Learning from the Other

lentzBy Ched Myers, for the 15th Sunday of Pentecost (Mk 7:24-37)

Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.

In a doublet I called a “tale of two women” (5:21-43; see my blog on the gospel for 5 Pentecost) Mark presented two linked healings in “Jewish” symbolic territory. He now narrates a corresponding doublet in clearly marked “Gentile” space (7:24). Tyre and Sidon were coastal cities not only well outside Palestinian Jewish society, but historic centers of the Phoenician naval empire, a legendary adversary of Israel (see e.g. Ezekiel 26-28), though now part of the Roman province of Syria. These healings of a woman and man are thus surprising, and serve as object lessons in the inclusivity just advocated in the previous Markan episode.

The woman who falls at Jesus’ feet appealing on behalf of her off-stage daughter (7:25f) reminds us of Jairus, but represents a world remote from that of the synagogue leader. Because we are unfamiliar with social proprieties in Hellenistic antiquity, we miss the scandal of this encounter. In conventional Mediterranean “honor culture” it would have been inconceivable for an unknown, unrelated woman to approach a man in the privacy of his residence—much less a Gentile soliciting favor from a Jew. Worse still, as Mark notes emphatically, she is “Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth” (7:26). Here is an archetypal “other” from a Judean perspective (see icon above by Robert Lentz).

But does this affront justify Jesus’ initial rebuff, which modern readers ought find troubling (7:27)? After all, Jesus appears to be using what we would call a racist slur in what may have been a popular proverb (perhaps alluding to Ex 22:31). “Doggies” (the diminutive Gk kunarios) seems to have been a derogatory term for Gentiles or outsiders. We see traces of it elsewhere in the N.T. and later rabbinic writings:

  • Look out for the dogs (kunes), look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. (Phi 3:2)
  • Outside are the dogs (kunes) and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and every one who loves and practices falsehood. (Rev 22:15)
  • …a holy convocation to you, not to dogs…not to strangers ( Ex 12.6)
  • He who eats with an idolater is like one who eats with a dog (Pirk Eliez 29)

Is Jesus responding as a typical Jewish male would, defending the collective honor of his people (but if so, what did he expect in “foreign territory”)? Perhaps; but Mark’s Jesus is not supposed to by “typical,” and this is an insult, moreover one which cuts directly against the grain of what Jesus has just been teaching. These very contradictions, I believe, represent the key on how to read this difficult text.

Jesus’ stipulation that “the children must first be satisfied” suggests a deeper symbolic issue, perhaps referring back to Jesus’ instructions to give Jairus’ daughter “something to eat” (Mk 5:43). Indeed, the themes of eating and bread have recurred throughout the first half of Mark’s narrative. The discipleship community clashes with local authorities around how and what to eat in 2:15-28 and again in last week’s lection (which twice says the disciples ate bread with unwashed hands, 7:2,5, omitted in most translations). The disciples go on mission “without bread” (6:8) even as Herod throws an opulent banquet (6:21). The crowds are “satisfied” in the wilderness feeding (6:36ff), yet the disciples do not understand the “meaning of the bread” (6:52).

This motif is sustained by the woman’s bold and surprising retort: “Yes lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs meant for the children” (7:28). Protocol has now been strained to the breaking point, as she dares to turn Jesus’ words back upon him. Yet she is only defending the rights of her people to “the table.” The real jolt, however, is the story’s conclusion. Jesus, who masters every other opponent in verbal riposte in Mark’s story, concedes the argument her: “Because of your teaching (Gk logon)… the demon has left your daughter” (7:29)! He recognizes that she has showed him the meaning of his own logic!

There are two powerful ways to interpret this exchange. On one hand, perhaps Jesus is being portrayed as truly human, which in this moment meant that he wasn’t immune to being caught up in ethnic and male entitlement. Yet he allows himself to be corrected in a way that deconstructed that very entitlement. On the other hand, perhaps this scenario is choreographed an object lesson of inclusivity precisely to illustrate what is at stake status. In this reading, Jesus intentionally models bad behavior in order to demonstrate to Jewish male readers/hearers how to subordinate “honor” to the principle of solidarity. Both interpretations are extraordinary, and subversive of traditional gender politics (not to mention Christology).

Either way, this story suggests that transgressing traditional social boundaries in order to encounter the “other” will often seem like an “indignity” (from the perspective of collective honor); but this is the cost of inclusion. The episode is also key to the wider narrative strategy of Mark: as Jesus’ command in 5:43 to feed Jairus’ daughter anticipated the feeding of the crowds on the “Jewish” side of the sea, so does the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter prefigure the feeding of the masses on the “Gentile” side (8:1ff). Both the “children” and “outsiders” have been “satisfied” (the word is the same in 6:42, 7:27 and 8:4,8). Not only has Mark’s Jesus declared “all food clean” (7:19); he has welcomed everyone at the table.

Mark anticipated that this radical message would fall on deaf ears. So it is no accident that his “telling” (7:14ff) and “showing” (7:24ff) the principle of inclusion is followed by the healing of a man unable to speak or hear! This second linked healing comes at the conclusion of a southeastward itinerary that symbolically embraces all the Gentile territory surrounding Galilee (7:31).

This episode echoes many of the other healings in the first half of Mark, as if to “summarize” the compassionate mission of Jesus. The Decapolis was the place where the Gerasene demoniac was liberated from Legion (5:19). As with the bleeding woman (5:25ff), the Purity Code is here reversed when Jesus spits on his fingers and touches the man’s ears and tongue (7:33; see Lev 15:8). As in the case of Jairus’ daughter, an Aramaic healing word is used (7:34; see 5:41). And as with the leper (1:41ff), Jesus’ admonitions against publicity are ignored (7:36).

The inclusive Jesus can make even outsiders “hear” and “speak” (7:37; see Is 35:5f). Yet we will soon see that his own disciples remain deaf (see 8:18). This irony begins to refocus the narrative on the real mission of Jesus: To bring “insiders” out of denial toward discipleship.

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