Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Exegetical Moment: Mark 7:24-31

And by special request...
After reading my last exegetical post, someone actually thought that I had something insightful to say. Enough so that my reader, Jenell, made a special exegetical request of me: the story of the Syro-phoenician woman. The topic came up in one of her classes, and she wanted to know if I had anything to say about it. "I'd love to know what you think of the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Why did he ignore her, then call her a dog, and then heal her? I explored this passage yesterday in my race and ethnic relations class. Why would Jesus use ethnic slurs toward a member of a despised minority group?" So, when a legend of the blogging world (have you seen the amount of comments she gets) asks you to write a post, you write it. (By the way, the Canaanite version is in Matthew, but I don't have the Greek skills to tackle Matthew effectively, so we'll have to settle for the Mark version.)

------- My Translation --------
24. And from there he arose and departed into the region of Tyre. And entering into a house so that no one would find out and recognize him, but he could not stay hidden.
25. But immediately, hearing about him, a woman little daughter was having an unclean spirit, coming, fell down before his feat.
26. And the woman was Greek [or gentile], Syro-phoenician by race, and she was requesting that he might cast out the daemon out of her daughter.
27. And he said to her, "You need to let the children [the one's being born] be satisfied [fed] first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and to throw it to the little dogs ." ["dog" can refer to reckless men or shameless women. This is the diminutive form. Maybe "puppies" or "lap dogs."]
28. But answering, she says to him, "Sir, even the little dogs under the table eat from the crumbs of bread of the little children. [or little servants -- she uses a different word for children than does Jesus]
29. And he said to her, "For saying that, go home! The daemon has left your daughter."
30. And departing to her house, she found the little child lying on the bed [the lying on thing] and the daemon had left.
31. And leaving again out of the region of Tyre, he went through Sidon into the lake of Galilee in the middle of the region of the Dekapolis.

-------- Some thoughts in paraphrase form --------
So Jesus is on vacation. He's trying to get away from all of the crowds and away from anyone who might know him. So he leaves the country to go to a nice beach resort. He's staying in a house there. And he tries to sneak in, and mostly stay inside so that no one will find him. He needs some serious R&R. His buddy John has just been killed and he hasn't even had time to collect his thoughts.

So he's chillin' in the beach house -- he's just gotten into town -- and all of suddenly this local woman comes barging into the house (yeah, he's still in house and she manages to find him). And she's falling on the ground at his feet and making quite a scene. And she's pleading with him to heal her little daughter. Can't she tell that he's off duty? I mean, he's not even licensed to do healings in this country -- he's only credentialed in Galilee and Judea. Whatever.

So he says, "Hey. I'm not here on a mission trip, lady. Uh, you know, I pretty much just take Jewish clients. Just be patient, someone will get to soon... after I'm gone."

And she's like, "Look, you're here now." But she says it all witty and stuff.

And Jesus is all impressed with her wittiness, cause she's totally turned his words around on him. So he's like, "Yeah, that's a good point. Nice one. Alright, you got me, she's healed."

And she goes home, and her daughter is already healed.

--------- More thoughts ---------
The truth is, I'm not really sure why Jesus uses the word dog. My first explanation is that it's just part of a metaphor. He's trying to make the point that his mission is to the Jews, not to the Gentiles. It's got to be the Jews first. A lot of Jesus' parables and metaphors are pretty jarring -- like comparing to an unjust judge or a nasty old absentee landlord -- the comparison makes a point, but it's not supposed to be an actually description. Just like God is not an unjust judge, the Syro-phoencian woman is not a dog. And it's a little dog, by the way. I don't really know enough about the cultural setting to understand that, but imagining a little housedog or a puppy.

What's really interesting about this story is that the woman is about to outsmart Jesus. I love it. He makes some smart-alecky remark and she totally turns it right around on him. It's just so fun. You'd never find something like this in John (where Jesus is portrayed as ultra-divine), but in Mark, Jesus is more of a regular guy. Sometimes he even gets outsmarted. Plus, super-kudos to the woman for being quick-witted.

Now is the story really about this healing and woman. I'm guessing not. You see, Mark has a problem. Jesus was only ministering to Jews. But now, in Mark's time, there are all these gentiles around and they're in the church but they haven't converted to Judaism. It's a problem. How can he justify it. Aha, but if Jesus even on one occasion did something for a non-Jew (and a woman at that) then we've got something to work with. That's the importance of this story. It's confronting the Jewish-Christian prejudice against the Gentile-Christians. The first group probably does think that gentiles are dogs. And even in spite of that prejudice, Jesus is persuaded to reach out to this foreigner.

That's probably not a very gratifying answer. We don't want Jesus to be using ethnic slurs at all, because it just doesn't seem very Jesus-like. In this case, I'd say that it's basically a narrative technique. Having an imperfect Jesus, though a problem for us, isn't really a problem for Mark. Mark's Jesus can learn a lesson, can be outfoxed. I think it's encouraging for the rest of us.


Blogger Jenell said...

I can see how Jesus' actions show Jewish-Christians that they should care for Gentile-Christians. I hope that is one of the points of this story. But should Jewish-Christians care for Gentile=Christians by handing out scraps? The story could be read as Jesus saying, "I'm here for my own people and you're an outsider. But if you beg enough, impress me with your wit, and persuade me,then I'll offer you a scrap. The fullness of my love, however, goes to those who are more like me."

It seems to me that the point about the inclusiveness of the Gospel could have been made without the ethnic slur, and in fact could have been made even more strongly.

How does the ethnic slur advance the story or the point? What does it reveal to us about Jesus? That he was fully human and carried human prejudices toward other ethnic groups? Yikes! I hope not.

It's a concern because ethnic slurs and racism so often have to do with dehumanizing other people - calling them dogs, apes, etc. And using a kind term for "dog" or "puppy" only makes it more patronizing, in my view.

Thank you, thank you for your investigation. It helps a bit, if only to say that the passage isn't crystal clear even to a seminarian!

7:12 PM  
Blogger Sibeal said...

This is isn't an exegetical answer, but I worked on this passage in one of my seminary classes -- Multicultural Religious Education. I remember reading something by Max Lucado about how he thought perhaps the passage is supposed to be humorous -- in that Jesus and the woman where almost teasing each other... like if I call my friend a dork (but meaner, I suppose.)

But to your answer -- I have no problem with Jesus being imperfect. He was *human* after all, and his faith was a progression, not unlike Fowler's Stages of Faith. I think I have always looked at this passage as the woman "calling Jesus out" -- reminding him of his calling to all people. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he needed a little reminder of his mission. I take comfort in the idea that Jesus was learning as he went, just as I am learning as I go.

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