Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus’ offensiveness is a fact we must face

Elder adults sitting together on boardwalk
Photo by Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 5, 2021

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Commentary on Mark 7:24-37

Mark has juxtaposed stories in 7:24-30 and 7:31-37 as mirror images of each other. Both focus on unfortunate people suffering infirmities that isolate them from society (verses 25a, 32a). Something from within the daughter and the deaf man incapacitates them: a demon (verse 30), ear-stoppage (verse 33b), or speech-blockage (verse 35). Proxies intercede on their behalf, kneeling before (verse 25) or begging (verse 32) Jesus. The tale of the Syrophoenician woman begins with Jesus’ failed attempt to escape notice (7:24b); the tale of the deaf man ends with Jesus’ defeated order to tell no one (7:36a). The harder secrecy is pressed, the more widely the good news is broadcast (verse 36b): a contradiction pervading Mark (1:44–2:2; 6:31–33) and triply ironic for an account that ends with defiance of a gag order against reporting Jesus’ removal of a speech impediment (7:35b–36).

The references to Tyre (verse 24), Syrophoenicia (verse 26), Sidon, and the Decapolis (verse 31) are important: Jesus is traversing Gentile territory, despised by Jews (Ezekiel 26:1-28:19; Joel 3:4-8). In 2021 xenophobic reactions to border-crossings make worldwide headlines. Some things never change.

The differences between these tales are telling. Mark 7:33-34 itemizes Jesus’ therapeutic technique: private treatment, palpation, spitting, looking to heaven, sighing, pronouncing the cure. Its confirmation is particularized: literally, “[the man’s] hearing was opened up, and his tongue’s shackle was released, and he spoke straight” (7:35). Beyond Jesus’ declaration of the child’s healing (verse 29) and its subsequent confirmation (verse 30), Mark 7:24–30 recounts no details of the exorcism. The little girl’s healing takes place far removed from Jesus. The last verse in 7:31-37 is its punchline: ironically, Gentiles acclaim Jesus with an Old Testament paraphrase (Isaiah 35:5-6). Verse 30 is anticlimactic in Mark 7:24-30, whose interest lies in the thrust and parry between Jesus and the woman in 7:27–29.

She is a Gentile, “a Greek” (Romans 1:16; Galatians 3:28). Unconventionally for a woman in antiquity, she approaches Jesus for her daughter’s exorcism. Nowhere in Mark has Jesus refused such assistance; exorcisms characterize the overthrow of Satan’s kingdom by God’s Son (1:21-28; 3:11-12, 23-27; 5:1-20; 9:14-29) and his disciples (6:7, 13). In 7:14-23 Jesus’ teaching has abolished traditional distinctions between clean (Jews) and unclean (Gentiles). Therefore, Jesus’ reply to this mother is disturbing. While not ignoring her (see also Matthew 15:23), he suggests a delay in her petition’s fulfillment based on ethnic priority (“let the children be fed first”) and the ignobility of “taking the children’s bread and pitching it to the dogs” (7:27, my translation). For one who has just spoken of defilement that emerges from within (verse 23), it is Jesus who appears ignoble.

There’s no escaping the ethnic slur built into “dogs” (tois kynariois; 1 Samuel 17:43; Revelation 22:15). The Jesus of history may have had little interaction with Gentiles for the reason given in Matthew 15:24: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Both Matthew (5:47; 6:7; 18:17) and Paul (Galatians 2:15) take a dim view of Gentile conduct, even though they, like Mark and other New Testament authors, are dedicated to Gentile evangelization (Matthew 28:19; Acts 13:46; Galatians 1:16; Colossians 1:27).

What does the preacher do with Mark 7:27-29? Commentators repeatedly try to get Jesus off the hook, somehow, usually by imputing to Mark 7:27-29 a sweetener without textual basis. (“‘Little puppies’ aren’t offensive.”) That not only strains credulity; it undermines Mark, who, had he been as embarrassed as some of his interpreters, could have excised the pericope entirely (Luke did just that.) Others suggest that Jesus was testing the woman’s faith. While not out of character for the Markan Jesus (6:37-38), other possibilities are suggested by 7:27.

Jesus does not flatly refuse the woman’s request but does prioritize “the children” (ta tekna: presumably, Israel) as primary beneficiaries. In antiquity a child occupied a station of claimless vulnerability. Even children, however, are fed before lapdogs. While we reel from this affront, the Syrophoenician woman executes some comedic jujitsu, twisting Jesus’ maxim to deliver the retort best suiting her situation: “Sir [Kyrie], even house-dogs under the table scarf down the kids’ bitty scraps” (7:28 my translation).

Her acknowledgement of Jesus’ superiority, the implied acceptance of his insult, the lowering of self beneath the table, the subtle shift in Greek from one term for “children” to another (paidia) that blends immaturity and servanthood, acceptance of crumbs: all these elements anticipate Jesus’ own definitions of discipleship (9:33-37; 10:13-16), congruent with the Son of Man’s self-condescension (8:31; 10:41–45). That is what makes “this word” so apt and so convincing (7:29). Jesus more than concedes the quick-witted moxie of a female foreigner. He ratifies her claim to the gospel on the very grounds that he himself will explain in 10:28-31. She is not disappointed (7:30).

In the context of Mark 7:1-23, this Sunday’s lection proves that Jesus’ offensiveness is a fact we must face. A conservative congregation will be affronted by Jesus’ claim that defilement comes from within, not from without (7:15, 23). Liberal Christians resist the notion that a socially progressive Jesus would say what Mark ascribes to him in 7:27 or, worse, that the Gentile so insulted would accept the slur (7:28). The deeper question is whether we can follow a Christ so repulsive as to die by crucifixion (15:22-41). Jesus flummoxes everyone who boxes him into conventional expectations: the pious (2:1-3:6; 7:1-23), his family (3:19b-21), his disciples (8:33), and even some petitioners (7:24-30). If we, too, are not gobsmacked, it’s a safe bet that we have domesticated Jesus and have neutered the gospel.