From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
My sermon from the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 9, 2018) on Mark 7:24-37. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
One of the problems with relying on GPS and the map on our phone to get us from point A to point B is: we don’t always know where things are. We might know how to get to places – like, how to get to school, work, church, and our favorite restaurant. But we don’t carry in our heads a map of where those places are in relation to everything else. We, instead, keep driving straight until our phone tells us to turn right or left. The first verse in our reading from the gospel according to Mark sounds like an instruction we might give to the GPS in our phone. Jesus was preaching, teaching, and healing around the Sea of Galilee – the area he grew up in. But Jesus wasn’t going to stay there. He moved on to Tyre. Tyre is a city mentioned many times in the Bible, first appearing in the book of Joshua as a city destined to be controlled by one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Yet that was always a dream instead of reality. Tyre was first Phoenician, then Greek, and – in Jesus’ day – Roman. So….on that map in our heads displaying all the different places mentioned in the Bible, where’s Tyre? Because Tyre’s spot on the map helps us understand why Jesus compared a woman to a dog.
The image up on the screen is a map of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan during the time of Jesus. Near the bottom is the Dead Sea with Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron on its right. At the top of the Dead Sea, we see the tail end of the Jordan River. So if we follow that river north, we travel through Samaria and end up at the Sea of Galilee. This map is pretty great because it zooms in on the area around Galilee, showing us Nazareth, Capernaum, and Cana. We see where Jesus was and where those places were in relation to everything else. Our mental map of Jesus’ world has Galilee in the north, Jerusalem in the south, and we follow Jesus as he travels down the map. But in today’s text, Jesus goes a different way. After spending time around the Sea of Galilee, Jesus didn’t go south. Instead, he turned north, traveling towards the coast of the Mediterranean Sean and entered the city of Tyre.
Tyre, as see in this current satellite view, is a coastal city and a major port for the country of Lebanon. Tyre is also old, established almost 5000 years ago, and the tip of the current peninsula was once an island, surrounded by thick walls and supported by a strong navy. The island was joined to the mainland by Alexander the Great who built a causeway to the island to capture it. By the time the Romans occupied the city, Tyre was a wealthy metropolis, with a thriving culture that was very Greek. The Romans built a massive race track, large fortifications, and many temples – leaving behind ruins that can still be seen today.
Tyre wasn’t a Jewish city. It was very Greek and very Roman. I imagine, when Jesus first entered the city, he saw its diversity: including its many pagan temples and a harbor filled with ships and sailors from Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. As a Jewish rabbi with an entourage of Jewish disciples, Tyre wasn’t the place where Jesus was supposed to be. In fact, Tyre was in the complete opposite direction – literally, culturally, religiously, and politically. So that made Tyre the perfect place where Jesus could hide, letting him live anonymously by being absorbed into the diverse community that lived there. We don’t usually recognize Jesus as someone who hid from the world. But the Son of God needed a sabbath too and the gospels are full of moments when Jesus withdrew as a way to refresh and recharge. Yet Jesus’ sabbath never lasted long. Even in a Greco-Roman city far from Jerusalem, Jesus couldn’t hide from his reputation. A woman with a daughter suffering from a spiritual and physical ailment, tracked Jesus down. And when she entered Jesus’ life, everything changed.
The unnamed woman was Syrophoenician and a Gentile – which is Mark’s way of letting us know she wasn’t Jewish. She was as Greek and as Gentile as she could possibly be. And since she was a gentile woman, Jesus wasn’t supposed to talk to her. She would have expected this meeting and conversation to be improbable if not impossible. Yet her daughter was sick. And the syrophoenician woman believed Jesus could make her better. So in a city Jesus wasn’t supposed to be in, a woman who wasn’t supposed to believe in him – came to him. And as she knelt at his feet, begging for her daughter’s life, Jesus’ compared this desperate mother to a dog.
Jesus wasn’t saying that she was loyal, brave, and loving like our favorite pets are. Jesus called her a dog, a slur common in his time and in ours. He’s completely rude to this mother looking for help. We might want to defend Jesus, saying he didn’t really mean it or that he was testing her faith. But if we keep Jesus in context, letting this almost impossible situation – where a Jewish rabbi in a Gentile City is talking to a Gentile woman who isn’t supposed to believe in him – than Jesus’ heated and un-savior like response makes a little more sense. That doesn’t excuse what he said and no woman should ever be called a dog. But Jesus, in this very human interaction, listened to her – and he responded by appealing to the limit of his mission. He didn’t see himself as a savior or a teacher or a healer while in Tyre. He went there to hide; to, I think, not-be-Jesus for just a moment. Yet this unnamed woman refused to let Jesus limit who he was. And, to Jesus’ credit, he listened to her. He heard what she said. And Jesus let her win this argument – because he knows she’s right. In an improbable place, during an improbable conversation, an almost impossible thing happened – Jesus opened himself up, fully embracing what being Jesus actually means. He’s not here to save only some people. He’s here to love, serve, and save the world. Jesus is Jesus – everywhere and always. And he responded to this deeper understanding of who he was by heading north to another Gentile city – to Sidon – before turning south to the region of 10 Greek cities known as the Decapolis. And there he healed a man who was deaf and mute, inviting everyone to open up to what’s possible with God.
As human beings, it’s not easy to understand who or what we are. The mental map we carry of ourselves, where we came from and where we’re going, isn’t always as clear as we think it might be. A challenging experience, an unexpected obstacle, a setback of our own causing – all of that can unravel our plans, our expectations, and our understanding of what makes us, us. We might want to escape, to go to a place where no one knows us, so that we can recharge and restart our lives. But, like Jesus, we bring ourselves to any place we go. We can’t run away from ourselves. Yet the syrophoenician woman reminds us that we are more than we think. We are the beloved and baptized ones of God. Wherever we go, Jesus goes too. And he isn’t only on the side of the select few who believe the right things and who’s faith never falters. Jesus is for all of us – including those who get lost no matter what map or GPS they use. We’re invited to open our eyes to what God is doing through us, because we are the improbable people in an improbable place sharing an almost impossible thing to believe and hear: that God’s kingdom of peace, love, hope, and wholeness includes even you.