Pentecost 15, preached September 9/12
The story Mark tells in this morning’s gospel reading is one of those puzzling, difficult texts sometimes listed under “Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said”//quote//.
This brief statement, true enough on the face of it, causes great controversy among Scripture scholars and teachers. “Jesus sounds mean,” they complain. “Jesus seems to say NO to someone who asks him for help~Jesus called a woman A DOG (a lady dog, yet?)~but then he seemed to change his mind, to reverse himself. What’s going on. Does Jesus change? Did Jesus MAKE A MISTAKE?”
What we need, I think, when we come to a text like this, is a premise, a first principle to start from. I take mine from St. John Chrysostom (who after all – if nothing else – was 1600 years closer to what happened than we are). Chrysostom says we may take it, confidently, that Jesus always knows what he is doing, always knows what he is saying, and why; he always has an agenda, an aim in view, there is a point and a purpose, a teaching and transforming purpose in everything he says and does.
What if that is true? In this story we have three “characters” – two individuals, Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman – and one group character, the posse of disciples standing on the fringe of what is going on. WE may forget the disciples, because they don’t say anything much out loud – but we mustn’t imagine that Jesus forgets them, not for a moment. Jesus is always aware of ALL his listeners, their agendas, hopes, assumptions. And he stick-handles his way through his conversations with that awareness – he teaches with that awareness.
Make no mistake, this is a teacher of teachers—when we imagine God as teacher we usually imagine how we might teach if we were God…a thunderous, uninterrupted monologue, unquestioned, complete the moment it’s uttered, indifferent to hearers/students, who of course bring no more to the situation than a row of buckets under the downspout.
This is not how Jesus teaches – he is AWARE of what is being heard, what is being CONSTRUED, INFERRED, IMAGINED, DEBATED in his hearers’ minds. Jesus knows about our resistance (well, I don’t think that’s so), our assumptions (oh he must have meant to say), all the furniture of our minds that IMPEDES our hearing (hearing/obeying). We’ll hear him just fine until he demands we change our minds. Then, whoops, no, we have our defences against that. Jesus doesn’t HAVE to change his mind; WE DO.
This is teaching by THEATRE…what happens out loud is only part of it – the important things are happening in the minds and hearts of the onlookers.
The SP woman is a foreigner, a Gentile – therefore the disciples are hostile, contemptuous – an outsider pushing in “HER” vs. “US”. So when Jesus brings “dog talk” into the open, you can imagine the disciples nodding (serve her right – and the “B” word). WE are the children, YOU are a dog.
Jesus needs them to agree with what they THINK he said, so that he can show them it is not adequate. Not just that this is a human being like them, a child of God, etc. (what would happen if he said that out loud? Rebuttal, yes-but…) He needs them to change their view of the grace of God—she’s asking for the grace of God. And like all of us, the disciples have a zero-sum view of God’s goodness: there’s only so much of it, and if you get some there is less for me, and there will never be enough for all of us to have all we need. So don’t waste it on FOREIGNERS.
But the economics of the grace of God is not that grudging calculating conniving economics of our lives, our work, our budgets, our politics. It isn’t zero-sum.
He talks about bread. Think back to all that talk in John’s Gospel about the bread of life vs. ordinary bread. If grace, God’s goodness (and he IS God’s goodness), were like ordinary Wonder Bread, then he would be right. But he is talking about something different, and he can only get them to see it by a piece of improvisational theatre… he has to take them by surprise, the way good theatre does.
Here is the beauty of it – he calls upon, asks of this foreign woman whom he hardly knows and who hardly knows him – he relies upon her awareness, her wits, her courage to help him in the little play he’s stage-managing. And she comes through…she tells this little homely truth, everybody who’s ever had a baby and a dog (or a cat) in the same household knows it’s true that when the baby has dinner the dog scores, because it’s a messy, overflowing business – JUST LIKE THE GRACE OF GOD.
The problem, for the one under the table, arises when the children, those who have already been served, those who have been offered the grace of God, refuse it. And that’s the Pharisees, and the disciples, and, too often, you and me too. When we truly are open, are receptive to the grace of God, believe me, the crumbs fly, and everybody standing around is fed also. Name the paradox here.
Not that we should forego it…but that we should take it in and make it into ourselves and become in our turn that nourishing love of God for those standing on the margins. If they are not fed – it’s because WE have shut our mouths and shaken our heads.