Oratio, Episode 9
WHAT ARE WE AFRAID TO CHALLENGE?
What are we afraid to challenge?
This week we will focus on the Gospel reading, and offer ways that the other lectionary sections offer commentaries on these stories.
Reading Mark 7:24-37, it is helpful to acknowledge and understand that the book of Mark, as a whole is a story of God’s desire and heart to remove boundaries. This is revealed to us in the way Jesus lives his life (touching lepers, throwing out the law when it takes away from human flourishing, saying God is available to Gentiles).
Taking this into consideration, we enter the stories in Mark 7.
First, starting in verse 24, we see the story of woman who approaches Jesus. It is clear and important to note that this woman is an outsider for various reasons: Mainly, she is approaching a Jewish man, and she is a woman, and a gentile. Some commentators also offer that she may also be from an educated upper class, and note that the region of Tyre is wealthy, is a hub of the Phoenician empire, and is not food insecure (compared to their rural Jewish neighbors, who have less access to food and experience poverty).
Still, the woman approaches Jesus. And the rest of the interaction is extremely surprising. Her request, was for Jesus to heal her daughter.
Jesus response, in verse 27, was this: “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.’”
This response from Jesus is shocking, for various reasons. Referring to the woman and/or her child as “dogs”, Jesus compare them to something that is obviously inhuman, and also something that is seen as particularly offensive within Jewish contexts; dogs were unclean and shameful.
While commentators offer Jesus as being tired and trying to get away from the crowds, and also offer the perspective that this woman was a part of a very privileged class — and therefore Jesus was responding to a request from the “powerful” — regardless, Jesus referred to the woman and her child, as “dogs”. This feels like something that shouldn’t be explained away, and we should acknowledge: Jesus’ first answer was not the right - or even the “holy” - one, even if he was testing her faith.
What’s remarkable, is the next section. In verse 28, we read her response: “But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.
The woman’s response turns Jesus’ insult on its head, and challenges it. While in the Jewish context, dogs were not allowed inside the house, in Greek/Roman contexts, they were. And so the woman responds by saying that even dogs are given food where she is from (this may also speak to a facet of privilege that Greek/Roman culture had in terms of food access, but the point broadens in a helpful way, even if this is the case).
We see that not only does the woman not go away, she also continues to demand justice for her daughter, and a recognition of their humanity.
The woman asks Jesus for a life of abundance that she’d heard he offered.
We see in the last verses of the story, that he responds by acknowledging her challenge was warranted, and that her daughter—no longer “dog”—had been healed.
What are we afraid to challenge? What are we afraid to challenge *God* on? To ask for more of? What situations have we settled into, believing this is the way it has to be?
This story isn’t to say that challenging God means that the world’s problems will be solved, or that hunger or pain or injustice will no longer be an issue, but rather that there are moments and situations where God *does* want to give us more.
God’s heart is revealed in this story, as the daughter is not only healed, but both her humanity and the mother’s humanity are restored too.
We have experienced moments where we have been insulted, and yet stayed; moments where we have not felt fully recognized or acknowledged, and still stayed to ask for better, for more.
I want to be clear that I do not believe these passages are saying every situation can be remedied by asking God for more; I think some unhealthy situations need to be left. But, what can we learn from this passage?
We can learn that there is room for us to challenge, and ask God for more. Maybe there are places we have settled, or stopped believing there was a better thing to come. Maybe God wants to bless us even more. Maybe there is more waiting, if we would only challenge the present situation.
Maybe, faith is as much about wrestling and questioning God, as it about trusting God. Maybe doubt and challenge are also a part of a faithful walk. Maybe the woman is the protagonist of our story here, and not, necessarily, Jesus.
This is echoed further in the other lectionary passages.
Psalm 146 says, “[The God] who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry…the Lord watches over strangers”.
This verse speaks to the heart of God for the abundance and flourishing of God’s people, and acknowledges the woman’s want for justice and healing of her daughter.
James 2 echoes this heart of God and in verse 14 says “What good is it, my siblings, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a sibling is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Both verses seem to offer a commentary on the Gospel passage itself, even challenging the initial response of Jesus to the woman, saying that abundance is the heart of God for God’s people. If we “do not supply their bodily needs”, then our faith is dead.
So it seems the woman’s challenge to Jesus is not only warranted, it is a step of someone who is faithful. It is the step of someone who knows God’s heart of abundance, and wants to see it. The woman asks Jesus for abundance.
This theme of abundance is echoed in the last verses of our Mark passage, 7:31-37. It is here that we meet a deaf man, whose tongue is “loosened” or “released”. Jesus heals the man, who was presumably (because of the words used to describe his healing above) possessed by a demon.
We must first acknowledge that verses like these (and worship, liturgy, and other church traditions) have been used to perpetuate ableism and to demonize differently-abled people in the church and elsewhere in society.
First and foremost: We refute the lie that the deaf community, along with communities who experience mental health issues, as people who are filled with evil, or “less-than”.
I would challenge that this story is, again, a story which shows the heart of God on full display, speaking to the abundance and equity God offers. God saw a gap in flourishing for this man - specifically from the presumed demon possession, which also cut him off from resources and society - and healed the gap attached to social and structural suffering. The man’s deafness was not a gap - as we cherish our deaf siblings in our communities, who flourish and offer invaluable pieces to our communities as a whole - but the man’s lack of access to community and resources and equity was.
**The commentary I initially read for this was found through “Enfleshed”, a resource for faith leaders I would highly recommend. The specific commentary is called “Jesus and People with Disabilities: Old Stories, New Approaches”**
The point of both of these Mark stories offered in chapter 7, is to say this:
No one is less than, and no one belongs on the margins.
This is not to erase the ways we are diverse and differently-made, but rather to flourish together while acknowledging all the difference and diversity.
Friends, Our lives are made for abundance.
What are we seeking? What have we been afraid to ask for more of? What have we been afraid to challenge God on? Where have we settled? Where do we need to push back? What do we need to leave?
Friends, you are worthy of full inclusion in the story of a God that breaks down boundaries. May you know this. May your body know this. May your soul know this.
May you push back and challenge, even God, and ask for abundance, as it was always intended.
Grace and peace be with you.