The setting for these two healing stories takes place in Tyre, Sidon (in modern-day Lebanon) and the Decapolis (in modern-day Jordan) among foreign people outside the boundaries of Israel, beyond Galilee, and beyond the fight Jesus just had with the religious authorities (Mark 7:1-23).
What seems odd in this passage is that in the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, it is Jesus who seems to be the one holding back from engagement. For whatever reason, Jesus deviates from his own principles of opening the kingdom to the outsider, the voiceless, and those judged by everyone else by his dismissive tone. The Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to help her daughter, and he appears reluctant to give it. There is a bit of snark and banter in their exchange about the crumbs from the table being thrown to the dogs (Mark 7:27-28) but by taking Jesus to task, she moves him to do the right thing in healing the girl. Jesus opens himself to new possibilities and power in his ministry as he heals the girl from a distance (Mark 7:29-30). Jesus is then emboldened to heal the deaf man in the Decapolis (Mark 7:31-37); feed 4000 (Mark 8:1-10); argue with the Pharisees about their demand for a sign (Mark 8:11-21); and heal a blind man (Mark 8:22-26); all before we catch up with him again in next week’s reading where he asks his disciples who they think he is and he tells them that his mission will lead to the cross, his death and resurrection (Mark 8:27-38).
Mission trips and service opportunities have a way of reminding us of what is important when other things get in the way and cloud our focus. The gospel is always calling us beyond where we might feel comfortable to do what is right and see our greater purpose in God’s world. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – only those God loves and draws together.
While this story is about Jesus, it could easily be about us all these centuries later. When we feel uncomfortable about being stretched beyond ourselves for the sake of others, it sometimes takes a nudge from somebody to see our common humanity. Whenever we experience our inter-connectedness anew, God opens us up to new ways of being and living together. We may discover that those ‘outsiders’ we fear or try to ignore have just as much (or more) to offer us than we could do for them – but we’ll never know until we open ourselves to find out.
Jesus’ ministry is made better by engaging those outside of his regular circle of relationships. Our lives and ministry will be too.
Who are the new people in your neighborhood, school or workplace?
What is keeping you from befriending them?