Nicknames have a way of sticking, whether you like it or not. This story goes back three summers ago when my wife and I were in Michigan for the bridal shower of one of her nieces and the baby blessings for two other nieces. This, naturally, led to frequent extended-family get-togethers, both casual and more organized. By nature I’m not the most boisterous person you’re ever going to meet, which means that I tend to be among the quieter folks at these family gatherings.
At one of those frequent family affairs the then three-year-old sister of one of the babies blessed at the end of our visit commented off-handedly to her mother, “Why is Uncle Rich just sneakin’ around?” Now, let me say at the outset (in my best Richard Nixon voice), “I am not a sneak!” I just tend to be fairly quiet; that’s all. No matter. It’s now inscribed in family folklore that I’ve become Sneaky Uncle Rich. All thanks to a three year old. Scratch deeply enough and I suspect your families are like this, too.
Although I know I’m not a sneak, and my in-laws will (I hope) admit in their more candid moments that being sneaky is totally out of character for me, it just goes to show that sometimes narratives take on an unexpected and inexplicable life of their own. The Gospel writer Mark offers an equally unexpected and inexplicable story about Jesus in this week’s lectionary passage:
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” –Mark 7:24-37 NRSV
This is not the only place where Jesus tells folks to please just shut up about what he’s done–and, of course, the more he protests the more quickly they’re sharing the latest gossip. Jesus was as unsuccessful in keeping these encounters quiet as I would have been to quell my new “sneaky” epithet (yes, I didn’t even try, knowing full well it wouldn’t do any good, and instead tried to find the humor in it all).
This Markan passage is one of those places in the Bible where we need to resist the urge to delve too deeply into possible meanings for every little detail. It’s more appropriate to look for macro-understandings, I think, than micro-details. What matters most here is that when confronted by the needs of gentiles, children, and the disabled Jesus (eventually, reluctantly?) saw to their needs and healed their infirmities. By doing so he transcended his cultural/religious background and upbringing.
Perhaps, considering the oddness of this story, this was not an easy thing for Jesus to do. We don’t know why Mark wrote the account this way (keeping in mind that the Gospels were not written as journalistic accounts), but he did. Just as, in the end, Jesus did what he did. Everyone was worthy of Jesus’ attention and healing touch. That is a worthwhile lessons for us in the 21st century, as well.
*Adapted from a 2012 ForeWords blog posting