In the hymn we just sung “Your words to me are life and health” and often when we think of God’s words to us we think of the Bible.
Yet I must admit that there are times when we sing these words after reading the scriptures I would prefer to be singing “Your words to me are dark and confusing”.
The reading from Mark’s gospel, especially the story of Jesus encounter with the Syrophonecian woman, is a prime example of a Biblical story that is perplexing.
I did consider that given it is Father’s Day maybe I should choose something different and preach around the theme of fatherhood. Yet that topic is problematic as well. For some of us Fathers day is a difficult day. It is a reminder of a life without a father, or with a father who abused us. It is a reminder that our father is no longer with us or is unwell and aging. It can be a reminder that we might feel we have failed as a father to be all we can be for our kids. It is a day that can be filled with as much angst as it is filled with joy.
So I decided maybe dealing with the difficulties of the story in Mark remained that better option. Avoiding the difficult passages does not make them go away and how might this confusing passage provide “life and health” for we who are gathered.
So why is the passage so difficult?
As I read different commentaries, blogs and old sermons I had preached on this passage I had a sense thatthere were a number of topical doorways I could choose to walk through.
Let me share some of those doorways:
- Jesus calls a woman a dog
- Jesus was being racist
- Jesus was being sexist
- Jesus is playing games – he is testing the woman
- The woman wins the argument with Jesus
- Jesus learns about his mission to the gentiles
- Christians are anti-Semitic
- Jesus doesn’t know where he is going – saying he is going from Tyre to Sidon to Galilee is like going from Brisbane to the Sunshine coast via Toowoomba!
- And, do the ends justify the means
Now there may be other issues you see with the passage but these are ones that I identified as I prepared the sermon. I will make just a brief comment on a couple of these. The notion that Jesus was not behaving appropriately as a Jewish male and was being racist actually came from a paper written by a Jewish scholar. He argued that the traditional Christian interpretation that this was a culturally appropriate response for a Jewish male of the time is wrong. So either Jesus is racist, and this is inconsistent with Jewish behaviour, or the tradition of interpretation in the church is anti-Jewish.
We could spend the whole day arguing about and exploring these issues but the reality is the story does throw up some difficult conundrums.
As I sat perplexed by these conundrums I noticed something else which stood out, something that was not about trying to interpret and defend Jesus but something that appeared to be good news.
The two people who are healed by Jesus, the girl and the deaf mute, have no input into their own healing. We are told the girl is afflicted by an evil spirit and is not with the woman. What this evil spirit might be we do not know but what we do know is that girl does nothing, does not exhibit faith, does not go seeking Jesus and for all we know does not follow Jesus later. Yet she is healed. Yes, her mother intercedes for her but she herself does nothing and is later discovered at home on bed – well!
The same might be argued of the deaf mute whose friends bring him to Jesus. It is possible he does not know who Jesus is, he has heard nothing about Jesus and he may not understand where his friends are taking him. He does not demonstrate faith and we, again, have no evidence that he became a follower of Jesus. Yet, he receives healing. He receives grace.
Wow! Just, really wow!
Despite all of the other possible doorways and complexities the healing of these two people is somewhat mind boggling! It is a mystery of God’s grace.
More than that we know there is a possibility that the first healing might never have happened and that second healing we should not know about.
At the beginning of the passage Jesus is looking effectively to hide – Mark tells us, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” How the woman found out we do not know. But that she did and that her daughter was healed we do know.
After healing the deaf mute we are told, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” Jesus did not want this news spread. Ironically here we are 2000 years later sharing in a story that Jesus order not to be shared that has been heard by millions of people.
Our encounter with these stories is almost as much a mystery as the healings themselves.
There is a hiddeness to God’s actions and these 2 stories sit within the larger story of Mark’s gospel. In Mark’s gospel the mystery of Jesus identity is a dominant theme. Through the gospel we find again and again that it is the outsiders who identify and acknowledge Jesus – the demon possessed, the leper, the woman, the Roman soldier and so on. On the other hand, it is the insiders - Jesus closest followers - that often appear to be confused and in the dark. Jesus healing and grace is poured out on those who do not appear in any way to qualify – it is done unconditionally.
Returning to the notion of the different doorways we could go through in thinking about this story maybe it is not the questions that we might ask but the questions the story might ask of us.
1. Are we prepared to intercede for others?
2. Can we see God’s healing at work in those who do not seek it for themselves?
3. Do we share the stories of unconditional grace?
4. Are we excluding others by our thoughts and actions?
5. Who do we say that Jesus is?
God’s grace is beyond us and sometimes the scriptures are mysterious and beyond our domestication. And so today as we look at the girl and the man who is healed in awe and wonder that God would restore their lives we come not unlike the woman to kneel before Jesus on behalf of ourselves and others.
There is an ancient prayer of the church which in a way places us even lower than the woman. It is called the humble prayer of approach and is prayed before communion. It says:
We do not presume
to come to your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
But you are the same Lord
whose nature is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that we may evermore dwell in him,
and he in us. Amen.
Our hope is in a God whose nature is always to have mercy and who I believe invites all people to celebrate together at the table. Not receiving crumbs but the richest feast of acceptance and forgiveness and of life.
The healings reminds us of God’s amazing grace and despite the challenging words of the passage we can say and sing “Your words to me are life and health”.