A Meditation on Mark 7:24-37
Maybe the first thing we notice in this morning’s text is Jesus’ careful consideration for his own soul, his own spiritual well-being. How he leaves the hungry crowds behind, for a little while; and how he leaves the eager disciples behind, for a little while; and how leaves the politics and intrigue and even the kingdom project behind, for a little while. And Jesus walks a long way, he walks all the way to Tyre on the Mediterranean coast, and makes a kind of retreat there, at a friend’s house. And it’s a retreat from everything and everybody, and even the work Jesus loves.
And it makes sense, doesn’t it, to you and me, that Jesus gets worn down from caring so much, that he gets burned out from risking so much. Sometimes even Jesus, especially Jesus, has to protect himself, tend to his own boundaries and physical needs, care for his own inner spirit. He’s just like you and me, really. And the text says: “He doesn’t want anyone to know that he has entered that house.” He doesn’t want anyone to know because he doesn’t want anyone butting in. He doesn’t want anyone asking for anything. We’re close to the midpoint of Mark’s story here, and Jesus has been at it for a while now. And he needs some time; Jesus needs some time, some space, some peace. For himself.
All of which makes this Greek woman’s intrusion that much more intrusive and daring, and kind of invasive really. Because she crosses these boundaries, she invades Jesus’ private space, and she insists on being taken seriously. Even though you know and I know that Jesus needs some time, some space. For himself.
I might argue that this Greek woman, this Syro-Phoenician woman’s one of the most interesting—no, more than that, one of the most consequential—figures in Mark’s gospel. What happens here, what happens between them, in just a few verses, changes Jesus. I’d argue that it changes his deepest sense of identity, and calling, that it changes his understanding of mission and compassion. I’d argue that it changes his understanding of the beloved community: the strange, exhilarating project God’s laid upon his heart.
And certainly, what happens between them changes Mark’s story. In a crude—and let’s face it, almost nasty way—Jesus betrays a kind of bigotry in this text. He’s not tossing his holy bread to the dogs. He’s not wasting his holy time on Greeks and migrants. But from this point on, after this jarring encounter with her in Tyre, Jesus tosses his holy bread to Jews and Greeks alike. Jesus rushes to heal Jews and Greeks alike. And his ministry is fully, radically inclusive of Jews and Greeks alike, no longer restricted or limited to one people or one tribe or one history, but weaving all peoples together in ministry and fellowship. And that’s the beautiful, extravagant, Christian gospel you and I have come to know and love and claim as our own. And I might argue that she makes that happen, that the Greek woman in Mark 7 provokes this expanding, inclusive, boundary-busting vision of Christian mission and witness.
So let’s back up just a bit, and remember how she gets here. To Jesus, at his retreat house, in Tyre.
Somehow this Greek woman, she’s heard about Jesus, obviously a foreigner, and his significant reputation for compassion and healing. She’s got a daughter who’s sick, disturbed, disjointed in someway even her mother can’t figure. And somehow she figures out where Jesus is hiding on retreat, and she makes a bee-line for the place and insists on being seen and heard.
Now over many centuries, scholars have categorized her as an anxious mother, as a desperate soul, as a frenzied woman willing to do anything for her child. But don’t you find that a little too dismissive, even sexist in a way. I mean, clearly she is a mother, and clearly she is motivated by compassion and a kind of fierce loyalty to her daughter. But I think we miss her genius and her prophetic example if we file her away as a stereotype, or a marginal character in a more important story.
Instead, I think of the Greek woman, the Syro-Phoenician woman, as a kind of Rosa Parks figure in this text. And in the gospel. I think of her as a strong, courageous, prepared woman whose faith and formation prepare her for this moment. This moment in which she has to break some rules, cross some boundaries, even practice a kind of disciplined resistance. She doesn’t stumble into this story. She marches there.
I watch her intruding on Jesus’ retreat, stepping across a threshold into his protected and privileged space, and I think of Rosa Parks defying convention and even the law in Montgomery. We know now that Rosa Parks was trained for that moment, prepared for that moment, shaped by faith and reflection and organized people for just that moment. I have to imagine the Syro-Phoenician woman in a similar way: not simply a frenzied mother, but a whole human being, a woman of character and spiritual discipline, a woman prepared to speak truth to power.
And one of the clues, I think, one of the very important clues for a faithful reading of this text is found in verse 29. You remember how it goes. That she falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to heal her daughter, to send the demon out of her. And you remember that Jesus responds crudely: “The children have to be fed first, so there’s no way in hell I’m taking the children’s bread and tossing it to you dogs.” Now, parenthetically, that word “dog” (that Greek word for “dog”) was a nasty, bigoted, ‘nigger’-like word that some Jews in the first century would use to dismiss and demean Greeks among them. This is not Jesus at his best.
And you remember that she answers quickly, without hesitation really: “But Lord, even dogs like us are worthy of crumbs from the table.” Maybe it’s subtle, but she pushes back. She’s not in the least intimidated by Jesus’ bigotry or narrowness. And she pushes back, she gets into it with him. Lord, you may think of me as a dog, but I’m staying right here at the table until something comes my way.
And here’s verse 29. Jesus says: “You have answered well!” The version in our bulletins this morning is “Good answer!” But the more accurate translation of Mark’s Greek is: “You have answered well!” or maybe “You have argued persuasively!” You see, the Syro-Phoenician woman is both a caring and determined mother and a powerful advocate. She’s both a worried woman and a thoughtful, proud, persuasive lover of life. “You have answered well!” Jesus says. And that’s the key to the healing in this text. That’s the clue to how this text works in Jesus’ life, in Jesus’ heart and in his ministry.
She argues persuasively. And Jesus is persuaded!
In the Eastern Orthodox wing of Christianity, the Orthodox have a sweet notion of the journey of faith and how it changes us, how it matures us, how we grow in spirit over the course of our lives. The word they use for this journey is “theosis.” “THEOSIS!” It really means, in Greek, something like, ‘the process of becoming god-like.’
I think Jesus’ life is a story of ‘theosis’—a story of a believer’s evolution, a story of a rabbi’s maturity. And this morning, in this sharp exchange with a Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus grows up. She makes sure that Jesus grows up. To his credit, Jesus himself is open, available, ready to be challenged. He too has practiced for this, prepared for it: in years of prayer and meditation in the hills, in years of reading scriptures and singing psalms and approaching God in humility. And when the moment comes, when she’s kneeling before him and going nowhere, when he’s insulted her and still she stays, when she’s insisting his heart grow a little and his conscience expand a little, Jesus is ready.
He’s ready to see something new in her. He’s ready to see something new in himself. He’s ready to receive God’s larger, bigger, radically inclusive gospel. ‘THEOSIS.’ Jesus grows up.
As we launch ourselves into new academic years, into new relationships, into delightful new opportunities here at Peace United, I want you to know that ‘THEOSIS’ is the name, the notion, the promise for your journey too. You too are invited by God—wherever you are on life’s journey, however old you are, however inexperienced you feel—you too are called by God to grow and mature, to learn from mistakes and figure out new possibilities, to find and cherish the image of God in your own heart, in your own soul, in your own flesh.
Jesus reminds us, and the Greek woman in the text reminds us, that ‘THEOSIS’ is sometimes strange and hard. The two of them remind us that, within us, we have narrow places to open up; that, beyond us, the world will test our patience and call upon our compassion in unimaginable ways. But here, in the church, we’ll be ready. We’ll watch for opportunities. We’ll expect to grow and change. Because that’s what faith is. That’s who Jesus is. That’s who we can be.
So I imagine that there will be a Syro-Phoenician woman out there, for you, along the way. There will be a friend, or even an unexpected guest, or perhaps an underappreciated adversary—there will be someone who comes to challenge you. At first, it may even seem she’s coming simply to tick you off. But someone will come into your life to open your eyes to new visions and responsibilities. She might kneel at your feet. She might well look you in the eye. But she’ll insist on being seen, she’ll insist on being heard, she’ll insist on conversation with you. And you’ll be ready. Just like Jesus you’ll be ready.
God works, we like to say, in strange and mysterious ways. But trust this, for sure. God is working in your life, and in hers. God is calling you out of narrow places and into broad ones. God is delighting in your discoveries, even in your challenges, and in your opening to the world. And God is partnering with you in your life’s mission: which is discovering, cherishing, loving the life you share with the rest of us.