This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the first half of this week’s lectionary Gospel, Mark 7.24-37
Given the subject matter that I touch on below, it is perhaps important to make the disclaimer that the views expressed below are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Diocese in Europe.
.Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
It is a treat (at least for me!) that for the week in which this lectionary blog resumes after the summer that the set Gospel reading should include Jesus’ meeting with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7.24-37.
It is a passage that some people find difficult – but which I cherish. I also think it is a fundamental building block in the Gospel of Mark, and marks an important point of transition upon which vital developments in the ministry of Jesus are based.
One of the fascinating features of the Gospel of Mark is the way that the motifs of seed, wheat, bread and eating are so prominent – at least in the first half of the Gospel. Beginning with the Parable of the sower in chapter 4 (Mark 41-20)., the theme then re-emerges first in the mini-parables of the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed (Mark 4.26-32), we have the feeding with bread of the 5000 (Mark 6.30-44), discussion about Jewish ritual rules related to eating (Mark 7.1-23), the feeding with bread of the 4000 (Mark 8.1-10), and a discussion in a boat about bread in which Jesus gets exasperated with his disciples (Mark 8.14-21) which is clearly intended to link to the earlier miracles.
And in the middle of all this is the account of the Syrophoenician woman and her encounter with Jesus. And ‘bread’ of course is a theme that is prominent in their exchange:
He (Jesus) said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ (Mark 7.27-28)
This exchange had come about because of Jesus’ apparent unwillingness to heal the daughter of this clearly Gentile woman, and it is at least partly due to the woman’s witty riposte about ‘crumbs’ to Jesus’ initial hesitation that her daughter is eventually cured.
With my own attempt at wit I have titled this reflection, ‘the Syrophoenician sandwich’ because her story is ‘sandwiched’ in between the two accounts of the feeding of a multitude in Mark’s Gospel, the 5000 in Mark 6.30-44 and the 4000 in Mark 8.1-10. It is a very ancient perception, almost certainly correct, which dates back at least to the 4th Christian century, that the crowd who were fed in the first of these miracles were Jewish, and the group fed in the second were Gentiles. In other words, between these two stories, Jesus’ ministry has been extended from merely being responsive to his fellow Jews, to reflecting God’s abundant provision for all people, Gentiles as well as Jews.
I have written at greater length on this elsewhere, but my suggestion would be that it is in fact in this encounter between Jesus and the woman that a vital ‘boundary’ is crossed and broken, which then leads on to the feeding by Jesus of the 4000 representatives of the Gentile world a few verses later.
In which case, what is the role of the woman herself in this shift? There is a Japanese Christian woman biblical scholar, Hisako Kinukawa who suggests that the Syrophoenician woman helped Jesus ‘discover’ how to become Jesus. In other words that her exchange with him prompted Jesus to realise and reflect the boundlessness of God’s generosity that had previously perhaps not been so apparent, even to him.
Now I have to say that some Christians would be quite uncomfortable about such a suggestion – since it implies that Jesus might have had something to learn. I can well remember exploring this story in an international interreligious setting, in which the Jewish participants resonated very positively with Kinukawa’s comment, but some, at least of the Christians present were clearly challenged by the idea of Jesus ‘learning’ (perhaps especially from a woman!).
But let’s consider that idea a bit more. Frankly it has been a pretty miserable summer this year. Apart from the ongoing prevalence of COVID, there have been the forest fires and floods in many parts of Europe, and there’s been the recent and ongoing news from Afghanistan. And just as Afghanistan began to hit the international headlines again, there were five people killed in brutal attacks in Plymouth, England, by a gunman who then turned his weapon on himself.
I could not help but draw comparisons in my mind between the behaviour of the victorious Taliban in Afghanistan (especially towards women) and the actions of that murderous ‘incel’ in Plymouth. Both, it seems to me, reflect a kind of toxic masculinity which is scared of this our modern world in which male physical strength is no longer as necessary or as prized as it would have been, even 50 years ago. Modern forms of ‘education’ are to be either feared or despised. They feel that there is no place for them in ‘education’ or they have nothing they should need to learn, and so they lash out against the process and those (especially women) who have benefitted.
Read against such realities, I want to celebrate a Jesus who is willing to learn. I particularly want to celebrate a Jesus who, as in this episode, might be willing to learn something from a woman. I do not see it as a failing on Jesus’ part. Rather it is a sign of the true humanity of the one who came to show to us that it is when we are truly and fully human that we have the privilege of reflecting most brightly the image of God.
The picture at the top of the blog this week is a representation of the modern icon ‘Christ is our reconciliation’. It was created in a monastery near Jerusalem 20 years ago to mark the millennium. The picture in the bottom right corner shows the encounter of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. As the icon implies it is through such encounters that we are able to proclaim and celebrate the reconciling ministry of God in Christ.