Lectionary Commentary

September 6, 2009
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 18

Commentary by Russell Pregeant

See also: [Year B Archive]

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

The critical reader may find a rather startling tension between the gospel and epistle lessons for this Sunday. While the reading from James begins with a resounding denunciation of partiality, Mark 7:24-27 depicts Jesus as first refusing help to a Syrophoenician woman on the apparent grounds of religious/ethnic exclusivism—an affront compounded by his use of a derogatory term for Gentiles. In the end, of course, Jesus accedes to the woman’s request and performs an exorcism. And this acceptance of a Gentile is very much in keeping with the thematic structure of Mark. But the preacher who wants to relate the readings from Mark and James on the basis of the theme of impartiality will have to find a way to deal with Jesus’ initial, negative reaction to the woman’s plea.

Some scholars have treated the story in Mark as reflecting an actual incident in the life of the historical Jesus. And one could from a process perspective use it as an illustration of his true humanity, subject to all aspects of historical conditioning, and of his own process of growth in faith and understanding. In a classic feminist treatment of the story, Sharon Ringe speculates that in this incident Jesus was caught in a moment when his compassion was down and that the woman’s retort raised his consciousness. On a rather different note, Gerd Theissen notes that the woman’s home region of Tyre and Sidon was economically affluent and argues that Jesus’ comments reflect the resentment typically felt by the underprivileged toward the privileged classes. David Garland summarizes Theissen’s point with this paraphrase of Jesus’ words: “Let the poor people in the hinterland be satisfied first for once. It is not good to take the bread of the poor people and throw it to the rich heathens in the city.”

These interpretations provide interesting food for thought, but in my estimation the better course for a preacher is to treat the story in terms of its context in Mark rather than as a historical incident. The Jesus Seminar gives the words of Jesus in vv. 24, 26, and 28 the lowest rating with respect to possible historicity on the grounds that “[t]hey are not attested elsewhere.” And this judgment is in all probability correct. It is unlikely that Jesus himself initiated a Gentile mission, but it is equally unlikely that the one who told the parable of the Good Samaritan and in various other ways stood unswervingly for inclusiveness could have uttered such sentiments.

In the early chapters of Mark, Jesus travels back and forth between Jewish and Gentile territory as he crosses the lake. And this Sunday’s passage is situated between two stories of miraculous feedings, one on Jewish territory (6:30-40) and the other on Gentile soil (8:1-10). Immediately prior to this story, moreover, Jesus—in a debate with the Pharisees—challenges the entire system of clean/unclean with the radical statement in 7:15: “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Given this context, the story functions as a way of coaching the reader to understand the gospel message as emanating from within the Jewish people and based squarely upon God’s promises specifically to Israel, but also reaching beyond that environment to the world at large. And there are numerous ways in which Mark clearly endorses the Gentile mission. In his demonstration in the temple, for example, Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”
And in 13:9-10, he envisions the disciples bearing testimony before “governors and kings” and declares that the gospel “must first be proclaimed to all nations” before the end comes.

Mark does not, however, explicitly depict Jesus as preaching directly to Gentiles, although he performs healings and exorcisms on Gentile soil. Preaching may be implied in the second (Gentile) feeding story in 8:1-10, since Jesus is surrounded by an enormous crowd, but—perhaps significantly—this story occurs after his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. In any case, as Pheme Perkins notes, the latter story begins with the notation that when Jesus comes to Tyre he tries to hide out in a house: he comes to get away from the crowds, not to preach. “Thus,” Perkins concludes, “the narrative exchange between Jesus and the woman shows Gentile readers why Jesus did not come to preach to them.” However, the turn that the story takes at the end reverses this point and opens the way for an unhindered Gentile mission. But since Jesus does not explicitly undertake such a programmatic mission in the Markan narrative itself, it is clear that lesson the story conveys is for the reader in the post-resurrection community—a community composed of both Jews and Gentiles: the gospel belongs to all people.

But what are we to make of Jesus’initial refusal and the fact that he changes his position? There can be no question that the story is concerned with the Jewish-Gentile issue. Jesus’ use of the epithet “dogs” as a contrast with “children” clearly reflects the Jewish view of Gentiles as unclean, and the context of the story marks it as an important moment in the reader’s education regarding the inclusiveness of the gospel. It is odd, however, that Jesus refuses the request on the grounds of the woman’s ethnicity when he has already healed the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20). Because of this, Mary Ann Tolbert argues that it is her gender that stands in the way. This claim is hard to evaluate, though, in light of a prior story in 5:25-34, where a woman is healed by touching Jesus’ garments and he offers a compassionate response rather than a word of rebuke. We need not, however, view gender as the reason for Jesus’ refusal to see in the story a strong feminist twist. The fact that a woman engages a male in a verbal contest and prevails is reason enough to see this story as resistant to the ancient pattern of male domination, parallel to the strong roles given to women in chapters 15 and 16. When Jesus approves the woman’s answer and grants her request, he implicitly challenges traditional notions regarding gender roles.

The theme of gender, however, is secondary to that of ethnicity. But in order to understand Jesus’ negative reaction in the beginning of the story, we will have to take note of the fact that, despite his reversal of his first declaration, Jesus appears as fully sovereign in this story, just as he has throughout Mark’s long catalogue of healings, exorcisms, and controversy stories in the early part of the narrative. He changes his position, but he also exercises the prerogative of accepting the validity of the woman’s argument—and in Mark’s version it is her argument (“For this saying, you may go….), not her faith, as in Matthew 15:28—that is valued. And this interplay of sovereignty and a change of mind should not surprise us as much as it tends to. For the Hebrew Bible relates instances not only of human beings arguing with God but also of God’s acquiescence in light of such arguments. A classic example is Abraham’s negotiations with God regarding the fate of Sodom in Genesis 18:22-33. Thus, M. Eugene Boring can summarize the force of this aspect of the story as follows:

Here, as elsewhere, Jesus functions in the role of the divine Lord, and the woman represents suffering and imploring humanity. He is not forced against his will to deliver a girl from enslaving demonic power; he remains sovereign throughout. He is not “bested” in an argument, does not “capitulate,” but, like God, does reverse a previous decision. The encounter is ultimately not male / female or Jew / Gentile, but divine / human, in which deity ultimately—though not immediately—responds to human need.
This does not mean, however, that Jesus’ initial decision was to deny mercy to non-Israelites, since—as noted above—he has already healed a Gentile. The issue has rather to do with chronology. Jesus says in v. 27, “Let the children be fed first,” not “let only the children be fed.” And this view is consistent with the widespread Jewish notion that in the end times God would draw the Gentiles into the blessings initially bestowed upon Israel. The woman’s response to Jesus’ statement, however, convinces Jesus to revise the traditional scheme. As Boring comments, “God does indeed have a plan for history, in which Gentiles will be eschatologically included, but God is not bound by the plan.” As problematic as the designation of Gentiles as “dogs” remains, the image of Jesus, on behalf of God, changing his mind in the face of the contingencies of human history and the depth of human need, is something that no interpreter familiar with process thought should have trouble appropriating.

As I have suggested above, Mark’s emphasis on the inclusion of Gentiles coalesces rather neatly with the theme of impartiality in the passage from James. And Gerd Theisssen’s take on the gospel passage can also contribute to this line of thought in an intriguing way. If we understand Jesus’ initial refusal as based in part upon an evaluation of the residents of Tyre and Sidon as rich oppressors, we can see a rather complex dynamic at work. God’s mercy comes first to the oppressed and only later to the oppressors; and yet, in the end, the immediacy of human need can become the occasion for even this, quite just and understandable plan of divine action, to be modified. It is, in fact, God’s mercy itself, rather than any abstract plan for dispensing it, that has the final say in God’s sovereign mind.

Proverbs 22:1-2 could also play into a sermon that honors James’s strong stand against rich oppressors but recognizes the common humanity of all persons under God. As liberation theologians have generally recognized, oppressors stunt their own humanity by their exploitation of the poor. They, too, need liberation, and they, too, suffer from all the ills that befall human beings generally, even if the sufferings of the poor are increased exponentially by their economic plight. In the end, Jesus does in fact grant mercy to the presumably wealthy Gentile woman—recognizing that both God’s mercy and the gospel message are ultimately meant to unify the human community, not to divide it.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana Univesity (B.A., 1960).

Sharon Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story,” in Letty M. Russell, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), pp. 65-72.

David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1993), p. 165, citing Gerd Theissen, “Lokal—und Sozialkolorit in der Geschichte von der syrophönikischen Frau (Mt 7.24-30),” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentlich Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 75 (1984).

Robert W. Funk with Mahlon H. Smith, The Gospel of Mark: Red Letter Edition (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1991), p. 128.

Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), p. 610.

“Mark” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, edd. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), p. 269.

M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), p. 214.