excuses for not approaching Jesus. And yet she does. What is our excuse? Do we lack courage? Or do we lack compassion?

Perhaps her courage comes from the fact that she is approaching Jesus, not for her own sake, but for the sake of her child. When we approach Jesus, whether in petition or intercession, is the good of others in our minds and on our hearts? If so, it makes it harder to hang back, to not approach, especially when he is right here in your own house. What if she had not had the courage to approach Jesus? A little girl would still be writhing on her bed at home. We wouldn’t have this scene to help us exchange a zoom lens view of salvation for a wide-angle view.

3.  What if Jesus had immediately healed her daughter, with no verbal interchange?
A lot of commentators wish he had. They interpret the interchange between this woman and Jesus as the woman changing Jesus’ perspective. While I do believe we are to see her as a model of perseverance and faith, I see several factors that work against such an interpretation.

One is that the whole Gospel of Mark is written to a Gentile Christian audience and is concerned to confront Jewish particularism. Chapter 7 focuses in on this concern with Jesus’ blunt words about eating and defilement that attack the central assumptions of a purity-based religion, with its stipulations as to what one could and could not eat and with whom one could and could not associate. Another consideration is that Jesus chose to go to Tyre. If he had wanted to avoid Gentiles, why go to Tyre?

My sense is that Jesus spoke as he did, in the mode of rabbinic argumentation, to satirize the attitude of the Pharisees with whom he had just been arguing and to offer a lesson to those around him and the woman. We have no inkling of his facial expression or tone. We do have a record of his pattern of relating to supplicants, and it is with unfailing tenderness and poignancy.

4.  What if he had not healed her daughter?
The final “What if?’ question has an easy answer. Then he would be a Savior whose salvation is limited to those who are like him. In other words, no Savior at all.

I think our four “What ifs?” add up to something. If Jesus could escape notice, there would be no story. If the woman had not had enough desperate compassion to approach him, there would be no story. If he had not goaded her to help him verbalize the good news that salvation is to Jews as well as Gentiles, there would be no story. And if he had refused to heal her daughter, there would be no story.

Instead, there is your story and mine−that Jesus is in our house, with full power to heal; that we need to approach him with compassion and perseverance, praising God the sender of the Savior of all people, not just people like us.