by John Backman
When you think of Jesus in the gospels, what images come to mind? Maybe, like me, you think of Jesus in the way we all know and love: He has compassion on the crowds, heals the lepers, raises the dead and endures the cross, identifying with us all the way to death. As God incarnate, He is both acquainted with being human and a model for being human.
But in one extended passage from the Gospel of Mark, this comforting image goes off the rails. Starting in chapter 7, He proceeds to:
- Use an ethnic slur (7:24-30)
- Sigh under the weight of exasperation and stress — twice (7:34, 8:11-13)
- Go into a tirade over a misunderstanding (8:14-21)
- Ask a question that may indicate insecurity about His mission (8:27-30)
You don’t hear this perspective from the pulpit very often. It’s not the way I’ve read these passages in the past. But taken together as a narrative, they present a picture of Jesus considerably more unsettling than,“gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”
That picture, in turn, raises an equally unsettling question: If this is God become human, what does it say about God — or about us?
Jesus and the Price of Fame
Context first. The opening chapters of Mark deal a lot with the dynamics of celebrity. Jesus casts out one demon and heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and instantly crowds are pressing on Him. They seek Him so ardently that He can’t even enter towns. They pack His house so tightly that four people have to cut open a roof just to lower down their paralytic friend. He has a message for the ages, but communicating it is difficult in the constant crowds looking for healing and miracles. His fame draws the wrath of the Pharisees, who seek to destroy Him.
That’s enough to knock anyone off his game.
So it may explain the oddities in Mark 7:24. First, this Son of God, specifically called “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), goes to …Tyre? A Gentile city? It makes no sense in terms of His mission. But maybe the next sentence provides the key: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know He was there.” It sounds like a retreat, an effort to escape the maddening crowds so He can center Himself.
Then comes the ethnic slur. Despite His best attempts at solitude, a Syrophoenician woman begs Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He calls her a dog. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27).
Other signs of exasperation soon arise. The Pharisees ask Him for a sign from heaven, “and He sighed deeply in His spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign?’” (8:12). When His disciples realize they have forgotten to bring bread, He tells them to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Herodians” (8:15). They take Him literally, and He lets them have it: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (8:17-18)
Shortly thereafter, He asks His famous question: “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). I have often heard this passage (like the story of the Syrophoenician woman) interpreted as Jesus testing the people before Him — gauging the depth of their faith and understanding. But the ruminations of author and editor Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic have always haunted me:
“This is one of the most resonant questions in the whole of the New Testament. It is the question, it seems, of a man who wishes to disturb but who is also Himself disturbed; of a man who has somehow found Himself in deeper waters than anticipated; of a man at once baffled and intrigued by a destiny that He may have begun to glimpse but of which He is not fully aware. And thus, seeking guidance, seeking perhaps to ken the range of possibilities, Jesus put the question to His followers. It is an affecting and very human moment.”
It’s easy to assume that Jesus, being God, knew His full destiny beforehand, right up to the empty tomb. But what if Jesus, being human, couldn’t see the whole future? Or what if, at this difficult point in His mission, He started questioning what He did know?
As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes on Christian spirituality, conflict and dialogue. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart, and his articles have appeared in numerous Christian publications.