Radical Events in Jesus’ Ministry
Published June 27, 2012 @ 6 a.m.
In Mark 7:24 and following we read one of the more radical events in Jesus’ ministry. Like many such events the telling has dulled our senses and we do not always see how radical the action really is. Jesus left Galilee and goes into foreign territory hoping to have a little peace and quiet. But it is not to be. One of the residents of the area has a daughter that is demon possessed. When she hears that the prophet Jesus is in the area she makes a bee line for His location.
For today’s world view the idea that the woman’s daughter is demon possessed is a scandal. “Obviously, the little girl was simply mentally or emotionally ill,” we say. Most of us who have had teenage daughters can sympathize with the woman’s predicament, or at least so we think. And yet, there are those who still practice a deliverance ministry. A Methodist Evangelist in North Carolina named Tommy Tyson once addressed a group of seminary trained pastors and declared that the seminary didn’t believe in his deliverance ministry but the psychiatric department at Duke Hospital did. They would call him when nothing else seemed to work. I doubt that many of the psychiatrists would admit to believing in demons but they knew that whatever it was Rev. Tyson did worked. Many I know that have a deliverance ministry do not try to explain their ministry to others but they simply point out that they can point us to those who have gone through deliverance and those men and women will tell us whatever the ministry does works.
But yes, in the ancient world view the idea that the woman’s daughter had a demon was not radical or scandalous. The events here are radical in the ancient world for a number of reasons; the reach across traditional racial lines, traditions, and religions, the harsh reply of Jesus, that the hero of this story is not Jesus but rather the Syrophoneician woman, and the results of this event.
That the woman, being a Gentile, would approach a Jewish male was pretty radical; especially to do so expecting something from Him. Jews did not have a monopoly on racial superiority in the ancient world. Much like today each nation and tribe and people considered themselves generally superior to the others. The more things change the more they stay the same!
Even after the last sixty years of civil rights and the war against racism in a nation as heterogeneous as the United States people continue to divide themselves up in races and colors and genetics and proclaim themselves somehow racially superior to everyone else. All of us have some racism still deep down in our bones if we are honest with ourselves. At least some and maybe the greatest part of the debate around illegal immigration is that we don’t want to have to share any part of our pie with someone not like us. It would still be radical for an urban Hispanic female to approach a rural white religious prophet expecting much from him.
The events unfolding become even more radical for us. Many of us were raised on the idea that God loves everyone and everyone is the same in God’s eyes. We wonder what Jesus would do and we conclude that Jesus would do whatever was right. We generally interpret that to mean that Jesus would do whatever was caring and compassionate and just without regard to race or color or creed. Our ears hurt when we hear the reply that Jesus makes to this woman: “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
It is the woman’s reply that makes her the hero of the story. Most of us would have been hurt, angry and insulted by such a harsh statement. The likelihood is that the woman was all of those things as well. However, she had a cause that was more important than all of those things, her daughter. So the woman answers with great wisdom, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get to gather up the crumbs under the table.” This answer took great faith. And the faith we are speaking of is not what often passes for faith in the United States. This woman believed that Jesus was her salvation so much that she would not accept the Lord’s rejection. She had such a great faith that her own standing meant nothing to her. Her faith was so great that no matter the obstacle she was willing to endure and sacrifice. Another gospel writer has Jesus marvel and say, “I have not found such great faith in the house of Israel.” The woman’s reply makes her the hero and Jesus says as much when He proclaims her daughter to be delivered.
But Jesus does even more than proclaiming this woman’s daughter delivered. Jesus’ ministry is changed. In Mark (and the other synoptic gospels) this event is placed in between two feeding miracles. In the first feeding miracle we find Jewish people being like sheep without a shepherd. When they picked up the left overs there were twelve baskets full representing all twelve tribes of the people of Israel. Jesus is the shepherd of the sheep.
Jesus leaves the region around Tyre and returns to Galilee in the area of Decapolis. Decapolis is not a Hebrew area. It is Gentile. There is a deaf man who is brought to Jesus who heals the man’s hearing. Symbolically, more is going on here than a simple hearing miracle. The man doesn’t just hear sound; he hears the words of Jesus.
Now a second feeding miracle takes place. Apparently this crowd is a crowd from the area of Decapolis. Very likely it would have included Gentiles in this crowd. Now the leftovers compose seven baskets. Seven represents the whole people of God. The whole vision of who it is that makes up God’s people has changed and the crisis that brought the change was the Syrophoenician woman and her faith.
The Gospels that we have were written long after the Christian faith moved into the Gentile world. Mark and Matthew were likely Jewish writers but they both are concerned to defend the movement of the church into the Gentile peoples. They chose to report this event in Jesus’ ministry because it tells us that traditions and race and color make little difference. God will use anyone willing to humble themselves and believe in Jesus Christ. This may not look like what we are used to; but we need to get over it and get busy going wherever it is that the Good News of Jesus Christ is taking us.