Uniting Church in Australia Lay Preachers' Conference, Melbourne, 1997
Read Mark 7:24-30, the story of Jesus' encounter with a Syrophoenician woman. Jesus crosses a boundary, but not without giving expression to common prejudice: Gentiles are dogs, Israel are God's children. The story is told because Jesus crossed the boundary.
People criticised Jesus for crossing boundaries. He was guest at feasts staged by wealthy rogues (toll collectors) and sinners (including their hired prostitutes). In Mark 2:13-17 he defends himself by asserting the sick need a doctor. In an anecdote from Matthew and Luke's source, Q, he challenges people for calling him a glutton and drunkard (Luke 7:31-35; Matt 11:16-19). Luke 15 shows Jesus telling the parable of the Prodigal Son for the same reason.
Throughout Jesus' ministry we find him offering compassion to the poor, the despised, the lepers, even though he can be annoyed when they flout the commandments (eg. Mark 1:40-45). Jesus was radically inclusive. That included women and children.
It was not that Jesus disregarded the commandments. He upheld them. Not a stroke was to fall from God's Law (Matt 5:17-18; Luke 16:17). But he differed with other religious teachers about how they should be interpreted. Typically he saw it as appropriate to heal the sick on the sabbath. For him the sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath (Mark 2:27).
As Christianity spread into non Jewish populations, similar problems arose. What mattered most? Genesis 17 reports God's command that non Jews should be circumcised when they join the people of God. Many Christians believed that that was that. They circumcised non Jews as Scripture said. They were horrified that Paul let people in without circumcision. It seemed like watering down God's Word. They opposed Paul throughout his life.
Mark emphasises that Jesus was inclusive. He does so also with an eye to these later controversies. Thus in Mark 6-8 be treats the miracles of the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000 as symbols of the gospel coming to first Jews and then Gentiles. The first feeding is filled with images of Israel, not only in the image of the wilderness which both stories share, but also in the Old Testament picture of Israel as sheep without a shepherd, of Israel being divided into 100s and 50 as in the wilderness, and not least in the 12 baskets, reminding people of the 12 tribes. The feeding of the 4000, by contrast, has none of these features, but takes place in Gentile territory and is a feeding of Gentiles. 7 baskets are left over, a symbol of the world.
In Mark 8:16-21, Jesus points to this symbolism. The disciples should beware of the 'leaven' of the Pharisees and Herod. Herod's leaven is his terrible birthday party where John was beheaded (6:21-29). The 'leaven' of the Pharisees is their teaching. 7:1-23 contrasts their teaching and that of Jesus. According to Mark Jesus rejects not only their teaching but also the Old Testament basis for it, by declaring that concerns about outward purity in foods and the like do not matter. Mark knew that Old Testament food and purity laws were a major barrier between Jews and non Jews. Paul and Peter had split over the issue in Antioch (Gal 2:11-14).
Mark is saying that if you follow Jesus' line of reasoning you will set aside everything which is discriminatory, even it is in Scripture. Paul would have agreed. Directly after 7:1-23 comes the story of Jesus' encounter with the Syrophoenician, illustrating Jesus' response to a Gentile.
For Mark, as for Paul, interpreting Scripture means approaching it in the light of Christ and Christ's teaching about inclusion and compassion. That means removing anything which discriminates against people. We have learned this slowly. The early church was divided over how to include Gentiles. It took centuries to move against slavery and even longer to deal with discrimination against women. We are currently in the midst of a struggle over the implications of the gospels for our treatment of homosexual people.
Jesus' teaching was not that 'anything goes'. It was that nothing should stand in the way of compassion and wholeness. Mark and Paul offer us a model of being free to be radical about interpreting scripture. The approach draws its inspiration from Jesus' own attitude.
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