Meeting the human Jesus

Homily for Sunday, September 9, 2018
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Mark 7:24–37


Cartoon by Art Young (1917)

Occasionally in The New Yorker—very occasionally—there is a piece about Jesus.  For example, I remember several years ago a cartoon in which Jesus is standing on top of a mountain preaching to a crowd.  A man in the back of the crowd says to his friend on the right: “’Love your neighbor as yourself?’  So, Jesus is a socialist.”  And there was the very irreverent—and very hilarious— piece by Paul Rudnick in which he imagines what it would have been like if Jesus had a wife (and from her point of view).  In “My Man,” “Melissa” describes how the two met:

Across the room, I saw this beautiful guy with gorgeous flowing hair, wearing a simple white linen tunic and swaying gently to the music with his eyes shut… I couldn’t help staring, even after Amy told me, “I’ve heard about him. His name is Jesus and he doesn’t have a job.” But then Jesus opened his stunning blue eyes and gazed upon me, and I said to Amy, “I think I’ve just discovered one of the lost tribes of Israel.” “Which one?” she asked, and I said, “The blonds.”

Such tends to be the tenor of depictions of Jesus in The New Yorker, so imagine my surprise when, back in May of 2010, The New Yorker published “What Did Jesus Do?” by Adam Gopnik, a long form piece about the historical Jesus.  Gopnik had clearly familiarized himself with the scholarly repertoire about the historical Jesus, had clearly given the matter some thought, and had clearly read the Gospel of Mark—from which we heard this morning and are hearing this fall—with a keen writer’s eye.  Of Jesus as he appears in Marks’ Gospel, Gopnik writes:

[In Mark] the human traits of Jesus are evident: intelligence, short temper, and an ironic, dueling wit.  What seems new about Jesus is not his piety or divine detachment but the humanity of his irritability and impatience.  He’s no Buddha.  He gets annoyed at the stupidity of his followers.  He’s verbally spry and even a little shifty.  He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close…  [He] has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness….  His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic…  [And] there is something neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish about Jesus’ teachings… a wild gaiety… that still leaps off the page… [and] makes [his teaching] fresh and strange even now.

Gopnik’s piece probably made the editorial cut because his depiction of Jesus is not inconsistent with The New Yorker’s decidedly secular slant that seems at best amused by Jesus and the Church.  But even a cursory read through the Gospel of Mark suggests that Gopnik is on to something.  Jesus is verbally shifty; sometimes he is short-tempered; he does have an “ironic, dueling wit.”  Indeed, we need look no further than today’s gospel lesson to see that Gopnik has a point.  Listen again to the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoencian woman:

A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit… heard about [Jesus], and… 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.

[BTW, a “Syrophoenician” was one of the native peoples of Judea, whose ancestors the Hebrews displaced when they came into the Holy Land.  There are racial tensions at play here.]

So far, so good; this story could be one of any number of other healing stories in the gospels. But then…

[Jesus] 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.”

Jesus called her a dog!  The gospel tells us that Jesus had gone into a house and that he wanted to “escape notice,” so he was probably tired and wanted time to himself and didn’t want to be interrupted.  But to call the woman a dog?!  As Gopnik writes: “Short-tempered,” “irritable,” and “impatient.”

V0034860 The Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman asks Christ to cureWhile we might be offended, it appears that the woman was not.  She did not get up and leave in a huff; nor did she get defensive and say something nasty back at Jesus.  I wonder if, given her response, the woman saw in Jesus something similar to what Gopnik sees: that this very human Jesus liked a “dueling wit,” that he appreciated verbal spryness and shiftiness, that he was a bit brash and not contained by conventional ideas of goodness.  Perhaps she saw— like Gopnik sees with his keen writer’s eye—[perhaps she saw] these very human traits in Jesus, and—not to be deterred— played it right back at him:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I have a hunch that Jesus, when she said that, is suddenly liking this woman.  Saying that, I bet that this “intelligent,” “irritable” and “impatient” Jesus recognized something, a kindred spirit perhaps, who could play to these very human traits.  For what Jesus says next is different from what he says in Matthew’s account of the same story.  In Matthew, Jesus’s response is theological and feels, at least in contrast to Mark, somewhat patronizing: “Woman.  Great is your faith,” Jesus says in Matthew.  “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  But in Mark, Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go.”  “For saying that…”  I think Jesus loved that she said what she did.  He loved that she, too, has “an ironic, dueling wit.”  He loved that she is “verbally spry and even a little shifty.”  He loved that she has a “pet style” that includes the epigrammatic.

Jesus in Mark is different than the Jesus in Matthew, where Jesus is more pastoral: “Come to me, all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Jesus in Mark is different than Jesus in Luke, where he stands in the tradition of the prophets: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… and… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And Mark’s Jesus is different than Jesus in John, where he is clearly divine and well aware of it: “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

The Gospels are all about Jesus, to be sure, and they each tell his story from a different point of view.  But the Gospels are also about us, telling us who we are, how much God loves us, and of the relationship that is possible between us and God.  And the Gospels each tell our story from a different point of view.


Mark the Evangelist

This Jesus who knocks on our hearts’ door in Mark is not convenient, he is sometimes a pain in the backside, he comes to us with all the challenges and realities of adult relationship, AND…  He accepts us—as he did the Syrophoencian woman—when we are not “convenient,” when we might be a pain in the backside, and as we come with all the challenges and realities of adult relationship.  And—as he seemed to do with the Syrophoenciain woman—Jesus enjoys relationship with us.  A relationship in which we can feel free to play it right back to him.  A relationship in which he can be himself and we can be ourselves, and in which it’s OK to be irritable and impatient, or short-tempered, or brash, or defiant.  Jesus likes to be “real” with us and for us to be “real” back at him.  Mark’s gift to us is that Mark reminds that it’s OK to be completely ourselves with Jesus, warts and all.  Jesus can not only take it; Jesus relishes it.

I invite us, as we continue to hear from Mark this fall, to be open to meeting this very human Jesus.  Why not sometime soon—perhaps even this week—go and ask him for that healing that you may be looking for?  He is there in the “house.”  Sure, he may be trying to “escape notice;” sure, it may look as though he is wanting some time to himself.  But, go, take all of who you are and go to meet him—all parts of you, even the unseemly or unconventional.  Because this very human Jesus in Mark brings all parts of him to meet us.  And the relationship that we can have with this Jesus from Mark, in which our full humanity engages his full humanity, has the power to cast out “demons” and is profoundly healing.


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