This summer I’m playing with the book of Mark every week! Check out my original post about why I’m studying Mark, and Mark 1:Authority, Mark 2: Avocado Toast, Mark 3: So You’ve Left Fundamentalism…, Mark 4: Our Patch of Earth, Mark 5: What is Your Name?, and Mark 6: WWJD! What Could Go Wrong?
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Hey, I was taught that the Justice Of God is just not something that you question.
I grew up going to John Piper conferences and reading “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards in my high school American Literature class.
I learned how to argue down someone who wondered if predestination was “loving” by telling them that their notion of “justice” and “love” was broken. Even if God’s justice looks and feels cruel, we just gotta swallow it. Our definition of “love” must be wrong.
Never talk back to God about His just will. The New Calvinists and the Bro Reformers told me that if you ever look at God and say, I don’t think You’re being Just right now – we are always, always in the wrong.
Because the central virtue of fundamentalism is submission.
Don’t ask questions.
Do as you’re told the first time, without talking back.
If your heart comes in conflict with your understanding of God, silence your heart.
And submission is such a central part of being religiously conservative that it gets read into Bible stories that frankly have nothing to do with submission at all.
When I sat down with some commentaries on Mark 7, I was struck by one that claimed that it was the “submission” of the Gentile woman that saved her daughter.
Take a moment and re-read this story.
A Gentile woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus turns her down. His mission isn’t for the Gentiles, he tells her, and he uses some pretty harsh metaphors. The Jews are the children. The Gentiles are the dogs. Dogs can’t eat until the kids do. The Gentile woman agrees with Jesus’ thesis that she’s a “dog,” but she parries that dogs don’t just get the leftovers, they eat what falls off the table, too. Jesus tells her that because of the answer she gave, her daughter would be healed.
I don’t know if I would ever have the courage to theologically cross swords with the Messiah. But that is exactly what this woman does. When Jesus says no, she doesn’t skip a beat. She uses his own logic to prove that His justice could be bigger and His healing could reach out further.
She bumps into the justice of God, and instead of backing down, she takes a breath, and talks back to God.
Hey, Jesus, my daughter is sick, and she is going to die, and I am not going to take no for an answer.
Hey, Jesus, you have a fancy theological reason why you won’t heal my daughter, but I can do theology too, and I’m not going to take no for an answer.
Hey Jesus, you wanna swap logic with me? I can beat you at your own game, because I’m desperate.
Hey Jesus, when you say no to me, I’m not going to nod wisely and accept this. I’m going to prove to you why you should heal my baby girl. I’m not afraid of you. I’m not afraid of talking back.
Anyone who reads this passage and sees “submission” as the ultimate virtue here isn’t reading the text carefully. Or the whole Bible carefully, actually.
Let’s travel through Scripture. Hop in my Biblical Tardis and let’s go on a Talking Back to God journey this Tuesday, yeah?
Genesis 18. On a hill, outside a terrible and violent city. Our brother Abraham stands before God and barters with God for human lives. Abraham barters with God for the city of Sodom. God said that God is going to burn it down. But Abraham has other ideas.
“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
“Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty?…
Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”…
Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”…
Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”…
Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, Abraham says, a little sassily, a little carefully, watching his back, choosing his words with care. And when God says “I will spare the city for” fifty, Abraham starts bartering, like my Italian grandma at a yard sale.
“Will you sell the chair for $25? $21? I mean, look at the binding on the back here, it’s practically worn to the bone, it can’t be worth more than $19. I’d have to put so much work into a reupholster, it’s not worth more than $17, really, I’m doing you a favor by giving you $15.”
“50 men? What about five less than 50? What about 40? OK, so if there are 30 righteous men? What about 20?… Can we go all the way down to 10 righteous men? What if there are only 10 righteous men?”
Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, I won’t take no for an answer.
“But she answered him – sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
But she answered him, that doesn’t sound just to me.
But she answered him, I won’t give up my own moral compass just because God said so.
Exodus 32. On a mountain, again. A sinful and selfish people, again. Our brother Moses stands in between God and the Hebrews and won’t take no for an answer.
“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’”
Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” – Exodus 32:9-14
Leave me alone, God says to Moses.
But Moses doesn’t leave God alone. (Can you imagine? Can you imagine God telling you to “leave me alone” and you just keep talking?)
Lord, says Moses, why…
Thousands of years go by. Jesus entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman…
The Jewish tradition, the Christian tradition, tells a strange story of a God that can be hunted down, and argued down, and convinced to turn His head towards us.
Our tradition tells us of a God who values our persistence, even and especially when our persistence means talking back.
Our tradition tells us a strange story of a God whose authority isn’t undermined by our willingness to go into hand-to-hand combat with the Divine.
And sometimes hand-to-hand combat isn’t just a metaphor. Sometimes when we wrestle with God, we wrestle with our whole bodies.
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”…
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” – Genesis 32:24-30
But Jacob replied, I will not let you go.
But Jacob said to his God, to his God’s face, you aren’t getting away this easily. You aren’t just walking away from this fight. I won’t let you go.
I’m here to wrestle for my blessing, and the blessing of my people, and the life of my baby girl, and the salvation of this town.
Oh, and I haven’t even touched the Psalms yet. I totally skipped Job and his New Calvinist friends. I haven’t even brushed up on my Prophets. I haven’t gone to the widow and the unjust judge. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the wealth of questioning and talking back that our Bible holds.
Y’all fundamentalist kids gather round.
You little girls who were told in Sunday School not to “talk back.”
You little boys who were told to sit still and listen.
You high schoolers who were told not to be “smart aleks.”
You college kids who went home for Thanksgiving and weathered the panic and anxiety from fundamentalist family who thought you were “losing your Jesus” because you didn’t accept Creationism anymore.
You Intervarsity kids who got sat down for coffee for “refusal to submit” to your leaders about theological questions of sexuality.
You young women in your churches that forbid you to preach and tell you that you aren’t fostering a “gentle and quiet spirit.”
To my questioners and doubters and talk-backers and wonderers and to all of those who don’t take no for an answer. To you who had the audacity to believe God when God said “Come, let us reason together.” To you who had the audacity to believe that God isn’t bothered by our refusal to take no for an answer, even if our pastors and leaders and Sunday School teachers are.
Look at this audacious, bold, clear-eyed woman, walking up to Jesus while he’s trying to escape notice. Look at this woman who not only talks back to Jesus, but argues with him, proves a point, takes his own logic and finds a way that her and her daughter can fit into it.
Fundamentalism lied to us.
Fundamentalism told us that God wanted us submissive before anything else.
Fundamentalism, and the New Calvinists, and Bro Theology, told us that if we read something in the Bible that feels unjust, or see something in our tradition that seems harmful – that we’ve just got to submit to what we feel is cruel, because God’s divine power and glory sometimes means that people get hurt and crushed by the wheels of the chariots of the Divine as He passes through.
That ain’t my Scripture, y’all.
I type this and I tremble.
I feel how weighty this is. I feel a little bit the terror of the unmooring of a set and settled God who does not change God’s mind, whose ways are above our ways and whose justice is always correct.
I type this and I wonder what to do with God’s decisions – before humans demanded something more just. I am really, really worried about those decisions, y’all.
I am not sure what kind of a theology we build around a God who sometimes needs to be convinced to be just. (Wait, is that a sentence I can write? Wait, do I believe that?)
(Wait, have I written myself into heresy)
Welp, maybe I have.
But fundamentalism taught me to be so afraid of being wrong that I didn’t say things out loud. It taught me that wrestling with God was sinful.
Well, maybe I’ll break my hip in the process of wrestling for justice with my God.
But my Scripture tells me that when we talk back to God, God saves cities, and God heals little girls, and God passes out blessings in the night.
So no, I won’t sit quietly and submit to the injustices of imperial Christianity and Reformation theology and theology that demands that women be silent and queers be repentant and indigenous peoples be collateral damage and people of color be condescended to and then silenced and then killed.
Perhaps I’ll end up being wrong.
But my God will wrestle with me all the way.
And my God is a God who doesn’t punish me for talking back.