First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 14

William Loader

Pentecost 14: 6 September Mark 7:24-37

Today’s passage contains two anecdotes. 7:24-30 and 7:31-37. The first is quite extraordinary. Both are about Gentiles. They form part of Mark’s composition of chapters 6-8 of his gospel where he is presenting material which helps us celebrate that the nourishment of the gospel is both for Jews, represented in the feeding of the 5000 in Jewish territory with its 12 baskets of left overs, and for Gentiles, represented in the feeding of the 4000 in Gentile territory with its 7 baskets of leftovers. As he draws this composition to its conclusion in 8:14-21, he has Jesus point to the numbers, so that the disciples would understand (8:19-21).

That same section begins with Jesus warning against the ‘leaven’ (food) of the Pharisees (8:15). By that he alludes to the teaching which Jesus subverts in 7:1-23, which formed the basis of last week’s passage. Declaring the food laws invalid removed one of the areas of contention in including Gentiles in the new community. Our passage today begins with an anecdote according to which Jesus crossed the Jew-Gentile boundary (7:24-30). It serves, in Mark, to illustrate the drift of 7:1-23: we now include Gentiles equally with Jews. Teaching which caused barriers has been shown to be invalid.

The story in 7:24-30 is rather shocking because it portrays Jesus mouthing prejudice: ‘Let the children first be fed; for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’ (7:27). The story was told and retold because Jesus abandoned his very conservative stance in favour of compassion and inclusion. The person who told the story first cannot have been bothered by the negative light it casts on Jesus. Some try to ‘save’ Jesus by suggesting it is all a bit ‘tongue in cheek’. Matthew certainly did not take it that way, but instead adds further rationale for Jesus’ initial refusal, explaining the validity of the distinction in the scheme of Jesus’ ministry. He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Mark may also have something like this in mind when he has Jesus say that children must be fed ‘first’ (like Paul’s ‘to the Jew, first, and also to the Greek’ Rom 1:16-17). But dogs are still dogs. The image is demeaning.

We can never know if what we have here is history or a story where the story teller was a little careless. He certainly had no compunction about portraying Jesus as saying what many would have said: Israel are God’s children; Gentiles are like the dogs (not nice little lap dogs or puppies; the intention is negative). Whether in the story or in reality, the good news is that Jesus refused to remain bound by such distinctions. He crossed the boundary. A woman from the coastal regions of Palestine persuaded him. What an extraordinary woman! How much this says about women and their inclusion!

When the story teller mentions that the girl was healed at a distance, it is still preserving some of the conservative sentiment about pious Jews not entering the houses of Gentiles, such as we see also in the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matt 8:5-13) and in Peter’s qualms about going to the centurion (Acts 10).

The story illustrates the new inclusiveness of the gospel. Faced with human need Jesus is persuaded that people matter most. No one can be excluded. All must be given food. None can be treated like dogs. The story celebrates this reality. There are many ‘dogs’ in our community who know what it is like to be shut out, told to wait, given second best. Calling them cute puppies or ‘the blessed poor’ does not address the issue, as long as they are treated like dogs. They have been treated as dogs so much so that it had become natural to treat them that way and to ignore their plight and our often naive prejudice - until the Syrophoenician woman gives them a voice. Jesus listened to that voice. Those voices are still to be heard, for those with ears to hear.

The healing of the deaf and dumb man in 7:31-37 portrays Jesus using the ancient techniques of healing. Matthew must have been embarrassed by such techniques; he removes all such references (15:29-31). It is a simple miracle story which must have circulated at an early date. It is similar to accounts of other healers of the time. In Mark two features stand out. Jesus told the man to keep quiet, but the man did the opposite. Mark is less concerned to chasten the man than to show how the news spread (it could also endanger Jesus). People declared that Jesus is one who makes the deaf to hear, the dumb to speak. So Gentiles are now acclaiming the fulfilment of biblical prophecy which saw such healings as evidence of the last times (Isa 29:18)!

The other feature is symbolic. Here Jesus heals with spittle. He will do so again in 8:22-26, healing a blind man. The two stories are thus linked. The blind see; the deaf and dumb hear and speak. These are miracles which belong to the end time. They are also images used by Mark to address spiritual deafness and blindness. In the passage we referred to in the introduction, 8:14-21, Jesus challenges the disciples because they fail to see and hear (8:16-18), just as in 4:10-12 outsiders failed to see and hear. Mark places these stories strategically so that they show up the disciples’ failure to understand.

It is a common feature in Mark that he portrays the disciples as particularly dense. Whatever his reasons for it, we should have no difficulty appreciating his frustration and challenge. It has been difficult allowing the food of the gospel to be freely there for all. Many times it has been disciples who have least understood the issues as they have uncoupled devotion to God from devotion to people, because they have uncoupled God and people. Then a prejudiced ‘god’ feeds a prejudiced people.

Epistle: Pentecost 14: 6 September James 2:1-10 (11-13) 14-17