Proper 18(B): Humility and Jesus

Proper 18(B): Humility and Jesus

Mark 7:24–27

By: The Rev. Charles Cowen

In my days working in the professional theatre, there was an apocryphal tale actors loved to share about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. During the filming of the film Marathon Man, Hoffman showed up to the set looking sickly, weak, and sleep-deprived. Olivier looked at his costar and asked if everything was ok. Hoffman replied that since his character, at this point in the film, had been awake for 72 hours, he, too, had stayed up for 72 hours. Olivier, in his droll English dialect, replied, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

This story always will make an actor laugh because we know first-hand the incredible power of imagination and empathy. Many Hollywood types get caught up in political debates and demonstrations because they spend their days imagining what it is like to be someone else–what  it means to be the other.

Perhaps more than any of the Gospels, Mark invites the audience to imaginatively walk not only with Jesus but with those whom Jesus encounters.[1] In today’s lectionary selection, we are given the opportunity to imagine two encounters with Jesus. Through these encounters, we, along with our first-century siblings, come closer to knowing the living God in the person of Jesus.

In the first story, I cannot help but place myself in the shoes of the Syrophoenician woman. I do not have children, but I have worked closely with children as a teacher and as a summer camp chaplain. The deep, deep love I have for those children gives me a tool for imagining and empathizing the fear, despair, and sadness a parent must feel when their child is threatened. This woman, who has heard the many stories of Jesus casting out demons, healing withered hands, and feeding over 5000 people, approaches Jesus in her desperation and begs for healing for her daughter. What parent wouldn’t? Every time I hear this story, I am jarred to my core at Jesus’ response: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27 NRSV).

Ouch!

Not only does this pain me as I imagine the children in my life whom I love, but it pains me as a 21st Century American who has heard our leaders refer to immigrants and their children as animals. Just as those who have sworn to protect our country see children of foreign birth as somehow lesser-than, Jesus, a Jew, here sees this Gentile as something lesser-than.[2]

Then something truly miraculous occurs. This incredible woman out of her love, her fear, her desperation, teaches Jesus—Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Son of God (Mk 1:1)—teaches Jesus a lesson about humanity.

Can you imagine the embarrassment of hearing a mother reply to your callous comment, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28)? We, the listeners of this story, are invited to consider the bravery and lovingness of this desperate mother while we also consider the humanity of Jesus as his arrogance is transformed into humility through an honest encounter with another human being: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (Mk 7:29).

As if this story does not already give us enough to imagine and reflect upon, we then immediately get another story where Jesus heals a deaf-mute. Just as the Syrophoenician woman speaks for her child, this man’s friends speak for him. Jesus, performing all the motions that healers of his time would have performed, does what other healers were unable to do—he loosens the man’s tongue and unstops his ears.

I invite you to undergo the same imaginative practice we underwent with the Syrophoenician woman with this man, with his friends, and with Jesus. It is a practice, simple in principle and powerful in deed. Congregations can be taken on this imaginative journey through preaching or in small-group Bible studies. As a matter of fact, this imaginative practice is exactly what we do when we participate in the remembrance of the Last Supper through the sacrament of bread and wine.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). These familiar words are absent in Mark’s Gospel, perhaps because the entirety of Mark’s Gospel is an extended anamnesis—a sustained remembrance of who Jesus is and what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus, truly human and truly divine, brings with him truth of the coming of God’s new kingdom. Its unfolding brings healing and freedom not only to a specific people in a specific time and place, but to all people. Jesus himself learns this through the prophetic voice of the Syrophoenician woman and lives fully into it through his healing of the deaf-mute.

I admit freely that Year B brings me much joy. The theatre artist in me loves telling this story given to us by Mark. I love imagining alongside my parishioners and friends as we remember Jesus’ life and we remember the life of the Markan community. As Mark reminds us in the opening line of his Gospel, this is “good news” that cries out to be shared. How will you and your faith community remember these stories, empathize with its characters, and spread that love and empathy throughout God’s emerging kingdom?

[1] For an excellent resource in imaginatively engaging with Mark, I highly recommend Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel by David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie. 3rd Edition. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012).

[2] Please do not read anti-Semitism into this. The point is that humans are always looking at ways of categorizing others as “other.” I imagine a Gentile would have the same suspicion of a Jew.

Cowen Headshot
The Rev. Charles Cowen

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church and Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish in Wilmington, Delaware. He received his M.Div. from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, and prior to seminary was the Associate Director for the Marley Bridges Theatre Company in Newport, Rhode Island. In addition to his church work, Charles has worked as a playwright, actor, improviser, puppet builder, puppeteer, storyteller, director, comedian, and Emcee.

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