Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Messianic Secret

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 6, 2009

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 18
(Isaiah 35:4-7a)
Psalm 146
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

The Messianic Secret

Today’s gospel lesson raises a couple of difficult questions. One question is why in the world is Jesus so harsh with this woman who is desperately trying to help her daughter.

The second question might not be so obvious. What’s with all the secrecy? Mark tells us that Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” And later, after he heals the man who was deaf and mute, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone what they’ve seen.

Why is Jesus so harsh with this woman and why is Jesus being so secretive? I believe the answers to both questions are related.

Despite Jesus’ attempts at secrecy, the word about him and his power gets out. Even the Gentiles hear about Jesus, including a certain Syrophoenician woman.
She’s one of the most remarkable women in the New Testament.

Mark describes her simply as a “Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” He tells us her daughter is possessed by a demon. And since this woman has heard about the healing power of Jesus, she boldly approaches him and asks him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

We know just about nothing about her and yet we know her, don’t we? She’s a mother fiercely trying to save her child – willing to try just about anything to make her daughter healthy and whole again. We know her.

She’s a mother who has every reason to think this Jewish teacher and healer is going to reject her request. After all, he’s a Jewish man and she’s a Gentile woman. He should have nothing to do with her, let alone heal her daughter.

Yet, she still comes forward and asks for help. And after he rejects her request, she’s incredibly bold and persistent and, yes, faithful. She’s been insulted, referred to as a dog, and yet she comes back at him. This gentile woman comes back at this Jewish rabbi and her boldness and persistence and yes her faithfulness is rewarded. Her daughter is healed.

We know almost nothing about the woman, yet we know her. There’s nothing unusual about a mother fighting for the life of her child.

On the other hand, we know a lot about Jesus, yet it’s hard to recognize the Jesus we know in the way he treats this woman.

Over and over in the gospels we see Jesus breaking through all kinds of boundaries, spending time with, talking with, even eating with people he’s really not supposed be with. He drives the religious people crazy with his behavior. And Jesus’ boundary-breaking even confuses the disciples, the people who were closest to him.
But in today’s gospel Jesus is downright un-Jesus-like in his treatment of this woman. She comes to him begging for help and he replies with a common Jewish slur against Gentiles, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Ouch. What in the world is going on here?

In this odd exchange with the Syrophoenician woman we get a rare glimpse of Jesus growing. We catch Jesus in a moment when he understands even more just how big his mission is. We see Jesus’ growing realization that, yes, he is the Jewish messiah, but more than that, he is the messiah for the whole world.

When the woman replies to his insult, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” we can imagine Jesus having an “aha” or “you got me” moment.

So in this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman we see an important moment in Jesus’ life – a moment when he deepens his understanding of who he is and what he’s come into the world to do.

And to show Jesus’ growth Mark deliberately places the healing of the man who is deaf and mute right after the story of the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus heals the Gentile daughter at a distance, but in the case of the Gentile man, Jesus is more like the Jesus we know. Jesus breaks through some real boundaries, placing his fingers into his Gentile ears and spitting and touching his tongue.

And Jesus’ growing realization of who he is and what he has come into the world to do has something to do with his secrecy.

This secrecy is one of the big themes in the Gospel of Mark and people have puzzled over it for a very long time. On the surface it does seem odd that Jesus would keep telling his disciples not to tell people about his powerful works.

But maybe this secrecy reflects a certain ambivalence or caution or even fear on the part of Jesus. As he increasingly recognized his own power and mission he also recognized his destiny. And in the second half of the Gospel of Mark Jesus repeatedly predicts his own suffering and death.

Until Jesus is ready to really give himself to his mission, until he’s ready to break through human boundaries, until he’s ready to give it all away, to sacrifice his life, wouldn’t it make sense to just…keep things quiet?

Once the word is out there won’t be any turning back for Jesus. And this is something we can relate to isn’t it? How many of us when we’re considering a life-altering change prefer to keep it quiet until we are really ready and sure? Once everyone knows it’s pretty hard to change course.

In my own case, I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to ask Sue to marry me. I figured if she said no, my humiliation could be private. And later I only told a few close friends and family that I was going to pursue ordination. This way, if the Church didn’t think I was called I’d be spared having to explain things to everyone at work.
Maybe thinking about Jesus being challenged to learn and grow makes us uneasy. Maybe thinking about Jesus hesitating to take on his mission makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we prefer to think of Jesus as always having known who he was, what he was called to do. Maybe we prefer to think of Jesus as fearless, completely confident.

But I find Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman to be comforting. The truth is as Christians we are called to break through the boundaries that divide us from others. And we all know this is hard to do. I find it comforting that even Jesus was tempted to stick with his own people, to stick with what was familiar. Even Jesus was tempted to disregard the needs of people who were different, people who were the “dogs” of the world.

And I find it comforting that the early Church – those who were closest to the life of Jesus - struggled with the challenge of crossing boundaries and respecting the dignity of every human being.

In our lesson from the Epistle of James, the author writes to the early Church and accuses them of acts of favoritism – of treating the rich and the presentable with hospitality and the poor and disheveled – the “dogs” - with disdain.

In thinking about how hard it is to cross the boundaries that divide us, I was reminded of one experience I had on the mission trip to Camden.

I spent one day at a drop-in center for homeless people called “New Visions.” It’s housed in a former Lutheran church downtown and provides meals, laundry, a mail drop and a whole host of other services. Our job as volunteers was to provide what’s called the “ministry of presence” – to just be with the people in the large common room, which I guess was once the parish hall.

There were some very real boundaries in that room – boundaries that divided us and that were not easy to cross.

I saw one group of guys sitting at a table playing a game of checkers. When I went over to them all but one moved away. The one who remained seemed pretty together – clean, fairly well dressed, apparently educated, and so on. I felt pretty comfortable with him. He started telling me how he was the best checkers player around and asked if I wanted to play.

I was glad to have something to do. Sure enough he quickly started snapping up my pieces and began lecturing me on how I didn’t understand strategy and didn’t know anything about checkers.

After he got his first king he made a move I had never seen before – swooping down the line and taking all my pieces that were along the way. I asked him what he was doing and, looking slightly offended, he told me that we were playing “flying kings” and that’s how it was done.

Once I realized how the game was played, I started to rally and began taking some of his pieces and got some “flying kings” of my own. The lectures about strategy and my ignorance came to an end.

It was around this time that another client of the center sat with us. He looked to be in pretty bad shape – disheveled and his ravaged face reflected a hard life and, I suspected, a lot of substance abuse. He asked if he could play winners. My opponent and I, locked in an epic checkers battle, ignored him although I was aware of his near-constant mumbling and twitching.

Finally the checker board was nearly clear – I had a king and one other piece and my opponent had a king. We moved our pieces around for a while but it was clear we were stalemated. My opponent gave up in disgust – and told me that I was smarter than he thought I was.

I was feeling pretty good – I had just about beaten the best checker player in the place! So when the disheveled, mumbling, twitchy other guy asked if I wanted to play, I said sure.

I looked with pity at his worn and weary face and click, click, click, in what seemed like nine or ten moves, and almost without me noticing, he had beaten me.

He asked if I wanted to play again. My competitive juices were starting to flow. I said yes. Again, click, click, click, he had beaten me.

The next time I began by mirroring each of his moves. Of course, he immediately knew what I was up to and looked at me with a hint of amusement and, click, click, click. Same result.

Realizing I was going to lose anyway, I began to engage him in conversation as we played. As I learned something about his story, and told him something of my story, the boundaries between us began to break down.

Today’s lessons remind us of Jesus’ mission and the church’s mission to break through the boundaries that separate us. It wasn’t always easy for Jesus and it’s certainly not easy for us. But with God’s help we can break through the boundaries that divide humanity and recognize everyone – especially those the world considers “the dogs” – as beloved creations of God.