Commentary on Mark 7:24-37
The key dynamics of this story seem easy enough to grasp.
A tired and exhausted Jesus seeks solitude. A woman hears about him and asks that he might cast a demon out of her daughter. The details are sparse. Whose house? How did the woman hear about him? Mark seems uninterested in such questions. Some details, however, are intentionally emphasized. Mark often gives what might be called retrospective information, that is, he introduces elements into narrative sections that change the dynamic of the story (e.g., 5:8). This happens here in verse 26: “Now, the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by descent” (my translation). This introduces a twist to the story, making clear its key tension.
Jesus’ response is less than charitable. He dismisses and insults. Mark’s Jesus here uses the Greek word for “dog” in the diminutive, but this does not mean Jesus is calling her a “cute little puppy.” A colloquial translation today might be: “little bitch.” Jesus seems unsure of the relationship between the Gentiles and the Kingdom of God.
If we take a step back and look at Mark’s profile of God’s kingdom throughout the Gospel, we find that it is something surprising and unexpected. The seeds are cast indiscriminately (Mark 4:1-20); it sprouts up without cultivation (Mark 4:26-29); it appears insignificant but becomes monumental (Mark 4:30-32). Those expected to perceive it properly turn out to be ignorant, slow, and hard of heart (Mark 4:35-41; Mark 6:52). The Kingdom of God plays by nobody’s rules but God’s, breaking into the world in the least likely of places, like howling demoniacs, bleeding women, and dead little girls. We have even previously been introduced to Jesus’ lack of control over God’s Kingdom. In Mark 5:24-35 the woman who touches Jesus’ garment causes power to zap out of him, without his own control over it.
Here, in chapter seven, we see Jesus himself among those characters in the Gospel of Mark not fully living into the reality of what the Kingdom of God is like. Jesus suddenly seems reticent to distribute God’s kingdom to a woman who is a gentile. He opts instead for an epithet.
While this depiction of Jesus may seem to propose certain Christological problems, I’m not sure that Mark was thinking about it this way. This is not the only part of the Gospel where Jesus and God are not in lockstep. In the Garden, for instance, Jesus asks for a different path (Mark 14:36). The remarkable thing in this text in chapter 7 is how the woman corrects Jesus. She turns Jesus’ words around and bends the dog metaphor to her advantage. Jesus recognizes this immediately and dismisses the demon from her daughter.
The challenge of Mark’s gospel, embodied so powerfully in this story, is to perceive a God who is active, breaking into the world, and in a way that does not conform to the norms of human institutions, be they religious, social, or political (to the extent that such things can even be separated from one another).
Everything I’ve written here so far is the easy part. We ought not be surprised at ethnic tension in a text form early Christianity. We also, although disappointed, should not be surprised to see problematic gender dynamics emerging from an ancient patriarchal culture. The question becomes: how does this text interface with our world today?
This text suggests that we ask: whose are the marginalized voices today who are speaking truth to power? Where might God be active in a way that our power structures are unable to control or domesticate? As a white male and member of the academic establishment, I am not sure I have the right to answer such questions.
Many modern Christians may see this dynamic in Mark’s Gospel and move immediately to advocacy. We decide who is marginalized and provide a voice for them. We try to nibble around the edges by selling fair trade coffee or driving a Prius. These are not bad things, but they do very little. Mark’s Gospel testifies to the utter change enacted through a real encounter with those who are marginalized or excluded.
A profound example of this is provided to us through the life and work of a little-known Catholic Priest, Father Joseph Wresinski. He grew up in abject poverty in France. He started a group called the “Fourth World Movement” that seeks to eradicate poverty by brining together people from all walks of life. Father Joseph, in his book Blessed are You the Poor, seeks to uncover the radical nature of a gospel of encounter, especially through his own experience with persistent poverty. He claims that the gospel is much more than a text to be read. It is a place to experience those who have been “mutilated by extreme poverty,“ a land where I can go and meet with men and women familiar in speech and gestures and ever worthy of love” (13). This means that we can only get access to what he calls an “immeasurable grace” through the poor: “Only the very poor can obtain it for their more privileged fellow people.”
These are radical ideas, and certainly present certain theological problems. They are, however, exegetically defensible. They cut to the heart of Mark’s observation about God’s activity and the encounter of Jesus with the woman. The gospel is not just advocacy or social programs. It is encounter that changes.