by James Nieman
One of the many puzzles of the Bible is why it records the very things most of us would rather forget. You’re the chosen people of the God who freed you from slavery in Egypt. So why recall your ungrateful grumbling against that God, or your lust for foreign idols? You’re given a promised land, even a grand city for a holy temple. So why review the slaughter of those whose land you stole, or preserve the prophets’ judgment upon your behavior? Surely this unsavory history could have been tidied up a bit. I certainly hope whatever stories my descendants hear about me don’t focus on all the evil and stupid things I’ve done. But that’s just what the Bible seems to do. Even this pair of healings in today’s gospel reading simmers in a stew of hate-filled language, a heaping dish of bigotry. Bigotry? Well, let me help you smell that aroma.
Lately, I’ve been learning about something called “racial microaggression.” Doesn’t sound very nice, does it? It involves the little things we say or do to undercut others on racial grounds. Racism today avoids the blunt tools of years gone by. Even powerful white people like me recoil at scenes of segregated buses and schools, or fear tactics like cross-burning. We mostly reject attack dogs and fire hoses, truncheons and public lynching. Our racism now is more nuanced in subtle forms of microaggression. I meet someone whose accent or color differs from mine and ask where they were born, because I doubt they really belong. I utter quite personal, intrusive remarks about someone’s clothing or family as if I were speaking with a child, because I don’t regard them as smart or mature. I gladly assist those who are just like me but hesitate helping others, because I think they might just be dangerous. In these and other ways, microagressions display hostility, our not-so-veiled ways of racial invalidation. And though called “micro,” their cumulative effect is anything but small. Day after day, such aggression corrodes the soul with doubt, pits the spirit with fear, strips the heart of hope. And if you still don’t think so, then I beg you to read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates, a searing testimony to how black bodies are daily beset by aggressions, micro and otherwise.
So what’s that got to do with today’s gospel reading? Well, if you go beyond the happy endings of both these healings, you uncover language brimming with hostility, microaggressions not exactly racial but surely ethnic and religious. And though we are clueless about such signals, those who first heard Mark’s gospel would have recognized the cues immediately.
The first healing doesn’t occur in some vague locale long ago and far away. Jesus went to the region of Tyre, the major Gentile urban center just over the border in Phoenicia. In ancient times, the Phoenicians were mortal enemies of Israel. In Jesus’ day, the elite of Tyre bought up the produce that Galileans grew but could not afford – a source of grinding resentment. And by the time of Mark’s gospel, a war with Tyre had left many Galilean Jews either slaughtered or imprisoned. So when Mark said Jesus was headed to the region Tyre, his hearers were primed to hate. Then, into a private home where no woman would go alone, came this Syrophoenician – another code-word for a pure-blooded local, not mixed-race. What’s more, the original language doesn’t say she was a Gentile but “Hellenistic” – a Greek-speaker, even an aristocrat. For Mark’s first hearers, she embodied their disgust. When she then fell before Jesus in submission, they likely thought, “Good – about time!” And when he refused her request and implicitly called her a dog, they again nodded along, because that’s how they regarded her as well. It’s a story brimming with the language of contempt.
And that’s just the first healing! In the second, Jesus returns from Tyre by way of all the lands surrounding Galilee. These were foreign territories, mostly to be tolerated, sometimes to be feared, but always unclean. It’s like Jesus was on a road trip of planned contamination that would have left Mark’s hearers scratching their heads. Why bother with these outsiders? As if to confirm such bigotry, then, some locals brought what the NRSV calls “a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech.” But again, the Greek says it more hatefully. He wasn’t just deaf but κωφὸν – dull, blunt, stupid, just the insult to aim at someone who stood outside the covenant. And he didn’t just have a speech impediment but was μογιλάλον – unable to talk, incapable, because if you don’t listen to God, how can you ever speak rightly? The Native Alaskans in my second parish had the perfect word for this. The worst insult in Iñupiaq was byūsuk – someone who can’t be told, who won’t listen to the elders, and so speaks like a fool. That’s how Mark’s first hearers would have regarded this guy from over the border. He was just byūsuk – didn’t listen and so didn’t make sense. What else do you expect of a Gentile?
So once again, why does the Bible record all this hate? Why take these two healings that, until about ten minutes ago, sounded so upbeat and infuse them with bigoted language? It’s not that hard to understand. I think Mark is laying a trap for his hearers – and for us – a trap meant to surprise and shock and shake us free from a more pernicious prison. That prison is our religious hoarding. You know how this goes, and sometimes we even sing it in church: Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine… It’s a nice thought, “Jesus is mine” – but a short distance from such personalism to the possessiveness that adds “…mine, and not yours.”
Mark’s first hearers were Galilean Jews, and Jesus was one of their own. With them at last was one who knew their plight, shared their bread, healed and forgave, taught with authority. This was God’s sign of hope for them – and surely them alone. So when Jesus crossed the border to Gentile lands, Mark set a trap, told the tale in microaggressive terms, as if Jesus were indeed theirs to hoard. But when one of their Syrophoenician overlords accepted this indignity and still pleaded that even dogs deserve something from God’s table, Jesus agreed, healing her daughter with no further fuss. Mark’s hearers must have been slackjawed! Not much later, when sketchy Gentiles begged help for their byūsuk friend, again Jesus didn’t resist but acted like a full-fledged Jewish healer, opening the man’s ears to words of life and his tongue to speak good news. It’s like the end-time promise in Isaiah 35 we heard had come true: the ears of the deaf unstopped … and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. So by now, it was Mark’s hearers who were dumb-struck! How could this be? You mean Jesus is not only mine, but also theirs? It’s like a new day dawned upon them all, Gentile and Jew – and thereby also upon us.
In a world soaked with microagression, Jesus responded with microcompassion. In a way, what he did was rather small – one little girl was cleansed, one helpless man was healed. But his microcompassion also opened a new world. A desperate mother received her daughter, their household reborn. An isolated fellow rejoined his community, able to praise God. And this new world would open wider still. By the end of the very next chapter in Mark, Jesus would plainly say where all this unbounded compassion was leading – to the cross, where he received all the aggression our world unleashes that it might no longer possess anyone, blocking our ears and snaring our tongues. Through his cross, that greatest of all compassions, comes the healing and freedom we crave in our hate-filled, bigoted world. And through tokens of that cross at this table come the lavish promise to sustain us for the road ahead. As we today admit our own bigotry and contempt, then, let us also beg holy healing in this meal, with compassion for our neighbors on every side – over the border, across this city, in this place, next to you now.