Learning with Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman

From the "Tres riches heures"
of the Duc de Berry

The path of biblical knowledge has a few important forks once you get to the part of the road where we you realize - if you didn't before - that it's not all quite how you thought it was. Moses didn't write that stuff, and David didn't write those things either; Paul wrote some bits, not others, and we're arguing about the rest. And - Jesus didn't say everything at least quite that way, because, well, which of the three or four ways was it in the end?

The forks in the road of unknowing then become the challenge. There is, let us freely acknowledge, a secret door in every Divinity School that leads to despair and unfaith, when the losses are too great to sustain and faith itself was not well grounded - biblicism often leads there ironically, because it can't be sustained. But there are other paths. There is the path marked "well if some of it's right and other bits aren't, I will just choose the bits that suit me, arrange them as I see fit and imagine my Gospel and my Jesus from there thank you." Basing my judgement on the bad takes on this week's Gospel abounding on social media this - let's call it mining the text - is a popular choice. 

There is a third fork in the road, itself actually varied in forms, not simple or uniform by any means, but it is the fork that says that Scripture is still valuable as scripture - not as convenient fragments with which to construct a different world view, but as - despite it all - as the Word of God, the Gospel, not because of misconceptions like inerrancy or the other baggage of fundamentalism, but precisely as the encultured memory of the people of God and of Jesus crucified and risen. This is scripture worth reading not because it's all correct, but because it might all still be true despite that. And this means taking the text seriously, not just as source for some story we can then imagine but in its actual form.

This particular Gospel story is remarkable because of the tension, almost conflict, within the narrative, the courageous and faithful woman receiving what she needs from the mysterious power of Jesus in an exchange that makes us distinctly uncomfortable because Jesus seems to use offensive and ethnically chauvinistic language. The children, the dogs, the crumbs, the whole disaster. It is a disaster.

The challenge here is I think now not to "mine" the text according to our preferences but to read. In particular here to read Mark, to treat the text as though it belonged not merely to a vague set of Jesus stories but to a Gospel with a particular theme and form. The almost standard bad take of recent times seems then to have been written during CPE (sorry) rather than during NT class, because it just ignores Mark's theology and Mark's Jesus - there is a distinctive Jesus in Mark - to produce a Jesus who performs in a way that suits us, at least in the end of the passage. By this I mean of course the Jesus who is not only challenged but supposedly aghast at his insensitivity, and goes away chastened, the Syrophoenician woman earnestly commending him to go and sin no more.

Mark's Jesus can indeed be challenged, as he is here, and can be persuaded, as he is here. The unnamed woman does change his course of action here, yes. Mark's Jesus cannot, however, be "schooled." He represents the mysterious power of God whose partial recognition can lead to bold and unpredictable behavior from human and non-human interlocutors alike, demons and disciples as they may be or become, sometimes eliciting love and gratitude, but always evoking fear and trembling too.

The temptation to see Jesus as making a kind of breakthrough here here merely "mines" Jesus from the narrative; it assumes of course that after this encounter he would never have been so gauche again as to do the "children and the dogs" thing. This is not just a complete fantasy, but deeply counter to the narrative. Mark - clearly writing to gentiles, the "dogs" of the unfortunate metaphor -  actually does not seem to have the difficulty we do with this jarring image at this point - not because it is not jarring, or because Mark has this view of Jews and Gentiles, but because Mark knows there is a fundamental change regarding the children and dogs needed and coming, and it's not in this story. The change that Mark knows is coming is not primarily in Jesus' or our self-awareness (unless "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me" counts), but in the climax of the cosmic battle with evil on the cross in his body,  when the curtain of the temple that separates the children and the dogs will be torn in two. Imagining we can see the truth of Jesus and his work prior to that is what this Gospel specifically excludes (see 8:29-31). 

It is not, then, that the problems of racism or ethnic chauvinism this passage raises are not real, even for the ancient author(s) and readers, but that the answer given is not about personal growth through conversation, but (implicitly) about the defeat of the forces of evil effected in Jesus. This is not about Jesus as role model (although the feisty interlocutor surely is one) but as liberator.

Imagining that Mark's Gospel provides us with warming stories of Jesus' own journey to learning as like therapy is not actually reading this text as scripture; reading is less comfortable than pretending to see past to some other Jesus, but ultimately more rewarding. Mark also gives us a key image that describes not only the character of this Gospel but of our journey as learners who follow him. "They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid." It doesn't sound like good news at the time, just like the learning will not feel like good news at every step. But it is the destination that interprets the journey in this case. And he is still going ahead of us (cf. 16:7).

[Based on part of a sermon given in Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School, Sept 8 2021]


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