For Sept. 9, 2012: Proper 18, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 35:4-7a

In the time of the prophet Isaiah, when Israel and Judah are two distinct kingdoms threatened by the Assyrian Empire, the king of Israel joins in a treaty with another nation—but Isaiah tells Ahaz, king of Judah, to trust in God, and the miraculously good things he prophecies in today’s reading will come to pass. The references to vengeance and terrible recompense sound like odd things about which not to fear, but the Hebrew they translate can also be rendered as ‘vindication’ and ‘restoration’.

The Response            Psalm 146

The Epistle            James 2:1-10, 14-17

Today’s psalm picked up the thread of God coming to rescue those in need. The letter from James reminds us of two things. The second is that God uses agents to bring about the justice that Isaiah prophesied: each and every one of us who bear the name of Christian. The first is that the one who plays favorites breaks the law as surely as if she had committed murder. It is a challenge to square this assertion with the gospel story of Jesus initially refusing to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

The Gospel            Mark 7:24-37

 

Further thoughts

The claim in Isaiah’s prophecy that good things are coming to the outsiders and the admonition in the letter of James not to play favorites play disquietingly with today’s gospel.

As the gospel opens, Jesus is still mourning the recent assassination of his cousin John, who baptized him, he’s fairly new to ministry, and he’s been working very hard; Tyre, in Gentile country, may have looked like the place for a nice anonymous rest. Found at once, however, he initially and rather rudely refuses to heal a child because her mother is Syrophoenician. It is a troubling reading: why on earth would compassionate, generous Jesus blow anyone off with the comment, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”?

Many commentators assert that Jesus must be joking with the woman and that she must know it to respond as she does. A related interpretation is that he is testing her faith. Somehow, though, like D. Mark Davis (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/09/comparing-humans-to-dogs.html), I just can’t accept that Jesus would knowingly stoop either to joshing a desperate mother or to intentional disrespect.

What if Jesus said what he thought and the woman’s response made him rethink not only her request but the scope of his ministry? This view is not original with me: see the David Henson’s blog Edges of Faith (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2012/09/jesus-was-not-colorblind-racial-slurs-and-the-syrophoenician-woman-lectionary/), among others. It makes sense to me, though. Human beings are classifiers: we like to know what the categories are and what is and is not inside the boundaries, and we use what we know or think we know to construct parameters by which to judge. This bent is a strength of our cognition—emergency medicine depends crucially on being able to make snap judgments—but it is a weakness when our categories box us in. For the Jews of Jesus’ time, the inhabitants of Tyre were definitely Them, not Us. Second, insofar as historical Jesus is human and not just God through and through, he would have learned the attitudes of his culture just as we do, even as he had to learn how to operate one of these fleshy bodies just as we do.

This raises the prospect that what we see here is Jesus’ continuing education. I for one find this both comforting and challenging: if Jesus could listen to dissent and rethink things, then far be it from me to continue to shelter behind my own prior beliefs and attitudes. I still won’t match Jesus’ step for step on the way, of course—but I have much less excuse not to try.

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