Sunday, August 09, 2015

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Leftover Loaves: A Markan Mystery

The Strange Exchange Between Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman (Mark 7:24–30).

What did Jesus mean when when he said, "Let the children be fed first, it isn't right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." And what was the Syrophoenician woman referring to when she talked about the dogs eating children's crumbs under the table? And how do the disciples fit into it all, the same disciples who earlier didn't understand about the loaves? Follow the trail of breadcrumbs and see if you can solve the mystery before Encyclopedia does.

Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

Encyclopedia Brown and the Mystery of the Kingdom
In the evenings, I like to read to the kids while they are eating at the dinner table. Recently, I have been reading them stories from the Encyclopedia Brown series. If you don’t know these stories, Encyclopedia Brown is a boy detective. His real name is Leroy, but most people call him Encyclopedia because he is so smart. His dad is the police chief in fictional Idaville, and so sometimes Encyclopedia helps him solve crimes that have stumped the police. But mostly, he solves cases around his neighborhood. There are two things I like about these stories. First, they are short. And second, each story provides all of the clues that readers need to solve the mystery on their own. Sometimes the clues are obvious. But sometimes you have to reread the story a couple of times before you figure it out. And sometimes, you just have to look up the answers in the back of the book. This technique makes the reader more active, more engaged, more involved in the story.
     The Gospel of Mark does something quite similar. Mark is also a mystery story. It is a mystery about the kingdom of God, set in the small backwater region of Galilee on the outskirts of the great Roman Empire. At the center of this mystery is an obscure Jew, named Jesus. And everybody in the story is trying to figure out who he is and where he gets his power and authority to preach, to exorcise demons, to pronounce forgiveness, to heal the sick, and to do a host of other things. Now Mark has left his readers clues to help them discover for themselves the true nature of Jesus’ identity and mission. Some of the clues are obvious; others not so much. Sometimes Mark’s stories about Jesus make sense to us on the first reading, and sometimes we have to go back and read them over and over again, pondering them in our hearts and minds. And  sometimes we wish we could just look up the answers in the back of the book.[1]

Jesus’s Response to the Syrophoenician Woman… Gentile Prejudice?
Take today’s episode with Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. 

There are all sorts of things that don’t make sense. After last week’s debate with the Pharisees, Jesus leaves his Jewish homeland, and heads north into Gentile territory. For some reason he tries to remain hidden out of the public eye, but it doesn’t work. A desperate woman seeks him out. And when she finds him, she falls down at his feet, and begs him to heal her daughter. Jesus responds with, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
     Wow! That’s a pretty shocking response from Jesus!... We are nearly halfway through the gospel, and not once has Jesus ever refused to heal anybody who has come to him, not least a parent seeking healing for a child. It wasn’t that long ago when Jairus fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come and heal his daughter. And Jesus went with Jairus immediately. So why does Jesus presumably refuse to heal this woman’s daughter? The most obvious explanation is that she is a Gentile. After all, Mark emphasizes her ethnic and racial identity. He doesn’t give us her name, instead he says, “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” Moreover, Jesus clearly casts the woman and her daughter as dogs, just as assuredly as he casts the Jews as the children. “Let the children—[the Jews]—be satisfied first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs—[that is, Gentiles].”
     Some commentators argue that this shows that Jesus had a prejudice against Gentiles, and that this Gentile woman confronted him about it and he had a change of heart. It is an interesting idea, but the evidence just doesn’t support it. For example, prior to his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus has healed Gentiles on at least two separate occasions. First, in chapter 3, when Jesus’ popularity was on the rise, crowds of people traveled to Galilee from all over. They listened to him proclaim the good news of the kingdom, and they were healed by him. Some of the crowds came from Jewish regions, but others came from the Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon, which is where today’s episode occurs. Then, in chapter 5, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee, and exorcised the Gerasene demoniac, the man who was possessed by Legion. So Jesus healed a Gentile in Gentile territory. Moreover, in chapter 6, Jesus sent his own disciples on a Gentile mission. They resisted, but he did send them. So none of this sounds like a man who has a prejudice against Gentiles. But it still leaves us with a mystery. How do we explain Jesus’ very uncharacteristic response to this very desperate woman?

Following The Breadcrumb Trail
Well we need to reread some earlier portions of Mark. We need to get out our magnifying glasses and comb through Mark’s narrative looking for clues. And the first set of clues occurs in the exchange between Jesus and the woman. In your bulletin, you will notice that Jesus says, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” A better translation would be, “it is not fair to take the children’s bread—or the children’s loaf—and throw it to the dogs.” And notice, how the woman responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table are eating the children’s crumbs.” Bread, loaf, crumbs. Does it remind you of anything?
     For the past four weeks, we have been reading straight through the Gospel of Mark, and the word loaf or loaves has appeared at least once each and every week. Mark has literally left us a breadcrumb trail, and he expects us to follow it because it holds the key to solving today’s mystery.
    The trail of breadcrumbs began with the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus fed five thousand Jews with just five loaves and two fish. After everyone had their fill, the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of loaf fragments,… crumbs, if you will. Immediately, Jesus forced his disciples into the boat, and told them cross over to Bethsaida, which is in Gentile territory. He was sending them on a Gentile mission. But they resisted, which Mark symbolizes in their failure to make any headway against an adverse wind. So Jesus came to them walking upon the Sea in an attempt to reveal himself as the Lord, as the One with the divine authority to send them on such a mission. But his attempt fails. His disciples don’t recognize him; they are simply terrified. Mark explains their reaction this way: “They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52). They didn’t understand about the loaves because their hearts were hardened. This is such a confusing explanation, but ironically it is directly relates to the even stranger exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.

Minor Characters in the Gospel of Mark
Several weeks ago, I mentioned the fact that Mark often uses minor characters as models of faith over against the disciples; it’s a form of dramatic irony. Minor characters exhibit the faith and understanding that one would normally expect Jesus’ own disciples to display, but who surprisingly often don’t. So, for example, in the very first sea crossing in Mark, Jesus criticized the disciples for their lack of faith. Two episodes later, Jesus praises an unnamed woman for her faith. She was the woman with the twelve-year flow of blood who had boldly snuck up behind Jesus and touched his cloak and was instantly healed.
     Today, Mark uses the exact same strategy. As we just saw, in the second sea crossing, Jesus’ disciples are criticized for not understanding about the loaves. And then, just a few episodes later, Jesus praises the Syrophoenician woman, not for her faith, but for the word she spoke. In other words, he praises her for her understanding. Specifically, for her understanding about the loaves. She understands about the loaves. She understands what Jesus’ own disciples have so far failed to understand, namely, that the twelve baskets of leftover loaves following the feeding of the five thousand are meant for Gentiles. That’s why Jesus tried to send the disciples on a Gentile mission right after they had collected the leftover loaves. But they resisted. They didn’t understand the significance of the loaves because they were hard-hearted, because they were fundamentally opposed to sharing Israel’s blessings with those who were not of Israel, especially those pagan Gentiles who had oppressed God’s people for so many centuries. At least, the disciples weren’t ready to share just yet; let the nations wait their turn. Through Jesus, they can be heard to say, “Let the children be satisfied first, it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to those Gentile dogs.”
     I wish I had more time to explain how all of this is works in Mark, because it is quite breathtaking, but suffice it to say, when Jesus responds as he does to the Syrophoenician woman, he is in no way refusing to heal her daughter. He is speaking ironically, and it is a particular type of irony. Jesus is actually giving voice to his disciples’ unstated objections to Gentile mission. Not because he agrees with them, but because he is expecting this bold woman to challenge them.
     This will become more apparent over the next few weeks, but in the minds of the disciples, God’s kingdom and its blessings are for Israel, the children of God. And only after the kingdom has been fully established among God’s people, can the matter of including Gentiles within its borders be considered. To invite Gentiles into the kingdom now, when so many in Israel had not yet heard or responded to the good news of the kingdom, would be like taking candy from a baby. Or rather, like taking the children’s bread and using it to feed scavenging dogs. After all, who knows if there will be enough bread for all of God’s people, if the Gentiles start getting into line.
     The Syrophoenician woman is not Jewish; she is not one of the children; nevertheless, she sees something that Jesus’ Jewish disciples have yet to recognize, namely, that the Gentiles are already participating in the kingdom; they are already receiving the blessings of the kingdom. Gentiles have been in the crowds that Jesus has taught and healed. The dogs are already eating the crumbs that have fallen from the children’s table. And what’s more; the Gentiles are quite satisfied with the crumbs; the crumbs of the God’s kingdom are more than sufficient to meet their needs, for crumbs from Jesus can heal little girls, just as the mere touch of Jesus’ clothes can heal old women. What faith, what humility, what insight.
     In Mark, the mystery of God’s kingdom is often hidden in parables, in little riddles that we have to tease out. Mark presents us with mysteries that we have to engage, that we have to get personally involved with if we are going to solve them. Why? Because the kingdom of God is so radically different from anything we know. It challenges our values and our view of the world, and we cannot see it without a change of heart, without new eyes and new ears. Moreover, Mark isn’t simply interested in giving us information about Jesus, he is interested in our transformation, in our becoming disciples of Jesus. Sometimes that means making things easier to understand, and sometimes it means making things harder to understand, so that we invest ourselves more fully.
     In Mark, Jesus’ disciples are on a journey, a journey of repentance and transformation. But the question remains, will the disciples come to the place where they can see and accept and participate in Jesus’ vision of the kingdom? And what about us? Will we come to that place where we can see and accept and participate more fully in Jesus’ vision of the kingdom, a kingdom that includes people from both sides of the tracks, a kingdom that will require us to sit at table with our enemies, a kingdom that will call upon us to share our bread with strangers, trusting that in God’s kingdom there will always be enough bread, enough forgiveness, enough love, mercy, and grace to go around.
     How do we get there? Without being too simplistic, start by reading the Gospel of Mark. Enter the mystery of who Jesus is by following in the footsteps of his disciples because they do eventually get where they need to be, because Jesus helps them get there. It isn’t always pretty, and there journey is often painful, but it’s real, and it’s authentic, and it leads to life. So read Mark, and when he doesn’t make sense, grab a hold of Jesus with all boldness and demand some answers, and you will get them, because in Mark boldness is always rewarded.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Actually, in a way we can look up the answer in the back of the book. For Mark, the answer about Jesus' identity is found in the crucifixion scene.

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