The Good News of God
Good morning! I am so glad to join you at the start of our chapel life together, where we are called—in the theme for this year—to “gather in community, share in feasting, and [go] back out into the great dance of creation.” My thanks to the Office of Ministry for planning, to Dining Services for hosting, and for Tactus and Andrew Steinberg for music. I can tell you that I feel at home gathering and feasting. Dancing pushes my Protestant parameters a bit, but I remember that just a month ago Anne and I were dancing at our daughter’s wedding, with each other, with our daughter and her husband, with my mother—and dancing around the house with our granddaughter. Joy can make even a Lutheran move, though after three hours and at the end of You Make Me Wanna Shout, I decided to sit for a while.
There isn’t any dancing at the house in Tyre, or any feasting for that matter, and Jesus isn’t gathering: he seeks a break in the house from the crowds after his confrontation with the elders of his faith community over practices of purity, practices that they imply ought separate the children of Israel from those outside the fold. Jesus tells those elders that their obsession with “cleanness” misses the heart of the law, the law that is the “commandment of God” rather than “human tradition” (NRSV, Mark 7:8). You all know this trope, which sometimes has the unfortunate effect of making the Christian reader feel smug: We get what the Pharisees don’t, those narrow-minded, joyless prigs. But the story is about to turn.
It makes, in many ways, perfect sense, as the commentators tell us, that the story of the Syrophoenician woman follows right after the dustup with the Pharisees, “where Jesus has implicitly claimed to pull down the barriers separating Jews and Gentiles.” The woman is Greek, a Gentile. Yet Mark’s Gospel is a live wire: good news, but often shocking, not to mention inconvenient, news. Jesus, seeking rest, doesn’t get it. A stranger, a woman, a Greek, invades his space and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter.
This isn’t going to be one of those talks with a long disquisition about what demon possession may be, though I suspect it doesn’t have much do with Linda Blair movies, or the number 666. What other stories in Mark reveal is misery: pain, isolation, terrible fear. Wretchedness for a child, desperation for a mother. No, my interest is in the Gentile woman, and in Jesus’ response.
Let’s face it: Jesus’ spoken response to her plea isn’t a good one: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). Twist that verse however you like: there is no culture in which calling a woman (and her daughter) a dog is justified. Even if we’d like to think it was a planned provocation, it’s an ugly one. And given the probability that Mark’s original audience was itself Gentile, the insult would have been sharply felt.
Jesus speaks again, but I want now to focus on the mother, the Gentile from Tyre—outside of the faithful fold into which Jesus and his disciples were born. A couple of clear but critical things, and then two more that may be less obvious: Her love and fear for her child have made her bold, invading Jesus’ privacy. And his harsh name-calling does not stop her: “Sir [the Greek word is Kyrie, as in Lord, as in Lord, have mercy], even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:28). It’s a comeback line worthy of Shakespeare’s cleverest women. And in it she declares a trust in Jesus’ authority stronger than his insult.
So, something maybe a little less obvious to us as common readers: The mother fits a quiet but persistent pattern of expectedly perceptive figures in Mark. Jesus’s inner circle of disciples in Mark often seem to belong to the category once defined by the great scholar Mick Jagger as the “dim bulb.” Often as clueless as the boys in Seth Rogen movies, they have in fact just been scolded by Jesus immediately before this story begins for failing to understand his meaning in the debate with the Pharisees. So something is up: there is nothing dim about this woman.
As you know, Jesus relents: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (7:29). I am not interested in whether Jesus “learned” something here, and I don’t think that Mark is either. Here is the great, good thing: What Mark finally cares about is the radical, unbound, unbindable, unpredictable redemptive love of God. Even Jesus’s rough words can’t stop it. As Micah Kiel, who teaches at St. Ambrose Seminary, puts it, referring to similar stories in Mark, “The Kingdom of God plays by nobody’s rules but God’s, breaking into the world in the least likely of places, like howling demoniacs, bleeding women, and dead little girls.” The Gospel of Mark is a live wire.
Who are our Syrophoenician women? Professor Kiel notes that it’s very easy for us to return to the unexamined, flattering idea that we are driving the narrative around us: “We decide who is marginalized and provide a voice for them. We try to nibble around the edges by selling fair trade coffee or driving a Prius.” (For the record, Anne and I drive a Prius, and just last week we talked about a new order for fair trade chocolate.) Mark persistently indicates that God directs the love of God, and that if God has a habit, it is a crazy love for the outcast. Mark moves on to another healing story, but if we look back at Syrophoenician woman, it’s not hard to imagine her dancing with her daughter. Lutheran though I am, it makes me wanna shout with joy.
The pictures you have seen throughout chapel today have two sources: the mission of Lutheran World Relief with small holder coffee and cocoa farmers in Honduras, a country with overwhelming poverty and a narco-driven #1 murder rate in the world; and Concordia students a week ago at Hands for Change, their first collegiate endeavor to become responsibly engaged in the world.
If we want to find God breaking into the world, find the Syrophoenician woman and her child. Don’t mistake me: this is no easy, feel good quest—such a quest requires knowledge and discipline. LWR can’t do a thing for or with Honduran farmers if it doesn’t understand hillside planting, organic fertilizing, and skillful processing of coffee and cocoa in a time of climate change. We at Concordia can’t help the hungry, homeless, or physically challenged much if we don’t find out why they are so and seek solutions for systematic change. But even when we reach out, thoughtful and informed, we don’t own the story. God’s good news is a live wire.
If we want to find God, let’s gather, feast, and dance with the Syrophoenician woman and her child. God is there, with them, and from them we have—thanks be to God—a lot to learn.
 See The Oxford Bible Commentary on Mark at http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/commref/OBC/Mk/1.
 See Greg Carey, “What Did Exorcism Mean to Jesus,” The Huffington Post, July 13, 2012, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/mark-5-1-20-exorcism-and-community_b_1628605.html.
 See Marilyn Mellowes, “The Gospel of Mark,” at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/story/mmmark.html. She writes that “the way Mark tells the story [of his Gospel] suggests that his audience lived outside the homeland, spoke Greek rather than Aramaic, and was not familiar with Jewish customs.”
 On Kyrie, see The Oxford Commentary cited above.
 On women in Mark in contrast with the slow-witted disciples, see The Oxford Commentary.
 See Kiel’s commentary on this passage in the Working Preacher series at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2624.
 See Kiel’s commentary, cited above.