Mark 4: 27-37
Exploring the Scripture:
The two stories in this week’s Gospel reading may seem unrelated, but they are not thrown together haphazardly—they serve to interpret one another. Thus, it is important to work with both stories, even though they present challenges for the preacher.
Each story begins with locale. The Gentile woman (verses 24–30) was from Syrophoenicia, and the man who was deaf (verses 31–37) was near the Sea of Galilee. However, if we map Jesus’ route as reported by Mark, it doesn’t make much geographic sense. But perhaps it does make theological sense. To say Jesus traveled to the region of Tyre is to say he crossed the border from Jewish lands into Gentile territory—home to the historic oppressors of the Jews in the region. Here Jesus is the outsider—an important theological distinction. If each person in the encounter was typical of the area’s population, Jesus would have been poor and the Syrophoenician woman wealthy.
Whether or not the political and economic imbalances of the region played a part, we are shocked by Jesus’ harsh response to the woman’s pleas for help. In the words of Amy C. Howe, “Jesus is caught with his…compassion down” (Feasting on the Word Year B, vol. 4, p. 44). Jesus calls the woman a dog, but the woman absorbs the insult and continues to make her case. “Even the dogs…,” she says (v. 28). What must it have cost her to say this? Her daughter is worth more.
If mission begins with encounter, then this is surely a prophetic encounter. Like Jacob wrestling with God, refusing to let go until God blesses him (Genesis 32:22–32), the woman persists. Jesus, who had been focused on his primary mission—which he understood as being to his people—expresses his assignment more clearly in Matthew’s version of this story: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Could this story be a kind of conversion moment for Jesus, where he realizes the greater truth of her response and its implications for his mission? The woman’s prophetic response refocuses Jesus on his mission and opens him to its broader implications.
Having been opened himself, Jesus is now prepared to open the ears of the deaf man. In the first century—lacking understanding of the biology of birth defects—physical impairment was often viewed as a consequence of sin. Such people often held little or no status and were excluded from most social and religious institutions.
Whenever Jesus healed people, he healed not only the body but the relationship with the community as well, restoring that person to wholeness. The Lord’s Supper we celebrate today serves a similar function of reconnecting us to sacred community. Through this communal covenant, we are (re-)connected to all Christians throughout the world and throughout time. Enacting Jesus’ reconciling mission in our own time, we are encouraged to repair our broken relationships within the community when we partake of the broken bread and wine.
In their book In Heaven There Are No Thunderstorms: Celebrating the Liturgy with Developmentally Disabled People, Gijs Okhuijsen and Cees van Opzeeland point out that “Jesus deals with a deaf-mute. He takes suffering to heart.” With this simple statement we can also turn our hearts toward those who suffer from hunger on this World Hunger Day, an especially poignant reminder as we receive the bread and wine of Communion, of which, like the kingdom it proclaims, there is always enough and to spare.