“The Jesus I Never Knew”

September 5, 2021

Mark 7:24–37 (with the other Lectionary readings from Isaiah 35: 4–7a and Psalm 146)

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

During my years as a pastor, occasionally I had opportunity to engage with groups of adults around a particular book or curriculum. I always found these experience invigorating and enjoyable. One that stands out in my memory centered on Philip Yancey’s book “The Jesus I Never Knew.” Yancy is an author and respected Christian journalist. The book was the outcome of what happened when he decided to put his preconceptions aside and take a long look at the Jesus described in the Gospels. The principle question he sought to answer was this: How does the Jesus of the New Testament compare to the Jesus we think we know so well?

Yancy’s book reveals what two thousand years of history has covered up and opens readers to a complex character who generates questions as well as answers; a disturbing and exhilarating Jesus who wants to radically transform lives and stretch people’s faith. Yancey said at the end of this project, “No one who meets Jesus ever stays the same.”

The readings for this Sunday are about opening people’s minds and understandings, too. Jesus in the Gospel today opens the ears of a blind man. In the Old Testament reading Isaiah describes a time when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” In the Psalm, the writer praises the Lord who “opens the eyes of the blind.”

Yet, there is also a different kind of opening in the Jesus we meet today. In his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, it is Jesus himself who has to have his eyes opened and his ears unstopped. He has to face his blind spots, preconceptions, prejudice, and allow himself to “be opened” to the uncomfortable implications of the gospel.

Some context. Jesus is far from home in Gentile territory, the region of Tyre and Sidon. It seems he’s enjoying some time off. As far as we know, his friends aren’t with him, and as the text makes clear, he wants to be left alone. (“He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” V. 24) Its unknown why Jesus is keeping to himself, but after recent times, he seems to be seeking respite from a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual demands. Marks tells us prior to this point that Jesus has been mocked and rejected by his own townspeople. Seemingly without stopping he has fed the multitudes, healed the sick, liberated the demon-possessed, and confronted the Pharisees — all while putting up with his clumsily obtuse disciples. For any number of understandable reasons, Jesus needs a break.

Yet what he gets is anything but a break when a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician Gentile woman to be exact (meaning she’s about as far away from Jesus socially as can be imagined), barges into the house where Jesus is staying, bows down at his feet, and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter like has done for others.

What happens next reminds me of Yancey’s book “The Jesus I Never Knew.” In a disturbing way, Jesus looks down at the pleading Gentile woman, ignores her suffering, and dismisses her with slurring words “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Yikes. Can we just hurry away from the awfulness of this moment? Is it possible to justify Jesus’ crassness? Maybe he is overly tired. Maybe he’s fed up with people begging him for favors. Maybe he’s simply describing the reality of his mission: the healing he offers is for the children of Israel first.

These are all possibilities, but I think what underlies this uncomfortable exchange is a Jesus we never knew. A fully human Jesus. With biases and bad moments. Yet, he is God in flesh, still working out the scope and meaning of the divine vocation given him. He knows he is meant to share the Good News. But even he needs to “be opened” to show how radically good that good news is.

So, the Syrophoenician woman schools him. She turns his slur right back at his insult and replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

It is a brilliant response because it circles back to Jesus’s boundary-breaking, taboo-busting, division-destroying ministry of table fellowship. After all, he’s the Messiah who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. He’s the rabbi who breaks bread with sinners. His disciples are the ones who earn the Pharisees’ contempt for eating with unwashed hands. The table is where Jesus shows the world who God is.

Here at a table, the outsider Gentile, the outcast woman calls out Jesus. In a way she says to him “Lord, where’s my Good News? Where’s my place at the table? When will the goodness be good enough for me and for my daughter? If you are who you say you are, how can you be content while anyone goes hungry in the vicinity of your table? Dissolve the boundaries. Widen the table. Share your Good News with me.”

Here is the Jesus we never knew and yet what follows is the good news that we desperately need in this moment. Thankfully Jesus accepts the instruction of the woman who challenges him and teaches him compassion. He allows her to school him in his own gospel, deconstructing his bias, breaking the barrier of his prejudice. The Jesus who never loses a verbal contest with anyone else in Scripture sits back in amazement and concedes the argument to an audacious, female foreigner: “Because of your teaching [in the Greek, your ‘Logos’] the demon has left your daughter.”

Jesus changes. He allows this outsider woman to move him from an attitude of prejudice to an attitude of inclusion. He allows himself to be humbled and informed. Barbara Brown Taylor, noted author describes the moment this way: “You can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.” The Syrophoenician woman’s faith and persistence teach Jesus that God’s purpose for him “is bigger than he had imagined that there is enough of him to go around.”

Right after this Jesus encounters a deaf man in the region of the Decapolis. Placing his fingers in the Gentile man’s ears, Jesus looks up to heaven, sighs, and says, “Be opened.” He sighs. Stop right here. Jesus sighs. It is a fascinating detail. Is the sigh ironic? Is it Jesus sharing the joke with God? As in, “Okay, Father, I get it. Listen. Learn. Be opened. I hear you. I’m working on it.”

Today’s Gospel presents us with the fully human Jesus before we see the divine. What do we learn? Could it be that we would be wise to be open to the outsider who can teach us? Or to realize our biases and prejudices in order that we not be a hindrance to the Good News for people who don’t look, speak, behave or worship like us?

Be opened, Jesus implored after he had been quite starkly opened by the woman. And for us? Be opened to the truth that God isn’t done with you yet. Be opened to the revealing wisdom of people who are not like you. Be opened to the voice of God speaking from places you consider unholy. Be opened to the widening of the table. Be opened to Good News that stretches your capacity to love. Be opened.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.