In the Talmud, there is a story of a group of rabbis arguing over the status of a particular clay oven. Is it clean or unclean? Rabbi Eliezer stands alone against the interpretation given by his fellow sages, and he begins to call upon nature to confirm him.
A non-Israelite woman (in Mark, a Syrophoenician; in Matthew, a Canaanite) approaches Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter. Jesus replies that it is improper to give the “bread of the children” (Israelites) to the “dogs” (gentiles). The woman responds that even the “small pups under the table” (Amplified Bible) eat the crumbs that fall from the table. After this brief repartee, Jesus tells the woman to go home because the demon has left her daughter. In Matthew, Jesus informs the woman that the healing was a result of her faith (Matt. 15:28), but the Markan Jesus simply says, “Because of this answer [logos, literally “word”], go; the demon has gone out of your daughter” (Mark 7:29, NASV). It is not just her cleverness that Jesus admires; it is the word (cf. Mark 7:13) that she proclaims, the word that the mercies of God should be made available to the gentiles now and not at some point in the distant future. The scene is illustrated in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a devotional book of hours made by the Limbourg brothers in the early 15th century. The upper panel depicts the woman pleading with Jesus, who has turned away from her; the woman’s possessed daughter is visible through a window on the right. In the lower scene, the woman is still pleading on behalf of her daughter (now out of view), but now Jesus offers a gesture of consent and healing—the reward for a desperate mother’s persistence.
Mark has been a constant puzzle to me. I didn’t much care for it for a long time. His sense of urgency and spareness of narrative left me feeling I was reading the Cliff Notes of scripture. That began to change a few years ago when I took a hard look at whether Mark was as immediately this and immediately that as I assumed.
On September 9, when many of our members return from Labor Day vacations or summer travels, the gospel text from Mark and the sacrament of communion might be a powerful combination to welcome folks back to the gospel-centered community.
Whether she knows it or not, the Syrophoenician woman’s reference to the table is a persuasive image for her audience. The table stands at the center of Jesus’ ministry.