Proper 18, Year B
Mark 7:31-37 - link to NRSV text
(See also the RCL reading of Mark 7:24-37)
This Sunday's gospel in the RCL poses difficulties from a variety of angles. Jesus encounters a Gentile woman who wants him to heal her daughter. He says no, essentially calls her and all Gentiles dogs, and states firmly that his mission is only to Israel. She argues with him. He then agrees to heal her daughter. What happened?
One thing that has happened in this encounter is that when Jesus answers the woman, regardless of what specifically he says he is recognizing the woman's right to speak with him. Just by making the request, she is implying -- albeit perhaps solely out of desperation -- that she has a right to claim his time and power. By arguing, she implies that she is worthy of challenging him. And by answering, Jesus affirms that she has that status in his eyes. This is a profoundly counter-cultural recognition of her dignity. But then Jesus insults her by calling her and her people dogs (and no, there's no trick of Greek translation that makes it about cute little puppies -- Jesus is calling her people scavengers of the lowest sort).
But then, to all appearances, Jesus changed his mind -- not only about healing one girl, but about his mission. This bothers a lot of people; most sermons I've heard that have taken up this aspect of the story have suggested that Jesus really knew all along that his mission was to Gentiles as well as Jews, and that he was only pretending to think otherwise to help the woman increase her faith, or to further demonstrate his power, or some other reason.
Personally, I find this reading offensive as well as unconvincing. If Jesus changed his mind, then Jesus can't be the kind of eternally changeless "unmoved mover," to use Plato's phrase, that a lot of people present God as being. But if Jesus didn't change his mind and was just saying things he didn't believe so that he could accomplish some other end, then Jesus is a liar -- and a pretty cruel one at that, since the poor woman is clearly worried about her child.
And besides, who -- besides Plato -- says that Jesus isn't allowed to change his mind, to learn something he didn't know before? Learning is part of what it means to be human, I'd say. Try to turn Jesus into someone who knew everything and could do anything from day one and you'll quickly get drawn into fairly silly speculation about how Jesus could have spouted the full Sermon on the Mount (and in any language to boot!) on the day he was born, but faked being able to talk only like the baby he was -- perhaps so he wouldn't give away his secret identity, a la Clark Kent's having to hold back from running at full speed on Smallville. That kind of speculation is evident in some of the later gospels outside the Christian canon, but it's not in any of our canonical gospels, which consistently portray Jesus as a real, honest-to-gosh human being who as a baby needed his diapers changed and who, like the rest of us, learned to walk and talk and function by playing and otherwise interacting with his mother and other people.
In other words, Jesus had to learn words and speech when he was a child. As Luke puts it, "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom" (Luke 2:40). Jesus changed, not only getting taller and physically stronger, but learning things he didn't know before. If that idea is offensive, it's the offensiveness of the Incarnation, of the idea that God could dwell among us in the flesh. Human beings aren't born knowing and doing everything they will ever be able to know and do. They learn and grow, and in particular, they learn and grow in relationship. Jesus did too -- all his life, as human beings do. Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that part of being made in God's image means that we become more fully ourselves in relationship. Knowing others and loving others changes us, teaching things we didn't know before and helping us to grow into the fullness of our identity and vocation, and our capacity to grow in relationship comes from a God who experiences that too.
I know that doesn't fit in very well with that picture of God as an "unmoved mover," never experiencing a change of mind. But that picture is Plato's far more than it is our bible's. Our scriptures are full of stories of human beings trying to change God's mind. We call it intercessory prayer, and scripture shows it as working at least sometimes -- God is moved to show mercy, to act in deliverance because someone asked. Observing that raises a great many problems of theodicy, among other things, but there it is, scattered throughout our canonical writings anyway. And gosh, I'm glad it's there.
I'm glad because it is a wonderful corrective to our human tendencies toward arrogance and hardness of heart. Why should we listen to someone else's view on a matter of importance when we already know what the scriptures say, what those words mean, and therefore what the truth of the matter is? If any had the right to that kind of posture, it would be God. But if we take our scriptures seriously, we have to allow the possibility that God too is changed in relationship. That may sound radical, but I find that radical message in our scriptures, as God is moved after observing the destruction wreaked by the great flood to say "never again," and hangs God's bow -- God's weapon -- in the sky as a sign of God's permanent swearing off of such moves. God -- the one Plato presents as "unmoved mover"-- is MOVED to mercy, and makes a covenant of mercy with all of humanity.
Is it so radical, then, to think that Jesus, God's agent, might also be moved by his encounter with a Gentile woman seeking healing for her daughter? I don't think so -- and if I were preaching this Sunday on the RCL, I'd probably be preaching something along the lines of this: Thank God for people who aren't willing to take "no" for an answer -- even or especially "no" plus Godtalk, a particularly potent combination -- from powerful men, but who will push for compassion and mercy. They prove to us that even God isn't the sort to say, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." They teach us something that we would have gathered anyway had we been paying attention when Jesus says, "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" and makes clear that the "perfect" he means isn't about stasis in a "right" position, but compassion toward righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48). They teach us that no one should be so certain s/he's right that s/he cannot make room to listen, and to listen in a way that allows us to be changed by what we hear. They teach us that God is love, and it's a very poor lover who is eternally unmoved by her or his beloved.
So when Jesus encounters a man who is deaf and therefore mute -- someone who is unable to listen and therefore was unable to learn to speak -- Jesus is very well prepared.
"Be opened," he says. He says it not only with compassion for someone who has suffered, but also with the authority of one who has experienced that of what s/he speaks. That is, after all, what the persistence of the Gentile woman said to him when he was deaf to her cries and therefore unprepared to speak of God's love for all peoples. "Be opened" -- and Jesus was.
Thanks be to God!
Susan: I just found your website and read your reflection on Mark 7:31. You've helped me understand a little something about why Jesus didn't know everything from the start: that God can change God's mind. I've been struggling my believing after reading Borg and Spong. They've made me believe God isn't personal or interested but you have given me some hope that isn't true. Thank you.
Posted by: Bob | Sep 9, 2006 7:55:23 PM
Sarah: I do apologize for the wrong name. I was just so excited by your thoughts on Mark.
Posted by: Bob | Sep 9, 2006 8:07:45 PM
Sarah... Over the years, I have encounter this passage a number of times. But this time around, you have given me new insights and inspiration. I come from a culture where arguing with authority figures, such as parents / elders, are not acceptable.... let alone God!
The 'ah-ha' for me are:
- A God that is willing to listen to intercession is one who is in touch and relevant in today's society.
- If we, as humans, are not allowed to question and dialogue with God on what we are taught and take no for an answer... how do we know for sure that we have correctly discerned God's will? We are human after all ;-o
Thank you for your inspiration.
Posted by: Paul | Sep 10, 2006 9:08:16 AM
Thanks for your reflection on this passage, rather unusually i read your post after having prepared my own sermon on it and was amazed that I had come to a similar place to you - particularly as the possibility of Jesus having made a mistake or changed his mind seems to freak people out! I find it so positive and affirming of what it means to be human, to learn and grow, to move on, to change if we can only believe that Christ was really like us and that in taking human form God somehow invested a new meaning in what it is to be human.
As always, thanks for your post, I'm sure you put it much better than i did (in case you are interested, my own reflections are at http://fracme.blogspot.com/2006/09/be-opened.html
Posted by: Alastair McCollum | Sep 12, 2006 6:47:58 AM
Thoughtful, helpful work. Thank you. btw, I think you mean Aristotle, not Plato, Though they shared some similar ideas about God, it is Aristotle who developed the idea of the "unmoved mover."
Posted by: Gordon Schultz | Sep 9, 2012 6:54:33 AM