The stuff under our tables

Week of Sunday September 6 - Pentecost 15
Gospel: Mark 7:24-37

24 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, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.' 28But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 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. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

There is always stuff under the table. There is always more driving us than we realise. We are never as free as we think. We think we have a handle on what God is saying to us and then discover the painstakingly swept floor of our dining room is littered with ungodliness. We sweep out the mess of our minds and, like the floor of our house, crumbs, dirt and unidentifiable stuff is soon visible again.

It happened to Jesus. He had learned about the priority of mercy and compassion over tradition. We see this in Mark 7:1-17 and the story of handwashing and food. He had learned the priority of mercy and compassion over status and position. We see that in Mark 6:21-43 as he interrupted the mercy mission to the daughter of Jairus the leader of the synagogue and healed a nameless woman. He had learned about the humanity of women. This masculine document lists the lifting up of women omen from sickness and death. (Mark 1:30, 5:34, 41, and then in this reading.)  

Then, in a moment of attempted relaxation he discovers how much more he has to learn. He calls a gentile woman a dog— as you did— and she calls him on it.

There's no getting away from this. All the attempts to remove his racism at this point are a tacit recognition that his attitude to the woman was racist. We are all racist. It comes with being human. The issue is what we do with our racism.

In the recent Adam Goodes booing controversy multitudes of Australians treated Adam Goodes like a little black puppy who needed schooling:

Dear Adam Goodes.. I am going to stick my neck out where very few media people do cause is deemed as very “dangerous” ground. I do not believe that you (sic) recent situation you find yourself in is a racist issue at all despit (sic) what the media is saying. I think it HAS been made in to a racist issue by the media and partly by yourself. … Andrew Cosi Costello

Jesus simply "took it on the chin" and changed his attitude. David Henson puts it well:

Jesus, given his embedded culture, could not be colorblind. And neither can we.

But being caught in such evil, however, does not make one an overt racist. It is what happens in the moments afterwards that makes that determination. How we respond, when confronted with the narratives of the oppressed, reveal who we truly are. Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them? Continue to brush them aside as dogs? …

… Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into the unfortunate privilege of dominance or prejudice. He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.

The reason we so often want to deflect the charge of racism is that it makes Jesus look bad. I say elsewhere that

For those who worry about Jesus tempted as we are but without sin (Hebrews 4:15), it is in this action that Jesus' sinlessness shines. Learning something of himself, something new, he immediately puts it into action. He is no hard core racist. He is not reluctant to abandon his preconceived notions. Called to account by God, he responds immediately. Will we respond this well?

He is a model for us. His is not a perfection we cannot reach; he is someone who is humble enough to grow. We can do the same.

The story does not have Jesus doing a quick media apology which sweeps up the offending mess under his table.  Instead, he goes further north to Sidon, deeper into Gentile territory. Then he goes home the very long way round, through the Decapolis, the Ten (Gentile) cities. This man internalises what he has learned and puts his house in order. He does everything well. In the next story in Mark he repeats the feeding miracle, but this time, for Gentiles. Mark emphasises this in chapter 8:

18'Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ 20‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ 21Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’ 

And before that repeat feeding miracle, Jesus does all the other miracles he has done in his own country in the gentile Decapolis, casting out demons and healing the deaf and dumb. The Gentiles see his power and "acclaim… the fulfilment of biblical prophecy which saw such healings as evidence of the last times,"

 On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.  (Isaiah 29:18)

He has done everything well because he treats them as human beings equal to himself, not as Gentiles.

But being human, Jesus needed to go home and relax. And under the table he found yet more crumbs. His eyes and ears were opened to more he could be, and more which he could stop being. When this happens to us, will we follow him on the way to more change, or will we have "eyes but fail to see?" (Mark 8:18)

It is always embarrassing. Who wants to be found wanting? I use the old communion prayer "we are unfit to gather the crumbs from under your table" with some care, because there is a bruised and shattered part of us which needs no telling, and no more reinforcement, of our failings. But what will we do when we have been loudly and proudly booing,  and been told that we are wrong? And have realised that we are indeed wrong?

To do all things well is not to be some ethical overachiever who is always right. To do all things well is to accept that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) means there is always mess under our table— everyone's table.  

Having the mess exposed is painful, but it is also opportunity for healing. It opens our eyes to the hidden things driving us and opens our ears to the unrecognised voices pushing us. Healing from these things comes not from hiding the mess by insisting that we are right. Healing comes from acting on the unwelcome insight, and from facing the pain of changing ourselves.  

Jesus was told he was kicking the child under the table. He stopped. He took pity and healed the woman's daughter. He gave her, and her mother, a place at the table of God's compassion. This "place at the table of God's compassion" is not rhetoric. It is deep life changing activity which makes Jesus Jesus. It heals him. It is part of his wholeness, part of his repenting and going God's way. For he creates a "place at the table of God's compassion" by going further north, deeper into Gentile territory, and on into the Decapolis, healing Gentile people. And "in those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat…" (Mark 8:1) he repeats the feeding miracle for Gentile people.  It is that thoroughgoing change which means they could say, "He does all things well."

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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