Mark 7 – Jesus Christ, Reluctant Exorcist

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Today’s PassageMark 7

Is Jesus Christ omnipotent? Today’s chapter might seem to suggest otherwise, because dang if the Son of Man can’t catch a break. Following a heated disagreement with the Pharisees over traditions and hand-washing, Jesus once again seeks out some alone time, but even in the remotest regions beyond the boundaries of Judea and Galilee, trouble still seems to find him, in the form of a Syrophoenician woman with a demon-possessed daughter.

Syria and Phoenicia are decidedly in Gentile territory. Jesus is apparently looking for a place where no one knows his name; Mark tells us, “When He had entered a house, He wanted no one to know of it; yet He could not escape notice” (24). This house is in “the region of Tyre” (24) and the woman Jesus encounters there is “a Gentile [literally, ‘a Greek’], of the Syrophoenician race” (26). If Jesus is looking to get away from the Pharisees, he couldn’t have picked a better place. With their strict observance of the Torah, they’d sooner wash everything they own, quarantine themselves for a week, and have a priest kill two turtledoves for them after touching something unclean than enter a country of non-Jews.

And I’m not sure how I’m going to handle the next part. This Syrophoenician woman shows up, begging for Jesus to heal her daughter, and I don’t know what to do with the conversation that ensues. Jesus and the woman exchange a series of sayings that is honestly unlike any dialogue you or I might have today. Jesus tells the woman, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” the woman responds, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs” (27-28), and, pleased with her answer, Jesus obliges to cast the demon out of her daughter. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to translate this exchange in a way that’s intelligible to the modern reader. We simply don’t extend a metaphor like this over an entire conversation. Even in English words, the woman and Jesus appear to be conducting their debate as aliens from another culture, which, to be fair, they are.

But then there’s the content of the metaphor and what it represents. As Matthew’s account indicates, the children in this metaphor are the Jews: “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). What, then, are the dogs? All the people who are not Jews. Jesus apparently is set to deny this woman the exorcism she’s begging for on behalf of her daughter, and he’s doing so on the basis of her Gentile heritage. His daughter has a demon, and here he is calling them dogs, not even human beings. Forget “Is Jesus an introvert?”; the question of the day for this passage is “Was Jesus racist?”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to invent problems with the text or open up cans of worms for no reason. And to his credit, Jesus uses a diminutive and possibly affectionate form of the word “dog,” he says that the children should be satisfied first (suggesting that the Gentiles as well as the Jews will eventually get their share of the bread of God), and he does end up exorcising the demon. But the event still raises the aforementioned troubling questions, and it’s not how many of us would expect the Son of God to behave, apparently having to be talked into doing a good deed.

At the end of the day, no, I don’t think Jesus was racist. And others have certainly made a solid case for resolving the difficulties associated with this passage. But Mark included it in his gospel–even though, at least on first read, it doesn’t paint Jesus in the most flattering light. Mark saw fit to record it, because he’s giving an account of a real human life. It really happened, and we have to come to terms with it.

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