Herb Montgomery | September 3, 2021
[To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 387: Openness to Change]
“In our present system, those whose difference causes them to be seen or treated as less-than should be heard. By being open to their experience and stories, we can expand our own understanding of what a just and safe world for everyone looks like. We can be like Jesus, the Jesus in this specific story: to follow Jesus, to mimic his example. We can choose in these moments, not to get defensive, but to apologize when our own faults are pointed out, and to be humble enough and willing to embrace change.”
Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (Mark 7:24-37)
This week we read one of my favorite stories in the gospels of Mark—the Syrophoenician woman. I love this story because it paints a very human view of Jesus. This woman is the hero in the story who points out Jesus’ limited way of viewing Gentiles and the scope of his liberation. I believe this story was specifically aimed at early Jesus followers who suffered from the same limitations as Mark’s Jesus did.
The story illustrates what we would call intersectionality today. Intersectionality is a way of describing the relationships between systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes oppression as an interlocking matrix and helps us to examine how biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, species and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels and so contribute to systematic injustice and social inequality. The woman in this story experienced multiple social oppressions that also connected to the oppression of Jewish people under Rome: “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.”
Jesus questions her using the worst language: “Is it right to give the children’s bread to the dogs?”
No human should be called a dog, especially a woman of another race or ethnicity than one’s own.
Two of the most popular interpretations of this story explain that Jesus is merely play-acting to teach onlooking disciples an important lesson in generosity. I find this interpretation lacking, motivated not by honesty about the narrative but by a desire to protect Jesus from anything that might make him look bad. While I sympathize with this protectiveness, it is unconvincing.
The other more plausible and valuable explanation is that, in real time, Jesus is growing in his own understanding and experience of intersectionality.
This woman belonged to a people group that had once oppressed the Jewish people (i.e. Greeks), yet there is absolutely no indication she felt superior to Jewish people herself. She was also a woman trying to survive in a patriarchal culture. The patriarchal setting of this story begs the question, where is her husband? Why is her husband or the girl’s father not making this request of Jesus as other fathers do in Mark (cf. 5:22)? Is she a single mother? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to speak for herself and her daughter?
The author of Mark has Jesus wrestling out loud: is it right for a Jewish male to help her, a Gentile and a woman?
Intersectionality helps us that every person has a complex identity. Just as the Greeks had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews, the ancient Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews also participated in cultural patriarchy similar to that in Hellenistic Tyre and Sidon, and though they suffered economic poverty under Rome’s high taxes during Jesus’ time, the Hebrews had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Greek woman belonged to a people who had once oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she needed liberation. Did Jesus have enough mercy for her as well?
What I appreciate about this story is that this woman has the courage to push back against Jesus’ harmful language to get him to see her humanity and the ugliness of his language. In the end, Jesus does understand and his compassion for her wins out. But we must not fail to see the depth of his struggle between genuinely questioning what was right, and allowing his questions to give way, not to “rightness,” but to compassion itself.
I think of Christians who still need the permission of their own sacred text to tell them that compassion is allowed or “right.” In this story, Jesus doesn’t wait for permission. He allowed compassion to govern his thinking, and ultimately arrived at the right choice.
I’m thankful for a woman who didn’t give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her shared humanity and immediate need despite their culturally conditioned prejudice. In that moment, she was the teacher of the teacher.
I’m also thankful for a Jesus who was willing to listen to her, a Jesus open to being shown a larger view even of his own world. Had Jesus sent her away, one could have argued, he would have done the “right” thing according to some of his peers, yet a great injustice would have been committed and therefore it would have been wrong. Instead he listened to her, and he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethical teachings of love and justice that day, thanks to this woman.
Jesus models for us how we, too, can grow in the way we understand our world by being open to listening to the experiences and stories of those who are unlike ourselves. We are not all the same. We are all of the same worth. Yet there is vast diversity within humanity, and these differences should not only be celebrated, they should also be heard, attended to, and learned from.
In our present system, those whose difference causes them to be seen or treated as less-than should be heard. By being open to their experience and stories, we can expand our own understanding of what a just and safe world for everyone looks like.
We can be like Jesus, the Jesus in this specific story: to follow Jesus, to mimic his example. We can choose in these moments, not to get defensive, but to apologize when our own faults are pointed out, and to be humble enough and willing to embrace change.
As a white, straight, cisgender, middle-class male, I’m reminded of the times those who are different from me have called me to understand the world in much larger ways. I’m thankful for my feminist, womanist, LGBTQ, Black, and Brown friends, and many others who, like the woman in this story, cared about me enough to push back on my limited way of perceiving the world. They expended energy to help me understand how hurtful my behavior was, and they not only called me to be better, but also believed I could be. For each of them, I am deeply grateful. They didn’t have to do that. They could have just left me as ignorant as they found me, but instead, like the Syrophoenician woman, they engaged a labor of love on my behalf. I’m also glad I chose to listen.
This story also calls me to continue this process. It calls me to look out for places I still need to grow in my understanding of others and our work of making our world a safe, just home for everyone.
In a way, the Jesus of this story in Mark faced the same dilemma we each face when navigating social realities, and so I’m thankful to see this side of Jesus. I’m just as thankful for the woman who helped him grow in compassion and justice.
I wish we had more time to discuss the second story in this week’s reading, but we’ll get to it another time. It’s a story with a long history of ableist interpretations that have done much damage to disabled people.
For now, may we show the same willingness to perceive the world in much larger ways that we see in the Jesus of our story this week. If Christians would follow Jesus in just this one thing alone, what a difference it would make!
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. Share an experience of where you choose in a difficult moment, not to get defensive, but to apologize when your own faults were pointed out, and chose to be humble and willing to embrace change. Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week
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