Let’s take a walk around Scripture. Today’s Gospel (Mk 7:24-37) tells of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and spit as a healing agent for a deaf-mute man, and what have these to do with each other. I was guided by a sermon on last week’s Gospel, Luke 4: 14-21, where Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and Jesus preaches that on this day, the day of the Jubilee, the forgiveness of all debts and servitude, has come. And it was pointed out in that sermon that the figure of the Teacher of Righteousness, a Messiah, had long been taught by the ascetic Essene community (from the Qumran cache) referring to that self-same reading from Isaiah. Rebellion was in the air in 1st century Judea, and the hope of a Messiah was the cure. When John’s disciples came to Jesus to ask if he is the Messiah, Jesus tells them to look at the signs, and the list is very like the prophecy in Isaiah.(Lk 7:22), and the predictions of the Essenes regarding the Teacher of Righteousness. Signs can be as simple as “I saw you under the fig tree,” or “He is not your husband” to another Gentile woman, but the sought after signs were those in Isaiah.
We don’t know much about Jesus’ earthly life from his childhood to his baptism to the age of about 30. Luke 2:41-47 tells of Jesus’ three days in the Temple, learning and teaching when he was 12. Although modern bar mitzvahs at 13 says a boy is now a man in his community, this is a fairly modern convention, and 12 would have been an acceptable age introduce a boy at the Temple as an adult.
It is probable that Jesus had had contact with the Essenes, if not in one of their monastic style communities, then in Jerusalem or any big town or city where some followed the Essene way as what we now call associates of a religious rule. We also know that Jesus knew Jewish Scripture, and knew it well. And the Jewish testament is full of calls for the Holy One of Israel to reach out and incorporate all people, including the people of the Gentile world (see Malachi and throughout Isaiah). And this was problematic in Jesus’ world, given that the identity of very tribal Israel was its adherence to One God and the Law. And more so now that Israel was a client state of Rome.
The big question is did Jesus know his role in Salvation history from his Incarnate birth, or did he also have to pray, discern, struggle as do the rest of us, sharing his human experience with us, as we struggle trying to hear the Holy Spirit? Once piety was the only test. Jesus was God. Jesus was as magical as he was mystical. The way we now look at Scripture, we see he did struggle. Take this cup. Why have you forsaken me? And we know he healed Gentiles throughout his ministry, and referred to Scripture where that had been done before: Elijah and the Zaraphath widow in Sidon, and Elisha and Naaman the Syrian. (Mk 4:26-27). Was he struggling with the mission of saving his people alone or also reaching out to the world? Was he struggling with his own role as the Messiah, the Christ, and what that meant?
Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile region (now in Lebanon). Jesus has faced rejection from his own. But Jesus also knew the wider, more representative world. Would they hear, or also just grasp for signs? First the deaf-mute, Jesus uses spit to heal. In Mark 8:23 and John 7:6, Jesus uses spit and mud to cure blindness. Spit was believed to heal, and modern research has indicated that spit does contain bacteriostatic agents. Perhaps not as effective as penicillin, but helpful. And certain mud, especially Dead Sea mud, is now imported for detoxifying baths. They would have been familiar to those being healed.
Back to the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus is always trying to escape attention, until his final Way to the Cross. He heads for the mountains to pray. He takes refuge in private homes. He jumps into the nearest boat, crossing back and forth to get away from the crowds demanding his help, his signs. He has become a rock star, a role he doesn’t relish. He does like people. He hangs out with those he chose, although not always all of them. He likes to visit a few friends, such as the Bethany family. He likes to go to dinner with disreputable people. They are fun. They aren’t pretentious. They are open to a new way. And he likes to verbally spar. He does it all the time with the Temple officials. Yes, it is a teaching tool, but it is also a pleasure for him to debate, shift ground, probably even pun, even with people who are trying to kill him.
The woman falls to his feet. Don’t assume. This is protocol. We are still expected to reverence the altar and stand or kneel for prayer. And she is asking for a favor. Her daughter is possessed by a demon, a nasty one, and needs to be healed. Let’s pretend we can hear a dialogue between them. Jesus: I came all this way to a Gentile city for some peace and quiet, and I am mobbed by people who want something from me. I am exhausted. (To woman), I came to save my people. Not rescue mongrel puppies. Go away. Woman: Even mongrel dogs wait under the table with their mouths open. Sometimes crumbs fall in. Now she has Jesus’ attention. She is a real person. She can spar. And she needs his help. She believes in him. And she is humble, honest, direct. She is asking in love for another. Jesus: Your daughter is healed. The demon is gone. Go home to her.
Yes, this also refers to the infinite bounty from God’s table. Yes, he doesn’t start out looking good, in fact cross (pun intended), even unfair. Or perhaps he is testing her. Or maybe he is still growing, his earthly body weary, his divine mission unfolding. Once again Jesus reaches out. Jesus heals from a distance, and that is probably worth noticing. While he treats the deaf man by touching him, this Gentile woman’s daughter is cured by Jesus’ compassion, prayer, power, and it is a sign which glorifies God.
Sometimes it takes a walk around the Scriptures, not to cherry pick, but to see Jesus’ struggles in his ministry. And ours. Do we always see the needs of others when we are tired, overworked, or limited by preconceived notions? Sometimes it is hard to hear the urgings of the Holy Spirit in our own hearts. Something to pray over. Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.