- Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 & Psalm 125
- James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
- Mark 7:24-37
This week’s readings continue the exploration of biblical Wisdom writings and invite us to move beyond our comfort zones to the surprising places where true insight is to be found (and practised).
First Reading: Rich and poor have this in common
The passage from Proverbs presents us with some of ancient Israel’s collective wisdom on the relations between the rich and poor. The ultimate dignity of both derives from their common status as creatures: “the LORD is the maker of them all.” Generosity is a virtue, but the poor have a right not to be exploited. Ultimately, God was understood to have a particular interest in the poor.
Second Reading: A bias to the poor
There is a provocative convergence between the Jesus who encounters a pagan woman or uses saliva to heal a deaf-mute, and the text of James that challenges our comfort zones among people of similar social status to ourselves. James comes from a Christian experience that is more familiar with poverty and less accustomed to power.
Most of us are properly described as “a person with gold rings and in fine clothes.”
Would we choose to be disciples of the Jewish magician with muddy fingers if it also cost us our lifestyle? Are we genuinely able to make welcome someone whose poverty incarnates our own fears of what we might become?
Are we able to voice the beatitude of Jesus: Blessed are the poor?
Gospel: Jesus and the Lebanese woman
Like the modern lectionaries, not all ancient Gospel writers chose to use this story. Luke omits the story (along with several other stories found in Mark/Matthew) as part of his major deviation from the dominant Synoptic order. This so-called “Great Omission” by Luke excluded the following material from his account of Jesus:
- Mark 6:45-46 = Matt 14:22-23 Departures after 5,000 fed
- Mark 6:47-52 = Matt 14:24-33 Walking on the Sea
- Mark 6:53-56 = Matt 14:34-36 Many sick cured
- Mark 7:1-13 = Matt 15:1-9 Eating with defiled hands
- Mark 7:14-23 = Matt 15:10-20 Explanations in private
- Mark 7:24-30 = Matt 15:21-28 Greek woman’s daughter
- Mark 7:31-37 = ?Matt 15:29-31 Deaf-mute healed
- Mark 8:1-10 = Matt 15:32-39 Bread and fish for 4,000
- Mark 8:11-13 = Matt 16:1-4 Demand for a sign
- Mark 8:14-21 = Matt 16:5-12 Bread and leaven
- Mark 8:22-26 Blind man healed
It is not clear what Luke’s reason for omitting this week’s story may have been.
- Was he offended by the picture of a xenophobic Jesus needing a master class in Kingdom values from a pagan woman?
- Was it simply part of a section of Mark that Luke chose to delete in order to create his own “orderly account” arranged around different themes?
The story itself puzzles the modern reader, and may have also challenged the ancient Gospel writers. Luke omits it, while Matthew adapts the story in some significant ways. (For details see the horizontal line synopsis in the Jesus Database site.)
The general effect of Matthew’s changes is to improve the story so that Jesus is treated with more respect. The woman (now described as a Canaanite) uses proper Jewish categories (Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David). It is the disciples who seek to drive her away. Jesus acknowledges her great faith (unlike the disciples with their little faith, eg Matt 14:31; 16:8; 17:20) and the healing of the daughter is instantaneous.
Note how the story is set in southern Lebanon – the territory of Tyre, south of the Litani River. Jesus has left Galilee and travelled to the coastal city of Tyre for some respite from the pressures of his ministry. He finds – or knows of – a “safe house” where he can escape the glare of publicity. But word gets out and a local woman with a desperately ill daughter seeks his assistance.
The core of the story concerns an encounter with a pagan woman whose needs challenge his own assumptions about the extent of God’s love and his own obligations to people beyond his own community. While it dealt with an issue of great concern to the emerging Christian community after Jesus’ death, it portrays Jesus as someone needing to expand the boundaries of his own spiritual imagination. Even Jesus, it seems, had something to learn by welcoming and listening to the Gentiles. As such it seems unlikely to have been created by the early Christian story tellers. Like the brute fact that Jesus had begun as a disciple of John the Baptist, here was a story that either had to be suppressed (Luke? John?) or embraced.
- This story offers us an opportunity to expand our spiritual imaginations as well?
- How do we cope with a Jesus who is a life-long learner (to use modern educational jargon), rather than someone with all the answers in advance of the test?
- Who are the “strangers” that challenge our convenient assumptions about the limits to our compassion? Is there anyone who can be imagined as beyond the scope of God’s justice?
Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment
This week’s lectionary also uses the story of Jesus healing a deaf man with a speech impediment. This is a story found only in Mark, although Matthew may have created a summary passage (Matt 15:29-31) partly on the basis of Mark’s story.
John P. Meier comments on this unusual healing story:
… there are indications that we are dealing here not with pure creation by Mark but with some tradition Mark has inherited. An initial signal is the significant number of words in the seven verses of this miracle story that never occur anywhere else in Mark’s Gospel. Then there are the unusual, even bizarre, elements in the narrative that make it stand out from the ordinary pattern of miracle stories in the Gospels in general and in Mark in particular. Specifically, the healing of the deaf-mute, perhaps even more than the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida, is replete with ritual or symbolic actions of Jesus that could be interpreted as magic. This may explain why this story and the healing at Bethsaida are the only two Marcan miracles that are omitted by both Matthew and Luke.
Jesus’ ritual-like gestures include (1) putting his fingers into the man’s ears (symbolic of opening them so that the man can hear), (2) placing his own saliva on the man’s tongue (symbolic of loosing the “bond” of the tongue so that the man can speak, (3) looking up to heaven (probably some gesture of prayer), (4) sighing or groaning deeply (estenaxen, seen by some as expressing the inner “arousal” of the charismatic’s miracle-working powers), and (5) the command “be opened” (given by Mark both in the Aramaic ephphatha and in Greek translation. [Marginal Jew II,711-14]
Jesus as charismatic healer and exorcist is not a familiar image to many Western Christians, although such an image would find a welcome in the life of a Pentecostal mission church and maybe in an African Anglican congregation.
The Jesus celebrated in this strange little story was perhaps too much into “magic” for Matthew and Luke. The charge that Jesus was a sorcerer and a magician was something they felt a need to guard against, writing some time later than Mark.
John Dominic Crossan has an interesting discussion of magic as “religious banditry” in his Historical Jesus, ch13. He writes at one point:
… magic is to religion as banditry is to politics. As banditry challenges the legitimacy of political power, so magic challenges that of spiritual power. Magic and religion can be mutually distinguished, in the ancient world or in the modern one, by political and prescriptive definitions but not by substantive, descriptive, or neutral descriptions. Religion is official and approved magic; magic is unofficial and unapproved religion. The question is not whether magicians are for or against official religion. Their very existence, totally apart from such intentions, is a challenge to its validity and exclusivity. [p. 305]
Warming to his theme, Crossan continues:
Because of magic’s position as subversive, unofficial, unapproved, and often lower-class religion, I have deliberately used the word magic rather than some euphemism in the preceding and present parts of this book. Elijah and Elisha, Honi and Hanina, were magicians, and so was Jesus of Nazareth. It is endlessly fascinating to watch Christian theologians describe Jesus as miracle worker rather than magician and then attempt to define the substantive difference between those two.
Both this story and the earlier episode with the Lebanese woman present us with unfamiliar sketches of Jesus. This is not the Lord of eternity, the one who knows what is in the human heart, and who calmly commits his mother into the care of another man before his own death confident of exaltation back to heaven. Instead, we catch a glimpse of a strange and somewhat frightening Galilean holy man. Is this the human face of God for us? Do we prefer a face that is more like our own? A figure less likely to stand out from the crowd on the sidewalk?
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.