Last revised: September 16, 2018
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PROPER 18 (September 4-10) — YEAR B / Ordinary Time 23
RCL: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-10(11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
RoCa: Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
Reflections and Questions
1. Most modern commentators place this passage as reflecting the later Isaian tradition, usually that of “Second Isaiah” during the exile (even though it is among the chapters, 1-39, generally attributed most closely to the work of the original Isaiah). I might place it as being from the hand of the latest writers in the Isaian tradition, the so-called Third Isaiah. I would do so because I think there was a step backwards in some respects from the Second to Third Isaiah. Second Isaiah had the Suffering Servant at the core of his theology, most dramatically with ch. 53, a breaking of the cycle of vengeance by the servant’s allowing himself to be made the victim. I find Third Isaiah, however, steps backwards in the themes of vengeance. It widens its vision even further than Second Isaiah, as far as fringe members are concerned. Third Isaiah is spectacular in proclaiming that disenfranchised members of the community (the blind, deaf, lame, etc.) that will one day come to the center. But the latter will apparently do so because “your God who will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” (Is. 35:4). There are many passages among these chapters of Isaiah that also ring out such themes of vengeance. Paul Hanson (The Dawn of Apocalyptic) has argued that the Third Isaian community was the community displaced by those returning to power after the Exile and were the precursor to later Jewish Apocalyptic that very heavily rung out the themes of God’s vengeance against his enemies. This may be the explanation of why we see both the themes of reaching out to displaced people while also reviving chords of vindictiveness. Whatever the explanation, there’s no denying the presence of the latter in much of the material known as Jewish apocalyptic.
This perspective seems to be quite close to our situation today in which versions of inclusiveness heavily favors those who were unquestioningly the victims in the past, but often doing so at the price of malice against the victimizers. It is one of the easiest pitfalls in which to find oneself. You take a stand against something that is clearly wrong, a righteous stand, and before you know it, it becomes a self-righteousness that strikes out against those who are blamed. Gil Bailie calls this anti-sacrificial sacrifice, the disease of us who would follow Elijah in standing against sacrifice by having all the priests of sacrifice slaughtered.
James 2:1-10(11-13), 14-17
1. The crucial phrase and word here in the Greek is en prosopolempsiais echete, in having favoritism. prosopolempsiais appears in two important passages where the point is that God shows no partiality: Rom. 2:11 and Acts 10:34. The latter is one of the more prominent stories in the Bible: Peters dream about unclean animals and his call to visit the gentile Cornelius. This is a pivotal Aha! moment, as Peter says, I finally get it! God shows no partiality!
1. Gil Bailie, in his first tape lecture on Shakespeare’s King Lear has a marvelous florilegia of texts in which he strings together four quotes. The first two juxtapose the themes of the dangers of a loss of distinction from Ulysses’ famous speech about degree in Troilus and Cressida, with James’ words here from 2:1-4 of the dangers of making false distinctions. Both are true, really, which is why human beings are in such a predicament.
Reflections and Questions
1. Favoritism, or partiality, is one way to describe the anthropological proclivity to cultural identity formed in sacrificial ways. Our cultural identities are always based on being over against others. In other words, it is one way to sum up Girard’s anthropology of culture.
2. The only impartial gathering are those formed around the Lamb of God who takes away our communions based on partiality. Fittingly, a very similar text to this passage in James 2 is the most important passage in the New Testament on Holy Communion, 1 Corinthians 11. St. Paul calls attention to the same kind of behavior against the poor and asks if that can be fitting practice of the Lords Supper. Sadly, the verse about examining yourselves (in the plural in the original Greek) is taken out of context to justify favoritism, namely, practices of the sacrament that exclude certain folks — the polar opposite of what this passage is about.
3. One of the optional verses is the one that most immediately catches my Girardian eye, James 2:13: “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” Are there any more succinct summaries of the Gospel than “mercy triumphs over judgment”? And the first half of the verse, while sounding judgmental, can be read in the fashion suggested by Girardians like James Alison, who read such judgmental sounding statements as a form of self-judgment. In other words, those who live by judgment rather than mercy simply receive the fate of their own orientation. Similar to Jesus’ “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword,” those who live by judgment shall die by it. This first half of verse of 2:13, for example, could be offered as an interpretation of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt. 18). The unforgiving servant is thrown into prison by his master because he has chosen to live by his own judgment against the one who owed him, rather than by his master’s previous show of grace.
4. James 2:1 is the only place where the writer specifically names Jesus Christ after his opening nomenclature (James 1:1 – “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”). Jesus is recalled in order to make a challenge concerning favoritism of the wealthy. Was there immediately in the early church a strong awareness that Jesus favored the poor and the outcast? It would seem so in this passage.
5. The passage ends with the phrase that reputedly offended Luther (James 2:17): “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” As a Lutheran, I don’t find this offensive. In fact, after 450 years of Lutheran tradition, I’m aware of the opposite: an overemphasis on faith to the point of its seeming dead for its lack of works. I’m with the writer of James when it comes to a faith experienced as some minimal belief in Jesus that seemingly has no other connection with the believer’s life, only with his or her after-life. Even worse, I think that this minimal belief has become its own form of works. Believing just the right thing becomes a work we do to earn God’s grace.
6. On other hand, I’m with Luther on a point that I know he criticized James for: its lack of naming Christ. Once isn’t enough. I found this to be true in preaching last week’s text, for example, on James 1:17-18. One of the points I made was that the phrase “Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” is like the statement in 1 John 1:5: “that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” This represents a greater transformation in the experience of God than we may think, considering examples of gods we might have proclaimed that share in the darkness of violence and death. I got around to the Girardian point that the cross exposes these gods as false while revealing to us a God who has absolutely no shadow, a Father of lights. But I had to make one addition/correction to James’ text; I also cited John 15 as another version of the “first fruits” image of James 1:18, but one which specifically has us grafted to the true God of Light through Jesus Christ. Without being connected to God through Jesus Christ, we run the risk of us finding ourselves grafted once again to one of the false gods of violence.
In this week’s passage, James does begin with Christ. What happens if we don’t? Doesn’t it end up as some secularized version of good works? Without Christ, in whom is the faith for which good works find its expression?
7. All three lessons challenge some version of the insider/outsider dynamic of sacrificial institutions, with perhaps this James passage as the most immediately accessible to modern congregations. When a congregation is struggling to support itself financially, how easy is it to show preferential treatment to the visitors who appear wealthy?
1. See last week’s reference (Proper 17B) to David McCracken‘s The Scandal of the Gospels, which reads this week’s gospel alongside last week’s, contrasting the offense taken by the Pharisees with the faith shown by the Gentile woman.
2. Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story, chapter 4, The Symbolism of Power. See Epiphany 5B for an introduction to this chapter, where Beck traces a basic challenge by Jesus against the powers in terms of purity rules. The climax, or most direct challenge to those rules, comes in last week’s story, but Beck wonders if the immediate encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is another instance of breaking the purity rules. And which takes precedence, breaking purity rules or extending the kingdom to gentiles? Beck concludes:
In this case, Mark is not abrogating the purity rules (7:1-23) in order to make room in the kingdom for the gentiles, but rather he is extending the invitation to gentiles in order to complete his abrogation of the purity rules. (p. 83)
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 101-102. Last week (Proper 17B), Hamerton-Kelly concluded that “the passage is a specific rejection of the Sacred in the form of food ritual.” This week’s passage continues this rejection, using food as a metaphor:
In what follows, however, the point is generalized to apply to all the boundary markers between Jews and Gentiles. We next find Jesus in a Gentile house in the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon (7:24-30). When a Syrophoenician woman begs for his help in exorcising her daughter, he refuses at first but then succumbs to her clever response and heals the child. The passage shows its linkage with what preceded it because the discourse takes place in terms of food — whether it is right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs, and, in response, that even the dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table (7:27-28). Jesus refusal is based on the prior right of Jews, but it is so cleverly circumvented by the Gentile woman and so easily set aside by Jesus that we must conclude that it is a straw man. This is not an assertion of Jewish priority but rather its repudiation. From Gentile Tyre, he goes to the predominantly Gentile Decapolis (7:31) where, through a particularly elaborate magical ritual, he heals a man who was deaf and dumb. Because this sort of thing was de rigeur for pagan healers, Jesus in the Decapolis does as expected of a wandering magician. We are again being told that external forms do not matter. It does not matter that he does not wash before meals like a good Jew and behaves like a pagan magician, just as it does not matter that he enters a pagan house in Tyre or extends the compassion of the God of Israel to a Gentile woman. Jesus is all things to all people and custom does not matter for him when it clashes with the opportunity to extend the power of the kingdom to others.
We may note that the healing takes place assay from the crowd but in the presence of those who brought the deaf and dumb man to Jesus. So we have a limited circle of witnesses, like the household in Tyre, rather than the crowd as a whole. This is part of a theme of limited disclosure to the disciples and other chosen people who are commanded to keep the experiences to themselves. It does not amount to a messianic secret, however, because, in some cases, like the Gadarene, the beneficiaries are actually commanded to spread the news. It is rather an indication of the negativity of the crowd’s presence, inhibiting the free flow of faith and healing power.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 10, 2006 (Society of St. John, Palo Alto, CA).
5. Ched Myers, teamed with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, chapter 9, “Lessons in Inclusivity.” The idea for my 2012 sermon came from this excellent commentary for preachers. Here is a portion (note: Myers’ chapter is on all of Mark 7):
Jesus insult may echo a rabbinic saying of the time: He who eats with an idolater is like one who eats with a dog (see also Exodus 22:31). But the stipulation that the children must first be satisfied suggests a deeper symbolic issue.
The theme of eating has recurred throughout this narrative section (as in 2:15-28; see Chapter 3). The disciples go on mission without bread (6:8) even as Herod throws an opulent banquet (6:21). The crowds are satisfied in the wilderness feeding (6:36ff) yet the disciples do not understand the meaning of the bread (6:52). And in the controversy with the Pharisees, we are twice told that the disciples were eating bread with unwashed hands (7:2, 5; omitted in most translations).
This motif is sustained by the Syrophoenician womans bold and surprising retort: Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs meant for the children (7:28). Protocol has now been strained to the breaking point as she dares to turn Jesus words back upon him. Yet she is only defending the rights of her people to the table.
The real jolt, however, is the storys conclusion. Jesus, who in Marks story masters every other opponent in verbal riposte, concedes the argument to her: For saying that you may go the demon has left your daughter (7:29)!
Jesus has allowed his privileged status as a Jewish male to be severely affronted by a Gentile woman for the sake of inclusivity. So must the collective identity of Judaism suffer indignity (from the perspective of honor culture) by seeing its traditional social boundaries opened to welcome Gentiles. As Jesus command in 5:43 anticipated the feeding of the crowds on the Jewish side of the sea, so does this story prefigure the feeding of the masses on the Gentile side (8:1ff). Both the children and the outsiders have been satisfied (the word is the same in 6:42, 7:27, and 8:4, 8). Not only is all food clean (7:19); all are welcome at the table.
I especially made use of the following paragraph:
Jesus example of learning from this woman and being moved by her to deeper faithfulness invites us to learn from her as well. Jesus receptivity to her wisdom points to a critical truth: Oppressed people often have a profound analysis of social situations, and know the paths to justice. People in positions of authority need to heed them.
In 2015 this message is even more urgent, as white people are largely baffled by the way that People of Color experience the police brutality of that past year. I count myself among those “people who think themselves white” (to use Ta-Nehisi Coates phrase) that need to listen more closely, with open hearts, to what our African American brothers and sisters are trying to say to us. (I highly recommend Coates’ 2015 book Between the World and Me, as a particularly eloquent and passionate articulation of the truth of those who struggle with dignity against oppression. The phrase ‘people who think themselves white’ is Coates’ clever way of expressing the truth we now know with the help of contemporary genetics that race is completely an illusory construct put in place for the past 400 years precisely by ‘people who think themselves white.’ I also highly recommend the three-hour video series Race: The Power of an Illusion.)
6. Matthew’s version of this story has some significant differences from Mark’s — in fact, some of the differences are crucial to making the following reading. But that version in Matthew 15 has become one of the most important chapters in the Bible for me. It’s an amazing example of reading a troubling passage in one part of scripture — the commanded genocide in Deut. 7 — in light of another. Mark’s version might not make the inverted way of Jesus’ living out a ‘conquest of Canaan’ as clearly as Matthew’s, but it gives a good foundation. For more see the Proper 15A page, especially: Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, pp. 155-158, using a reading he borrows from Grant LeMarquand (of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry) in an online essay “The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus.”
7. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “The Children’s Crumbs“; and a 2015 version of the same sermon; and a sermon in 2018, “To Take Offense or Not, That Is the Question.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Ched Myers‘ comment above (#5 under Resources) is very much in line with Girardian insight, echoing phrases from Girardians like James Alison‘s “intelligence of the victim” and Andrew McKenna‘s “epistemological privilege of the victim.” A theme in Myers’ chapter is that white people, in the racist Euro-American culture of the past four centuries, have privilege they need to be aware of. The corollary is that People of Color do have an area of privilege, too, namely, knowing how the privileges of power are stacked against them. They have the epistemological privilege, such that white people would do well to learn to listen to them. In this story from Mark 7, Jesus models for us how to listen to the ones we deem as outsiders.
In my 2012 sermon, “Listening to the Least,” we had just concluded a summer series on the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Criminal Justice. We had concluded with the element of the Statement that I’m most passionate about, namely, racism, for which I had highly recommended for reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. But will white people listen to an African American woman on such a topic? Did we begin to listen about racism until a white man (John Howard Griffin in Black Like Me) turned his skin black and wrote about it in the 1960’s? Will we listen now if a white person doesn’t write about the new way in which we strip black people of their rights by incarcerating them as felons at rates far higher than whites? I hope that Jesus in Mark 7:24-30 can be a model for us of listening and speaking to the one we try to remain deaf and mute to.
2. McCracken asserts that Mark 7 is about responding to Jesus with offense or faith. In the first part of the chapter, Jesus’ own disciples are in tune with the fact that what Jesus says to the religious leaders is offensive to them (actually, this is in Matthew’s version, 15:12). In the portion for today, 7:24-37, his disciples undoubtably didn’t bat an eyelash at the offensive things he says to the Gentile woman.
Today’s disciples react differently. We are most offended by what Jesus says to the Gentile woman, aren’t we? (And we don’t bat an eyelash at what he says to the religious leaders.) This is the kind of passage that often offends our personal views of Jesus as someone who wouldn’t say such things. When he calls the woman a dog, we wonder how Jesus could possibly have said something so mean and insensitive. It’s the kind of passage that fuels attempts at arriving at the historical Jesus. (Sure enough, the Jesus Seminar records these words in black in The Five Gospels, marking them among the words least likely for Jesus to have actually said.) Some people simply doubt that Jesus said such a thing. Others might take almost the opposite tactic, not minding a very human Jesus, one who might have bought into the stereotypes of his people to some extent, and then he was a quick learner when the persistence of this woman taught him to be more open to the faith of Gentiles. One could even conclude with this human Jesus that the woman was his teacher. She taught him greater tolerance toward those of other faiths.
Myself, I prefer sticking with the text as much as possible and coming up with a reading like McCracken’s, which says something like, “The Pharisees are offended; the Canaanite woman is not offended. The stark contrast is revelatory, for the opposite of offense [skandalon] is faith, but the only way to faith is through the possibility of offense.” In other words, the strategy that the text seems to suggest is the same as Jesus’: that sometimes he said offensive things as a strategy to shock people into the possibility of faith.
John 6:51-58 was in this category several weeks ago, using cannibalistic language to shock listeners into the possibility of faith, into the possibility of seeing the violence in their own institutions and being willing to say to them, “Be thrown into the sea.” (Jesus’ famous saying about faith moving mountains, Mark 11:23, is often read without the demonstrative pronoun that does exist in Mark’s text: this mountain, presumably from the context, pointing to Mt. Zion, the Temple.)
3. N. T. Wright‘s thesis in Jesus and the Victory of God provides another explanation for Jesus’ seeming behavior of showing partiality against the Syrophoenician woman. Wright argues that Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet with a sense of urgency to help his people understand that their living out of their cultural symbols show partiality when God has called them to be the blessing to the nations that heals such divisions. Jesus’ remark to the Syrophoenician woman is not an example of favoritism. He is stating his urgency to turn around his own people first toward the goal of living in God’s kingdom where favoritism will will go by the wayside. Her persistence and faith change his timetable a bit. Hers is a faith that shows forth the kingdom now.
4. Jesus’ original remark to the woman refers to the Jews as “children.” Does it reflect St. Paul’s use of children in Romans 8: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21). Eschatology has a certain order to it. The rest of creation waits for God’s children to get their act together first. Jesus, as an apocalyptic prophet (per Wright’s thesis), operates with a certain eschatological ordering as well.