This week, both the Hebrew Bible passage and the gospel lesson point to God’s concern for justice in the whole world, not just for people from certain countries.
In a rare sampling from the book of Proverbs, the lectionary reminds us about God’s concern for everyone. We are told:
Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is maker of them all. (Pr 22:2).
The generous will be blessed, for they share their bread with the poor (Pr 22:9).
Do not exploit the poor because they are poor, and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case, and will exact life for life. (Pr 22:22-23).
Jesus put these principles into action during his trips outside of traditionally Jewish territories. After his difficult sayings which cost him many disciples, Jesus left the vicinity of Galilee and headed north to pagan territory. There he encountered a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was plagued by demon possession.
True to Mark’s presentation of Jesus as one seeking solitude, Jesus entered a house and tried to keep it a secret, but he was discovered (Mark 7:24). The woman begged for help with her daughter, but Jesus said that it was not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. First the children should eat all that they want. Jesus again referred to himself as the bread of life here and said that he had come first to offer himself to the children of Israel.
The woman correctly deduced the meaning of Jesus’ hurtful saying, and responded with an insult of her own: Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. In both of their sayings, Jesus was the bread, the children were the Jews and the dogs were those outside of Judaism. The woman, in effect, was saying, “Look around you, Jesus! There are no ‘children’ clamoring to eat your bread. You’re not in Galilee or Judea. You fled. You think of yourself as bread, but what you really are is just a crumb that they children have happily let fall from the table. I may be a dog, but I’m hungry for you and willing to do whatever it takes for you to heal my daughter!”
This answer plainly delighted Jesus. He specifically cites her response as his reason for healing the woman’s daughter (Mark 7:29). Jesus had made the journey up to the region of Tyre, hoping to be left alone. But here he met a woman who bested him in trading barbs, and he healed her daughter because of her witty dressing down of him.
After this, Jesus left the region and headed down south. He crossed Galilee and kept going until he entered the Decapolis. This region was an outpost of Greco-Roman culture that was surrounded by Semitic-language-speaking Nabatean Arabs, Arameans, Galileans, Samaritans and Judeans. Jesus could not have picked a more obviously pagan location. Even here, people begged him to heal a man who was deaf and mostly mute. Jesus again sought privacy and healed the man. He did so by means of physical touching, including spitting, and deeply sighing an Aramaic command: Affatha. Mark’s gospel is certain to record the detail that it was not Greek, but Semitic-language commands that Jesus used to heal the man. Once again, Jesus put ethno-linguistic distance between himself and the beneficiary of his holy power. The man does not seem to have minded, however. The crowd even testified that “He has done everything well!”
Christians are frequently disappointed by Jesus’ actions in this pericope. It was no small thing for the Kingdom of God to be expanded to incorporate non-Jews. Jesus, like his Father, is/was partial to Israel. But he was also willing to share the bread of life with foreigners. And it was Jesus who went to foreign lands and shared God’s healing power with non-Jews. Jesus’ mission was not ever to be ethnically limited, but it does have a starting place in a specific people. Salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22). But the bread of life was and is to be shared with everyone.