“Jesus- the boundary crosser”
Sunday 9 September 2018
Today’s gospel reading starts with the intriguing phrase , “Jesus set out and went away”. Where was he setting out from? To find out the answer to that question, you have to go back to Mark 5.53 where we are told: “When they crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.” Gennesaret was located somewhere on the north west shore of the Sea of Galilee – also known as Lake Gennesaret. While we don’t know exactly where Gennesaret was, we do know that it was on the shores of the Lake Gennesaret and, therefore, very much in Galilee – Jewish territory.
So the gospel reading starts by telling us that Jesus set out from Gennesaret, in Galilee, and went to the region of Tyre. Now Tyre was on the Mediterranean coast, well north of Galilee, in the region known as Phoenicia. In other words, Jesus was going from Jewish territory to gentile territory. The movement is significant.
We are told that he went into a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. This makes sense in the light of what has preceded this trip. Back in Galilee, just before he commenced this trip, he had been swamped by people wanting him to heal them. He had been engaged in heated controversy with the Pharisees. He had been teaching his disciples in private what the controversy with the Pharisees was all about. In short, he wanted a break.
But “…he could not escape notice” we are told. A woman with a daughter who had an unclean spirit heard about him and begged him at his feet. Here is the action of a desperate person – significantly, a woman. Significant, because it was not culturally appropriate for a woman to approach a man, especially in such an extravagant fashion. Even today, it would be startling in our culture to see a woman cast herself down at the feet of a man in such a desperate way.
We are told that she was a gentile, a syrophoenician. She begs Jesus to cast the demon from her daughter. Jesus’ response seems unusually harsh, referring to the gentiles as dogs. It seems that he did not at this time see his mission as being one directed to gentiles. It seems to be the very reason why he went into gentile territory and tried to find solitude in the house. He didn’t think that he would be required to do anything in the gentile world. But here was this insistent woman.
Her famous response to Jesus’ rebuttal: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” has often been seen as being almost a smart alec reply. Although, when Jesus says: “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter”, it does not necessarily mean that he was rewarding the cleverness of her reply. Perhaps he was acknowledging her undying faith in him. Perhaps he heard her saying that Jesus had more than enough for all and that he did not need to limit himself to the lost sheep of the house of Israel as he suggests in Matthew’s account of this incident.
True to his word, the woman returns home to find that her daughter was released from the demon that possessed her.
This incident portrays Jesus in a very particular light. It places him in the role of a boundary crosser. What do I mean by that.? I mean that Jesus is shown to be willing to ignore barriers in order to be true to his vocation as the Messiah, the bringer of the kingdom of God to the earth.
Firstly, Mark makes it clear with his location pointer at the beginning of the account that Jesus was leaving Jewish territory and entering into foreign land. Geographical boundaries cannot hold him back.
Secondly, Jesus allows a woman to ingratiate herself in front of him. Instead of ignoring her and sending her away, he engages in conversation with her. And might it be suggested that the conversation is that between equals? Jesus crosses over the boundary of gender and does not assume the dominant place that would be usual for a male in that time and place.
Thirdly, Jesus engages with the woman knowing that she is a Syrophoenician. We should not ignore the fact that the various ethnic groups in this part of the world had been engaged in bloody wars against each other for centuries. The relationships between the different ethnic groups was certainly not cordial, but rather full of mutual suspicion, mistrust and downright hatred. So, in this episode, Jesus crosses over an ethnic boundary.
Fourthly, the woman was a gentile. How remarkable that she, a gentile woman, was prepared to seek help from and engage with a Jewish teacher in whatever way was necessary to achieve her purpose. How remarkable that Jesus was prepared to extend his healing ministry beyond the religious divide between Jews and gentiles. Again, Jesus was prepared to cross over theological boundaries.
And so, in this episode, we see Jesus as the one who is prepared to cross over geographical, gender, ethnic and theological boundaries in order to make the Father’s kingdom present. Nothing could stop him from pursuing his mission. He is prepared to do what it takes to proclaim the good news.
Such determination to be true to vocation stands as powerful example to us who claim discipleship of Jesus. By our Baptism, we are entered into Christ’s body, the church, and we are called to share in Jesus’ ministry of bringing the good news to the world, of proclaiming the kingdom of God.
What boundaries do we allow to prevent us from being true to this calling? Do we allow geographical boundaries to prevent us from working for the kingdom in the parts of the world where it is in most need of proclamation? Do we allow gender stereotypes to affect our willingness to see every person as made in the image of God? Do we accord to all Christians the freedom of Christ which knows no gender? Do we allow latent racist attitudes to cloud our assessment of the value of those who belong to ethnic groups other than our own? Do we use our understanding of our religion as a weapon against those both within and without the Christian community?
These are some of the questions that Jesus as the boundary crosser poses to us? They are the sorts of questions that challenge us at the very heart of our claims to be followers of Jesus?
It is only with the Holy Spirit’s help that we could ever hope to face up to and answer these questions with the mind the Christ. Let’s pray for that assistance:
in whom we live and move and have our being:
You have made us for yourself,
so that our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
Give us purity of heart and strength of purpose,
that no selfish passion may hinder us from knowing your will,
no weakness keep us from doing it;
that in your light we may see light clearly,
and in your service find perfect freedom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen