Sermon at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 6 September
6 September 2009 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Mark 7: 24 – 30
The bible is today the most widely owned book in this country. But I suspect it is more owned than read; for many, it remains on the shelf. Perhaps one reason for this is that the bible is not an easy book to read. People often approach the bible as they would any other book, starting at the beginning and hoping to work through to the end. They soon give up. The bible cannot be read like a novel and should be respected not as a single volume but as a library of books, compiled over a period of many hundreds of years. But it is a collection of books, not a series of little stories. In church we tend to hear the bible read, as this morning, in small chunks, with the effect that we fail to grasp the whole sweep and impact of the individual authors’ voices. That too might discourage us from reading the bible at home. More serious is the dilemma for many people how far the bible can be trusted. Modern biblical scholarship leaves the reader wondering to what extent the historic accounts in the bible tell us what really happened. This tends to undermine the reading of the bible by Christian believers and others alike.
These difficulties should not however deter us. To read at one sitting an individual book of the bible, such as one of the gospels, or one of St Paul’s letters, is at the very least to be exposed wonderfully to the thinking of someone who seeks to love and to follow God. The Church has always understood the biblical authors to have been writing in the power of the Holy Spirit, that the bible is the word of God, a means by which God speaks to his people. There should be encouragement here.
Modern biblical scholarship with its critical approach to reading the bible can and does solve mysteries and advance understanding. There are several interesting mysteries about the reading from the gospel according to St Mark to which we have listened this morning. Mark gives us an account of a visit by Jesus to an unusual place, the region of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, north of Galilee and not inhabited by Jews. So the first mystery is why Jesus was there. Then he tells us that Jesus goes into a house and hopes that he can stay there undisturbed, but that somehow the news leaks out. So the second mystery is why Jesus wanted no one in the region to know he was there. Then there is the interesting and in some ways extraordinary exchange between Jesus and the woman who comes to ask him to drive the demon from her daughter. The third mystery is why Jesus talks to her as he does. Then finally, there is the mystery of the healing itself: the freeing of the girl from the demon by which she is possessed.
Biblical scholarship can help unravel some of these mysteries. The first point is that the woman is not of the house of Israel but as Mark says is a Phoenician living in the then Syria. It is also remarkable that Jesus, a Jewish teacher, allows himself to be addressed by her, a Gentile woman. Luke and John include nothing of this story but Matthew recounts it more or less as he receives it from Mark, with small exceptions. He emphasises the unusual situation by having the woman call Jesus Son of David and by recording Jesus as saying that he has been called to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Matthew however does nothing to soften Jesus’ shocking response to the Gentile woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The meaning is clear the ‘children’ are God’s holy people, the Jews, and non-Jews, Gentiles, are the ‘dogs.’ Jesus proclaims himself at first unwilling to do anything for the dogs, those outside the holy circle of God’s people. Scholars argue about whether the fact that the Greek term for dogs used in the gospel is a diminutive form that might be translated ‘puppies’ makes any difference to the degree of offence. I can’t see that it does. All this changes of course with Jesus’ response to the woman’s clever remark, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” He says to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” When she arrives home, Mark tells us, she finds her daughter lying on the bed, free of the demon.
The biggest mystery of all is why Mark includes this little story in his gospel at all and why here. It seems to be dragged in from nowhere. In the first part of the chapter Jesus has been somewhere in Galilee, and, as we heard in the gospel, then he is near Tyre for this healing event. Then immediately afterwards, we are told, Jesus returns by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis. That is a most roundabout journey. He has been north-west of the Sea of Galilee, and then moves further north before travelling in a south-easterly direction passing the Sea of Galilee to the Decapolis, which is to the east of the River Jordan. This is all very strange and has led some scholars to the conclusion that, certainly at this stage, Mark’s account is not organised chronologically but thematically. In that Jesus has just been disputing with the Pharisees about the Jewish law that seems to make sense. It must be right. Other more radical scholars look to Mark’s purpose and audience in writing and come to the conclusion that he has elaborated his story to make a powerful point to them. In the life of the early Church one of the great disputes has been whether or not Gentiles can become Christians or whether the Church is just for the Jews. By the time Mark is writing soon after the death in Rome of his patron St Peter, the issue has been long settled: non-Jews can be God’s children too. But possibly some of Mark’s audience need the point reinforced. Even so, I cannot imagine Mark putting such offensive words (referring to Gentiles as dogs) into Jesus’ mouth unless he had heard from Peter that Jesus really said them. So we conclude that Jesus’ thought, understanding, even his sympathy developed. It should perhaps not be so surprising that even the adult Jesus learnt and changed.
Perhaps we shall not all agree on the solution to the mystery. Scholarship can only take us so far. Although many of the books of the bible were agreed by the 2nd century to be canonical, that is authoritative scripture, “inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” [2 Timothy 3: 16], it was only at the end of the 4th century that the canon of scripture was established. The Church teaches us to trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the process of establishing the fundamentals of Christian belief in those first few centuries. So our final stance in reading a passage like today’s gospel must be to listen attentively for God’s word to us through what we hear. And the word we can hear loud and clear through this account of Jesus with the Syrophoenician woman is that the false barriers of gender, of creed and of ethnicity should be torn down. We are all children of one heavenly Father.