“Be opened.” Mark 7:34
As you know, I think a lot about the different ways that scripture gets read. It’s part of my job, but it’s something I did even before I became a pastor. I’m fascinated by the varied approaches to making sense of the Bible. This morning let’s begin with two contrasting schools of scriptural interpretation.
One common school of interpretation we’ll call the “My Fair Lady” approach. “My Fair Lady” is a musical set in England which features a young woman named Eliza Doolittle. She is quite poor, but in spite of her working class background, she very much wants to be able to present herself like a polished member of high society. So she seeks the help of a pompous professor named Henry Higgins, who teaches her what he believes to be the only correct way to speak. He makes her do hours of speech exercises, like this iconic phrase: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”
That’s sometimes the way people are conditioned to read the Bible – to assume that there’s one correct way to interpret a story or passage, and someone else – usually someone with a lot of scholarly credentials or a powerful position in the church – is the person best qualified to tell you that one correct meaning.
The second approach let’s call the “Aretha Franklin/Respect” approach. The song “Respect” was written and originally recorded by Otis Redding. But his version is not the one you remember. Aretha Franklin re-recorded that song in 1967, and she made some changes. She added the spelling – R-E-S-P-E-C-T – and she transformed the song from a man’s plea to a woman to a woman’s demand for – well, respect.[i]
Aretha encountered the words on the page, but she didn’t just let someone else tell her what they should mean. She brought her lived experience as a black woman to those words, and she put the words and her life in conversation with each other. She reinterpreted the song so that it became an anthem for women’s empowerment and the civil rights movement. I mean, can you even imagine “Respect” as a song by someone other than Aretha?
That’s a different way to interpret scripture – to honor the words on the page, but to put them in conversation with our lives and with the world around us. To listen for the guidance of the Spirit as we explore multiple meanings of a text. To consider how, over time, God helps us understand these ancient stories in new ways and calls us to respond in new ways. That’s one reason Lutherans often refer to scripture as the living word.
Take today’s gospel. A mother comes to Jesus with a desperate request. Her daughter is possessed by a demon, and she believes that Jesus can heal her little girl. She begs Jesus to help.
Here’s where the story gets tough. The woman is an outsider in every way. She is a Gentile, a SyroPhoenician. She lives outside the Jewish world and does not follow Jewish law, and beyond that she is descended from people who were considered enemies of ancient Israel. Furthermore, she’s a woman unaccompanied by a man initiating a conversation with a man she does not know. And given her daughter’s demon possession, there’s also a good chance she’s been cut off from polite company for a while. No one wants a demon showing up in their living room.
The Jesus we know from other parts of the gospels would show compassion to her. He would immediately welcome her and help her. But instead he is, quite candidly, a jerk. He says: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The “children” here are the people of Israel. The “dogs” are everybody else. He not only dismisses her. He insults her.
What do we make of this moment? The “My Fair Lady” approach seeks to rationalize Jesus’ response in order to maintain that Jesus is never wrong. So the “correct” interpretation must be that Jesus is testing the woman’s faith before he heals her daughter. But when we try too hard to keep Jesus on that pedestal, we miss some other possibilities.
What if we are seeing Jesus at one of his most human moments? Maybe he’s tired and looking for break and that’s why he didn’t want anyone to know that he’s staying at this house. Maybe he’s hungry. Maybe he’s just had a fight with somebody, and he’s in no mood to be around people.
Or maybe he is a human being who sometimes gets caught in the prejudices of his time. Maybe he hasn’t yet fully grasped the implications of his life and ministry being about the whole world.
The Aretha approach calls us to bring our lived experience to this story – to see in Jesus our own capacity to dismiss those whose backgrounds are different from our own, especially when we think they’re asking too much of us. We’ve all done it. Made assumptions. Judged and dismissed a person. Thought someone didn’t deserve our time or our help.
I don’t love hearing Jesus be rude to this woman, mostly because it makes Jesus too much like me. I do love that she fights back: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She fights back, and she gets Jesus to change his mind.
Looking at the many possibilities in this story helps us appreciate it more. Whether Jesus is in this moment hungry, tired, or outright prejudiced, we remember that he is not half divine and half human. He’s fully divine and fully human. Which means that he has some things to learn. He will need at times to change his mind.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus is different in the next interaction we hear about. Be opened, Jesus says to the deaf man with a speech impediment. And Jesus sighs right before he says it, as if he appreciates the irony of what is happening. I think he’s talking about opening more than the man’s ears. Maybe Jesus is reminding himself to be open to new discoveries about the lives of the people he’s called to serve, open to boundaries he never imagined he would cross. And maybe he’s reminding us to be open to the lives of others too – so that we can also be open to learning new things and changing our minds and growing in our life of faith.
In the words of writer Debie Thomas:
Be opened. Be opened to the truth that God isn’t done with you yet. Be opened to the destabilizing wisdom of people who are nothing like you. Be opened to the voice of God speaking from places you consider unholy. Be opened to the widening of the table. Be opened to Good News that stretches your capacity to love. Be opened.[ii]
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ