This post is adapted from a sermon I gave at Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church on September 6, 2015. The lectionary text which accompanies this message is Mark 7:24-37, in which Jesus travels to Tyre and Sidon, heals the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman, and heals a deaf man.
In a typical healing story in the gospels, Jesus touches the life of a fellow Jew, restoring them to fellowship, covenant, and commerce. Practically, he is putting them back into society and workforce. Symbolically, he is rescuing Israel, one person and a time, as a sign of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
All of that might help us understand the odd tension in the accounts of Mark 7:24-37. Jesus is not in Israel, he is in Tyre and Sidon, Gentile cities far to the north. So how does that work? What happens when Jesus the Jewish prophet and healer crosses into non-Jewish territory? Perhaps to our surprise, he seems utterly disinterested in giving his blessing to the Gentiles he meets. This is not what we expect from the Savior and Lord; indeed, he even appears to reference the bigotry between Jews and Gentiles in that time and place, calling the locals “dogs.” What is going on?
There is an answer, for what it’s worth. In light of what we already observed about Jesus’ healings, it seems that he considered his life and ministry to be a project for Israel alone, first and foremost. After all, only at his ascension does he tell his Jewish followers to spread the gospel of the kingdom to the whole world. It might seem odd to us on this side of history, but this was clearly a part of Jesus’ self-understanding. We need not conclude that Jesus didn’t care for these Gentiles (in fact he does heal and bless them), but he was clearly biding his time until his mission to his own people was complete.
Whether or not this is a satisfying explanation of Jesus’ behavior in these stories, what I’m far more interested in is the reaction of the Gentiles. The first story gets truly outrageous when the Syrophoenician woman refuses to take Jesus’ “no” for an answer. She argues with him! And the in the second story, the healed man and his neighbors are so excited and rambunctious they cannot honor Jesus’ request to keep it secret. These are stories about people disobeying Jesus and stepping on his toes! The tenacity and impropriety of these Gentiles in the presence of the son of man is remarkable.
The insistence of these two that the healing and power of the kingdom not be constrained by boundaries of geography or religion is, frankly, inspiring. In their respective moments, these two don’t give a rip about Judaism or paganism or borders or timelines or being polite or sticking to their own kind. The woman only wants her daughter to live, and the man is just ecstatic to be able to hear.
This is the kind of culture-transcending power which ought to characterize the gospel, not exclusion, moralizing, or tribalism. For his part, Jesus is so moved by them that he drops his own immediate agenda and offers them a full blessing. In the face of need and want and hurt, may we be the kind of people who forsake decorum and transgress the tribal borders that might otherwise keep us from experiencing or unleashing the kingdom of God on our human brothers and sisters, wherever they or we might be found.
And that’s where I was going to wrap this up, content to have taken a difficult and odd text to a constructive and even an instructive place.
But then I saw the photos.
I was captivated and devastated by the same photos that no doubt captivated and devastated you when you saw them on the news or online last week. These were images of a tiny, drowned refugee child who washed up on the shores of Turkey. Images that have become the horrific face of a growing global refugee crisis.
I couldn’t get the images out of my head, especially as I was putting this post together. In the midst of it all, it struck me that this child was from Syria, a nation that shares at least a name with the ancient home of the Syro-phoenician woman in Mark 7. How different, I wondered, was the desperation of this woman to see her daughter healed than that of Aylan Kurdi’s mother to see him living safe and free? Someone said powerfully on social media last week that parents would not set their child afloat in the sea unless those waters offered more safety and opportunity than the land behind them. Like the Syrophoenician woman, Aylan’s mother took the risk – a much bigger risk, in fact – but without the same happy resolution. In fact, it cost her her own life and those of her children.
How do we respond to issues like refugeeism and immigration in a way that honors the humanity and tenacity and frailty of those caught up in unspeakable calamity? In these short, problematic Bible stories we catch a glimpse of that same spirit of need, resolve, and blessed impropriety and risk.
The power of the kingdom is not restricted by geography, or cultural boundaries, or even religion. BUT, it also requires that we who call ourselves kingdom people must be people who are likewise unrestricted by those man-made boundaries. Perhaps for us, in America, the biggest obstacle to an open-hearted response to the desperate needs of other humans is not religion, creed, or ideology, but comfort, security, and lazy self-interest.
Are we prepared, equipped, determined to smuggle kingdom love across these borders, to invoke God’s mercies in inappropriate places, to welcome inconvenience and even burden in order to bless and rescue the lives of our hurting neighbors, here and everywhere? Are we ready to proclaim this gospel, and in doing so share risk and even suffering with God’s less fortunate children?
May we find solidarity with those who break the rules in pursuit of justice, and may we follow Jesus who listened and loved, and opened the Divine Heart to those in need in all places.