Why is Jesus being an asshat?

Warning: Contains Religion

Note: This is sermon 3 of 3. The other two were written on paper and have yet to be digitally transcribed (in either sense of that word). I’m using the revised common lectionary for the last while as an ongoing narrative (which it is as we’re essentially going through Mark with some add-ins from John). I’m including weeks I’m not preaching in the narrative.

Reading: Mark 7:24–37

The story thus far: Jesus has spent an almost inordinate amount of time trying to escape from people and failing. His cousin John was executed and he tried to take a boat trip to a nearby mountainside to get away but the people found him. He disappeared in the middle of the night, he literally walked away from everybody in the only direction that they could not follow and they still managed to find him when he arrived on shore. He spoke about the requirement to eat his flesh and drink his blood and still people hung about asking for miracles. So he gathers his disciples, his core group, and heads north. The Pharisees see his disciples having a quick snack and he loses his mind and just goes off on them for having the unmitigated gall to completely miss the point of worship and piety. So Jesus says forget it. He heads north. He heads into another country entirely. He goes to Lebanon. The people are not his people, the culture is not his culture. Tyre is a major sea-side port on the Mediterranean sea. This is not the quiet little lakeside town of Bethsaida or Capernaum. This is huge. This is leaving Cobourg and Port Hope and going to Montreal1. He is finally in a place where he is not the center of attention. He is finally in a place where he can be free of the obligations and pressures that come from being the messiah. So of course the only story we have of this adventure is someone asking him to be the messiah.

The gospel relates that Jesus went into a house and did not want anyone to know he was there but no matter what he did the people started talking. One translations says that he could not pass unrecognized. Think about that for a moment. We are discussing a completely different country, a country that you have to cross mountains in order to enter. We are also discussing a time without cameras, without pictures, without portable paintings. The fact that these people not only knew who Jesus was, but also knew how to recognize him is astounding.
Then a young lady hears that Jesus is in town. She rushes over. The gospel is quite clear about this: the moment she hears about Jesus she runs to his house and lands at his feet begging and pleading that he cure her daughter. We don’t know what was wrong with her, the story only relates that it was an unclean spirit. Typically that means something fairly complex. This is not a mother with a little girl suffering from the sniffles. This child has some serious problem, enough that her mother is willing to drop everything and beg for help from a strange man from another country.

This is where the story gets a little odd. We are used to the smiling Jesus, the happy Jesus, the “suffer the little children to come unto me” Jesus. What we are shown here is an abrupt, angry, racially insensitive Jesus. ” ‘The children should be fed first, because it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the little dogs.’ ” You, ma’am, are subhuman and there’s no reason for me to even look at you let alone help your child. This is not exactly the nicest thing one could say. It strikes an even deeper chord with us in Canada this week. The young boy who washed up on shore, who’s family was not allowed to escape to Canada for whatever reason could very well be a descendant of this very woman. It is that ugly of a concept, it is that ugly of a statement and yet here we have a story of our saviour saying such a horrible thing.

Where does this come from? Where is our kind and loving saviour? Where is the Jesus who says love is the answer?

First of all, this is the Gospel of Mark. This was the first gospel, the one written down to get things out there. It does not attempt to be all inclusive with its stories. This is the gospel, after all, that kind of forgot to include anything past the scene in the garden when angels tell Mary that Jesus was risen from the dead. We cannot depend on Mark to tell the whole story. Matthew and Luke pick up where Mark leaves us bewildered. They take the stories told in Mark and add more about what is going on. The story in Matthew adds the disciples, a pedagogical moment, a narrative that makes the blow a little less severe. But we are not reading Matthew right now, we are reading Mark; and, in my view, there is another reason not to worry too much about Jesus being a bad guy.

“You do not deserve to eat the food prepared for the children,” Jesus says, to which she replies, “Yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs.”

It is powerful moment. Instead of running away ashamed or angry or incredulous this random woman from another country goes toe-to-toe with a man who verbally duels with the Pharisees and wins. In the story just before this one, is Jesus freaking out on the men who provide the intellectual foundation for modern Judaism and they cannot figure out a comeback. This Syro-Phonecian woman does.

“You are absolutely right. Go home, your daughter is healed.”

To my recollection there is no other place in the gospels where someone else essentially gets the better of Jesus. The Centurion who asked that Jesus heal his servant told Jesus that he didn’t require the Saviour to enter the door because he understood the nature of the command structure and faith. The woman who grabbed Jesus’ cloak only spoke to him after the fact. The Pharisees never get the last word, the Sadducees are mocked if they even get a word in edgewise, and the Herodians barely get more than a single mention about money and paying your taxes. Yet this random woman wins a debate.

“You are absolutely right. Go home, your daughter is healed.”

One of the main explanations about this story is that Jesus came to save the Jewish people first and the Gentile world second. There is a theology around primary and secondary directions of salvation and it gets tied into eschatology and what is supposed to happen when the world ends.

There is also another reason. We have to be careful with it because it depends on Jesus’ human nature and if we go too far onto that side we jump into heresies quicker than you can imagine. If you remember the Creed of Saint Athenasius the Jesus’ mix of divine and human nature is complicated.2

To me the reason for his abrupt and very angry response is tied into a single fact: Jesus is tired of being the healer. He’s up in suburbs of a major port city where there really ought to be other things to do. He is trying to escape the crowds of people that are following him everywhere, crowds that are so intent on following him that they don’t think to bring a lunch with them. He is tired of the hyper-religious picking apart every tiny thing that he or his disciples do and using it as the focus for an attack. He is tired of people not getting the fact that he is trying to change their world.

And the first thing that happens when he gets there is someone bursts into the house, literally lands at his feet, and begs him to heal someone.

Jesus says no.

Then someone reminds him that what he is doing is more important than his exhaustion, his frustration. Someone reminds him that he is about God’s work.

“You are absolutely right. Go home, your daughter is healed.”

To me it prefigures the moment in the garden when Jesus looks up to heaven and asks his Father if there is any other way. “Do I have to? All right. Your will be done.” There is a level of humanity in Jesus that we tend to ignore because we are afraid of the theological implications. To me it is heartening to have a saviour who gets frustrated with people not getting the point. I understand why it is important that Jesus remain a spotless sacrifice without a blemish of sin; but, I think there is something lost when we don’t get to see him tired and saying something that he knows is wrong the moment it comes out of his mouth.

The woman’s response reminds us that people are human even when, especially when, they need help. The Syrian refugee issue has been going on for around two years but it was a single child’s death that brought into focus the fact that these are people. Groups of people have a boat capsize and a number of newspapers in Europe simply read let them sink.

Yes we have problems of our own in this country. We have poor people living on the streets. We have hungry people. We have malnourished children. We have shelters that need staffing and funding. Our slice of the world is not perfect. But in the words of this random woman “even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.”

“You are absolutely right. Go home, your daughter is healed.”

 


  1. I have been using Cobourg and Port Hope as a decent representation for the two biblical cities in terms of size and population. Technically Tyre is probably more like New Orleans but it does not really fit the geographical narrative of my current location 

  2. I led the service on Trinity Sunday and had the congregation read the Creed of St. Athenasius. I’m not sure if they’ve forgiven me yet.