In this week’s gospel Jesus has ventured up into Syria and is hoping to remain in cognito. Of course, if you know much about Mark’s gospel, you will know that Jesus’ desires to work and travel under the radar never work out. There is more here, however. Our gospel reading takes place as far from Jerusalem as Jesus ever gets. He is outside of his home region of Galilee where the great majority of his work takes place. Although he comes to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he is at this point very far beyond the boundaries of biblical Israel. He is a Jew in Gentile territory.
We who worship Jesus more than 2000 years after these events tend to either forget or downplay the fact that Jesus was Jewish. His mission on earth was to Jews; during his life he restricted his followers from going to non-Jews. Jesus ate with and ministered to sinners, but these would have all been Jews. Jesus has very few direct encounters with Gentiles and we have no reason to think Jesus ever ate with Gentiles.
The resurrected Christ sends his followers to all nations to make them disciples. The universal scope of this mission, however, is always tied first and foremost to God’s redemption of Israel. The world’s redemption, our redemption is tied inextricably to the Messiah’s redemption of Israel. The one follows the other. This is why Christianity’s first great missionary, Paul, always begins by preaching in synagogues before moving to the market places.
The few Jews who responded to the gospel were outnumbered by the Gentiles within a generation. We now inhabit a church that is Gentile through and through. History tells us, however, that it is perilous for us to forget our Jewish roots, to fail to understand that the good news Jesus proclaims he proclaims first and foremost to his people, the Jews.
Remembering this gives us some insight into our gospel reading. Although Jesus is an outsider, one of the local people, a woman with a demon possessed daughter seeks him out. When Matthew tells this story in his gospel, he is absolutely clear that Jesus initially rebuffs this woman because she is a Gentile and Jesus has been sent to the Jews. That is probably true for Mark, too, but he makes Jesus’ refusal primarily a matter of timing: “Let the children be fed first.” The implication of this is that eventually others will get something.
Like each of those few Gentiles Jesus encounters before his arrest and death, this woman is out of synch with the timing of the story. The good news is supposed to begin in Jerusalem and then move to the ends of the earth. At this point in Mark Jesus is as far from Jerusalem as he ever gets. From here Jesus will move steadily towards Jerusalem and his death. Only then, in the light of his resurrection, does Jesus send his disciples out to all nations. Jesus and this woman both seem to recognize that her daughter’s needs are immediate. Her situation cannot wait, she is an interruption in the plot of the gospel, but an interruption Jesus is ultimately able to accommodate. Jesus heals this woman’s daughter and it proves to be a foretaste of the healing he will bring to all the Gentiles, while at the same time reminding us of the priority of the Jews in Jesus’ mission.