Friday, May 18, 2007

Talking Trash to Jesus

In the Gospel of Mark, the most interesting characters are the women. They are pretty much the only characters that get adjectival descriptions, and they are more developed than the other persons in the gospel (save for Jesus, ‘natch), offering a great point of comparison to the traditional disciples. For though most of the women in that Gospel follow the tenets of discipleship extremely well, the 12 named disciples come across rather badly. Actually they come across as complete twits. Interestingly, Mark often uses the same Greek words for ‘disciple’ when describing the female characters in his book as the male followers of Jesus, including the twelve.

One of the best stories in the Gospel is that of the Syrophoenician woman, Mark 7:24-30 (It’s the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28, who uses Mark’s Gospel as his source for the story, modifying it to suit his different theology). This story is quite unique in the New Testament, for several reasons. Let’s go through it:

‘…From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre [some manuscripts add ‘and Sidon’ here] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she 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. He 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…’

Ouch. So that’s one unique point. Jesus tells the woman to go screw herself, calling her a ‘dog’ which is a nasty insult, especially in the language of the time. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen elsewhere in the New Testament.

‘…But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs...’

Ooooo. Snnnaaap. Yeah, OK, it’s pretty subtle especially to 21st century ears, but in the 1st century it’s pretty radical stuff, especially for a woman. Much of the ‘snap’ is lost to our ears, as the response relies on colloquialisms that have been passed through oral tradition and repeatedly translated. But still, we now have a second unique element to the story, again not found elsewhere. Someone talks back to Jesus, essentially turning his insult right back at him. But she doesn’t insult him back – instead she plays on the wording of his insult to make her own point, which I’ll get into in a bit.

’…Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone…’

And that leads to a third unique element of the story. This is the only time in the New Testament that a character ‘bests’ Jesus in a game of verbal repartee, which in all the Gospels is one of His greatest strengths. (Read any of the stories where he gets on the mat with the scribes and Pharisees.) And so a mother gets her wish, despite Jesus’ initial ‘reluctance.’

So what does this all mean? There is a traditional interpretation, along with several more contemporary ones, but they all hinge on one essential fact – the Syrophoenician woman is an outsider, an ‘other’ if you will. Reading the text one sees the descriptions about the character:

1. She is from the region of Tyre [and Sidon]. Several commenters [such as Sharon Ringe] note the language and history of the area and come to the conclusion that she is an urban elite – therefore she is rich, not poor.
2. She is a she
3. She is a Gentile, and not Jewish
4. She is ethnically different as well.

The traditional interpretation is that since, contextually, this story is in the section of Mark where Jesus brings his ministry to Gentile lands, the story is an awakening for Jesus, in that he realizes that he can and should bring his message to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Jesus, being Jewish, needs to be made aware of this idea, hence the challenge of the woman, and her effectively ‘teaching’ him [the only instance where that happens]. So the key characteristic of the woman is her ‘Gentile-ness.’

But as I’ve alluded to above, other more recent interpretations focus on the other aspects of her ‘other’-ness. Some, such as Ringe, take the position that her other-ness is her elite status, and that is what pisses of Jesus: she comes from an elite that economically persecutes the Jews. Some, such as Kinukawa, focus on a more traditional feminist reading relating to the context of the other women in the Gospel – so in that interpretation it is her gender that makes her an ‘other’.

I have noted two things from reading these different interpretations of this story. First is the common focus of ‘other,’ and the second is that every interpretation has only focused on one adjective of her ‘other’-ness. I have read no interpretation that provides equal weight, say, to her being both rich and female, despite Mark’s laying out four different descriptions of her character.

I was reading about all of this when my brother posted on his experiences in Rwanda. Reading his post, illustrated by Psalm 137, made me reflect on my own vaguely similar experience in Cambodia, back in 1995. Truly the most messed up place I’ve ever visited, back then Cambodia was a society that needed institutionalization, and all it was getting was a group of NGOs running around distorting the economy beyond the wildest dreams of Keynes. I was in one of the many half-assed memorials to the genocide, a cemetery outside of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek. I had to bribe my way onto the site, and found a bunch of cows grazing among the graves, and in the center of the site a bizarrely cheesy golden stupa filled with human skulls like from some shopping mall of the damned. What capped the whole experience was the letters written on every single skull: ‘IK’ – which are Khmer initials for ‘young Cambodian’ – and are also my own, somewhat uncommon, initials.

Cambodia’s genocide was also somewhat unique in the annals of 20th century genocide; from the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the century to Rwanda’s at the end, genocide was about eliminating the ethnic ‘other’ in a spasm of societal breakdown and insanity. But Cambodia’s was different than all the rest – there was no ethnic other in Cambodia, for the society was ethnically homogeneous. Instead the Cambodian society made its own others: urban versus rural; educated versus uneducated; religious versus secular; men versus woman; young versus old. ‘Others’ were created out of whole cloth when existing categories proved insufficient.

Cambodia’s genocide is the most frightening to me for that reason – it proves that simply working to eliminate hatred and intolerance of people in different categories is ultimately fruitless. If we eliminate one ‘other’, nothing will stop us to come up with a new one. Even Jesus needs to be taught to get past his knee-jerk feelings about the ‘other’; that doesn’t bode well for our learning the lesson as well.