A Woman Empowered
A Woman Empowered
August 5, 2018
In chapter six of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is on his home turf, on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee. However, he has taken some real hits. He preaches at his home synagogue, only to be heckled and nearly killed. He receives the news that John the Baptist has been beheaded. Deeply grieved, Jesus tries to retreat with his disciples to a quiet place for some time alone. However, the crowds see them leaving and follow. Jesus has compassion on the crowd and speaks to them until evening draws close. When the disciples suggest that the crowd should be dismissed, Jesus challenges the disciples to share their food with the crowd. The five thousand are fed…and there are leftovers.
So many things would have resonated about this chapter for an ancient Jewish audience. The crowd from the synagogue chases him but he is provided an escape. (A suggestion of the parting of the Red Sea?) A powerful person (Herod) wields his power faithlessly. (Pharaoh?) The disciples are sent out with next to nothing to wander from town to town (The wilderness days of the the earliest ancestors?). And finally, those who are immersed in faith are fed and there is enough. (Do you remember the stories of manna in the wilderness?) Even in the moment of looking upon the crowds, Jesus sees, “That they are like sheep without a shepherd.” What was Moses before he appeared in Pharaoh’s court? He was a shepherd. And what did he do for the people? He shepherded them through the wilderness.
We all have moments in life where we think, “I’ve seen this before. Something is happening here again. This feels so loaded!” I completely believe that Mark’s audience would have been overwhelmed with such moments of resonance. What is familiar is powerful!
Here’s the thing, by the beginning of chapter eight, there is another feeding—“The feeding of the four thousand.” (I bet you didn’t know that, eh?) This feeding, though, is as disorienting as the feeding of the five thousand might have been comforting. I want to work across the next couple of weeks to help us all understand why this is and why it matters…
So, toward the very end of Chapter six, Jesus instructs the disciples to get in the boat and cross over the Sea of Galilee to the other side. Jesus, it seemed, was still looking for a little quiet time to himself. (Aren’t we all?). As they are crossing, a storm blows up and the disciples are struggling mightily to survive. As they are fighting the wind and the waves, Jesus appears to them, walking on the water. They are even more terrified, thinking they are seeing a ghost. Jesus speaks to them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” The wind ceases but the disciples do not understand.
Now, what Jesus is doing with them here is crossing over from the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee to the gentile side of the Sea of Galilee. In other words, the disciples, at Jesus’ instruction are leaving behind what is familiar and comforting and tribal—namely, being in a place in which their culture and practices are dominant—and stepping into the great unknown, the land in which everything and everyone is different.
So, here’s the thing, even just traveling this far. Let me run an analogy. Let’s say you decided to really get serious about getting in shape. You hire a trainer. The trainer says, “Well, what machine do you like?” You answer, “The treadmill!” And the trainer just says, “O.k….stick with that!” Not a good trainer, right? You’re not going to grow.
Let’s say you get another trainer, new and improved! This one doesn’t ask you what you like at all. They just throw three hundred pounds on the bar and say, “Bench that, smart guy!” Not a good trainer, either, right? You will end up physically broken or totally discouraged. You will quit.
No, a really good trainer is interested in watching you do what comes naturally—for five minutes. And then, incrementally, they increase the challenge: they add a little weight; they introduce what is new. If you want to work on core strength, at the very moment when you feel stable, they do the next little thing to destabilize you, to put you back into the very same, queasy, slightly out of balance place that you felt such an achievement by having just left behind. You don’t grow by being comfortable. You don’t get stronger by doing what you can already do. You have to keep facing the next new challenge. You have to work your way through…
In this morning’s text, Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Tyre. Tyre was a large important port city. From Tyre, goods would make their way east to the Roman Empire. The only port that rivaled Tyre was Alexandria. In fact, 350 years or so earlier, Alexander the Great had decimated Tyre and established Alexandria. Tyre was rebuilt. By Jesus day, there were no more cosmopolitan places around than Alexandria and Tyre. As such, when we think about the disciples from the country coming to Tyre, we have to think of some country yokel’s first trip to New York City. I would imagine that they were completely overwhelmed.
At the outset of our text, Jesus gets to Tyre and enters a house because he doesn’t want anyone to know that he is there. By this time in Mark’s Gospel, everywhere Jesus goes, he is flooded by the sick and the possessed and the people who care for them. Everyone wants a piece of him. He doesn’t want anyone to know he is there. (Is he still looking for that quiet moment?) Mark tells us that Jesus, “could not escape notice.” It seems that even in the bright and buzzing world of one of the greatest port cities in the Mediterranean, Jesus’ arrival was big news.
The person who finds Jesus is a woman. This woman is associated with the three great enemies of Israel: the Canaanites, the Greeks, and the Romans. She a foreigner. She is part of multiple enemy peoples. She is a woman. (For our own modern purposes, the “Syro” part of her identity would be what we associate with modern day Syria—the name the Romans gave the province when the conquered it in 64 BC. The “Phoenician” part would be the Canaanite identity.) In short, this story pushes every boundary that is there to be pushed.
To top things off, she throws herself at Jesus feet. Now, for a man in Israel, this would have been considered an act of faithful humility. However, for a woman to do this was completely unacceptable by every ancient Jewish standard. This wasn’t a woman being humble. This was a woman being “loose” or “uppity.” This is out of control, bold behavior by a woman, even worse because she was in a home and not a public place, and worst of all, because she was a Gentile.
What unfolds is a moment that certainly must have troubled those around Jesus, may well have troubled him, and absolutely is one of the most troubling texts in the New Testament for us. The problem is that the woman has a daughter who is mentally ill. (That’s what I believe we are hearing about when there is talk of demons in the Bible.) The question is, “What will Jesus do?” The answer is really essential for us to hear…
The woman pleads with Jesus to throw out the demon from her daughter. Jesus says something that is really disturbing. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What? How about, “Gosh, I’m so sorry about your daughter. Let me see what I can do.” Right?
Let’s unpack this… Among the Jews of that day, it was not uncommon to refer to the gentiles (anyone who was not Jewish) as dogs. (This is no different that anyone else who wants to demean a group by referring to them as less than human.) The statement also seems to reference a popular understanding in Jesus day that God would take care of the Jews first and the Greeks second. Uncomfortable as it is, Jesus seems to be reflecting the “party line.”
However, there is a real question of whether he believes what he is saying or he is setting up a “straw man” to be knocked down. The radical thing that he is doing is that he is talking to a foreign woman, at all. This would have “defiled” him in the eyes of many people. That’s the first thing we have to see. He’s doing something few others would have done. He’s “talking to the dogs.”
Take that a step further. What if he is in fact, egging her on? Culturally, something men enjoyed was a good argument. It was a way of playing out the respect and honor that men afforded one another (respect that was never offered a woman.) Remember, women couldn’t testify in court because they weren’t considered reliable. Jesus looks this woman in the eye and says, “Ok…Let’s have a go!”
The woman comes right back at him. She does what a great debater would do. She takes Jesus’ analogy about children and dogs and twists it to make her point, essentially, saying, “Can’t both the children and the dogs eat? Don’t the children always spill a few crumbs?” Interestingly, when Jesus speaks of children he uses the word “teknon” which always refers to biological children. When she speaks, she uses the word “paidion” which is another, far more inclusive word for children which would have referred to a whole household of dependents. The woman is arguing for inclusion.
The woman breaks all the boundaries, throws herself at Jesus, begs for help, stands her ground, argues her point and…wins the day! Jesus doesn’t tell her that her faith has made her daughter whole. He doesn’t mention faith at all. What he points to is the words she has spoken. The daughter has been healed but just as significantly the woman has found her voice. Jesus loved her enough and respected her enough to lose the argument to her.
Last week we talked about really seeing… You’re not really seeing this text unless you see the smile on Jesus’ face as a desperate woman with kind of a crazy daughter became a woman of power who had learned to walk differently in this world.