Pentecost 15B, 2003
A Liturgy is also available
CELEBRATING THE REALITY THAT PEOPLE MATTER MOST
What an interesting and different story from our storyteller Mark.
Having redefined ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in his story last week,
Mark now has Jesus putting that teaching into practice
by ministering to the so-called ‘unclean’.
Or as we might say in the classics... you can’t judge a book by its cover!
You must look beyond external factors like
religious heritage, or
social position, to get the real story.
So what do I reckon might be ‘the real story’.
As I mentioned last week, towards the end of August I was on
the Sunshine Coast in Queensland attending the
4th National Gathering of The Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia/NZ.
Special guest at the Gathering was American feminist theologian
and Catholic sister, Miriam Therese Winter.
It was a truly wonderful and stimulating experience.
And I think I told you that after participating in her presentation
‘Matthew’s story through the eyes of women’,
I decided there and then to change my name from Rex to Regina!
So, in the spirit of women’s eyes looking at and hearing this story by Mark
let me offer a couple of comments on today’s story.
The Phoenician woman’s unconventional behaviour,
which initially draws the dominant male's wrath,
by its increasing boldness, cleverness, and basic moral correctness
eventually subverts that wrath into agreement.
Jesus has already taught others that religious customs
should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need.
Now he must be taught
that social conventions should not do so either.
Mark’s story, then, is a startling one indeed.
On the surface it seems to be just another story about healing,
even if the healing seems to have been done by ‘remote control’.
But dig a little deeper, or go beyond the cover of the book,
and I reckon we will find it's really a story of liberation.
A story in which Jesus is seen to be wanting,
and where a woman becomes the lead actor in the interaction.
Now this story is so out of character with the so-called accepted picture of Jesus
that very few scholars agree that it came from the mouth of Jesus.
The author of this story is clearly the one we call Mark.
So why would Mark attempt to honour Jesus
with a story that initially paints him in a bad light?
Again, let me make a suggestion which may be helpful.
When Mark wrote this story, probably 40 years or so after the death of Jesus,
the early Jesus movement was beginning to include Gentiles.
The fact that Mark must explain Jewish customs,
as he did in last week’s story, for instance,
suggests that his readership is predominantly Gentile.
By Mark's time, his local group had gone through considerable struggles
to determine its right relationship to Gentiles.
And we already know that broadening out of the community
created enormous tensions between
so-called ‘Christian’ Jews (those considered ‘in’)
and so-called ‘Christian’ Gentiles (those considered ‘out’).
This story by Mark between Jesus and the Phoenician woman
continues to reflect that struggle in its earliest moments.
As the very popular Scottish biblical theologian of the 1940s and 50s,
William Barclay, suggests:
“Symbolically, (the woman) stands for the Gentile world which so eagerly seized on the bread of heaven which the Jews rejected and threw away.”
She stands, too, for all who have been denied ‘crumbs’
because others have been granted some special privilege.
Again, Mark is really being much more radical here than meets the eye.
So let me repeat some of what I suggested in last week’s sermon.
Faced with human need Jesus is persuaded that people matter most.
No one can be excluded.
None can be treated like ‘dogs’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘outcast’.
Mark’s story this morning celebrates this reality.
There are many in our community who know what it is like
to be shut out,
told to wait,
given second best.
And when so-called ‘Christian’ politicians (Fred Nile and others)
work to change laws to enable the church to treat minority groups
in judgmental ways or just plain exclude them,
no wonder others in our community think it natural to also treat them:
homeless - that way.
Social commentator Hugh Mackay calls this attitude ‘disengagement’. Earlier this year he wrote:
“We prefer TV programs about backyards to news and current affairs; we have rediscovered the healing power of retail therapy; we have become more self-absorbed... We’re more prejudiced and, correspondingly, less interested in information that might challenge those prejudices” (Mackay SMH-26/7/03).
As a result many in today’s society just ignore the plight of others.
Until a Phoenician woman, already with two strikes against her,
gives the ignored a voice!
Jesus, Mark says, listened to that voice.
She challenged Jesus to rise up to a new,
ethnically broadened sense of humanness.
And those voices are still to be heard, in this country and in this city,
for those with ears to hear.
On this Father’s Day 2003, as we also remember all Fathers
and those who need to be both a Mother and a Father,
whom might our ‘daughter’ be these days?
On whose behalf are we willing to step outside
the usual parameters and solutions?
As we think about and reflect on our passionate concern for others
may our efforts and imaginations continue to empower
our advocacy and compassion.