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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

September 9, 2018

The Gospel According to Agatha Christie

Mark 7:24-30; Ephesians 3:5-13

            Rowan Williams wrote recently, “I would venture to guess that the people we would least like to spend a long time with are those who have answers to every question and plans for every contingency” (The Christian Century, Aug. 29, 2018, p. 28).

            Or, as the seven-year-old girl in the movie Gifted put it to the math professor she had to correct, “Nobody likes a smart-aleck.”

            I wonder if the Lord Jesus Christ didn’t feel just a little bit of this in the midst of his brief but blazing conversation with that woman whom Mark describes as a Gentile, of Syro-Phoenician origin. She seems to have a retort for every volley he lobs at her. It’s unprecedented in the New Testament, this foreigner jousting with Jesus so well that in the end, he says, basically, “Huh. Well, okay.”

            You could miss it if you’re not listening carefully, but it’s there when you compare Mark’s version to Matthew’s. In Mark’s version, Jesus says not one word about the woman having “faith.” In Matthew’s version, the woman is reported to have worshiped Jesus.  In Matthew’s version, Jesus says to the woman, “Great is your faith.” But not in Mark. And Mark, most scholars conclude, is prior to Matthew, more original. In other words, Mark felt no need to project onto that foreign woman anything beyond the original encounter. Nobody likes a smart-aleck, maybe not even Jesus himself; and Mark frequently is content to just tell it as he sees it and not add commentary.

            So she said to Jesus, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” and he said, “For saying that, you may go – and your daughter is cleansed.”

            Eugene Peterson quotes a philosopher Gabriel Marcel, who “insisted that we have to choose whether we will treat life as a problem to be solved or as a mystery to be entered.” I find myself stuck today between those choices, represented by a persistent woman who managed to get Jesus to solve her problem, and Mark, who recounts the story, who recounts the story without much in the way of clues to understand what it means. And the history of interpretation of this story is all over the map, including more recent interpretations that dare to say that Jesus doesn’t understand his mission to the Gentiles until this bold woman teaches him. To me, that seems inconsistent with the narrative that Mark creates.  I’m inclined to think that Mark intentionally leaves some rough edges, some gaps, some puzzles to draw us in.

            Are you a fan of mysteries? My father was. His bookshelves were filled with Agatha Christie books. It’s a passion that I did not inherit from him. I don’t doubt that there is something immensely satisfying about the form, about something amiss happening, and clues being presented, and plot developing, while you the reader try to solve the mystery.

            Maybe it isn’t books, but television. Maybe you are like my wife Anne, who is a huge fan of those true-life mysteries you get almost every night of the week on shows like Dateline. (My own name for the show is Deathline.) Somebody always dies, and the producers weave together the narrative in a way that hooks you, makes suggestions to you but then rules them out, and hopes to sustain the tension until the very end, surprising you with the solution. It’s very satisfying.

            I got to thinking about this because in the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses the term “mystery” several times. “You have already heard … how the mystery was made known to me by revelation … the mystery of Christ.”  “…Grace was given to me … to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”  Is the Gospel like an Agatha Christie novel, or an episode of Dateline? Is it a fascinating plot with clues along the way to heighten the suspense, with a great unveiling at the end that solves the problem?

            That might make sense, given what else Paul says. “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit….” This covenant story of God’s creating and redeeming love has been unfolding, but God didn’t share everything at the beginning. God saved something for the later chapters.  Maybe the Gospel is like an Agatha Christie novel, and maybe the Apostle Paul, and the other apostles, were like Christie’s great detective, Hercule Poirot. They solve the problem and share the solution with people like me, who have no more problem-solving ability than Inspector Clouseau.

            But I think Rowan Williams was on to something when he said, “I would venture to guess that the people we would least like to spend a long time with are those who have answers to every question and plans for every contingency.” Hercule Poirot the detective is a stupendous solver of mysteries while being completely insufferable. No one likes a smart-aleck. So Williams suggests something else, an approach to life different from treating it as a problem to be solved. Maybe it’s the same approach that Mark adopted.  Williams says, “A growing humanity, a maturing humanity, is one that’s prepared for silence, because it’s prepared at important moments to say, ‘I can’t domesticate [this], I can’t get on top of this.’” He means that at important moments in life, when we come face-to-face with God, the best we can do is keep silent. When some foreign woman verbally duels Jesus and he concludes with, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter,” maybe the best we can do is report the facts and let them stand on their own.

            For instance, do you remember that man born blind, the man Jesus healed by spitting on the ground, making mud, and spreading it on the man’s eyes? He told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam, and when the man came back, he could see (John 9). The Pharisees got involved because they had some sort of vendetta against Jesus. They interrogated the man, they interrogated the man’s parents, and they interrogated the man a second time. They refused to believe that people were meeting God in the person of Jesus. So they said, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” And the formerly blind man said, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know – once I was blind, but now I see.”

            Maybe a growing humanity, a maturing humanity, is prepared for silence, prepared to say, “I don’t know everything. I can’t domesticate this. I can’t master this. It is what it is.”

            Jesus healed the child of a foreign woman. She begged and he insulted her. She wouldn’t give up, but used his own metaphor and turned it around.  So he said, “Hug. Well, okay.”

            Ever since the Pharisees, people in authority have tried to domesticate the Gospel. Read the Book of Acts to see how the earliest Jewish Christians got nervous about sharing table fellowship with Gentile converts. See how some tried to make the Gentiles first become Jews so that then they could become Christians. Or, read the Book of Revelation for an account of what the Roman Empire did from time to time, when it got worried about followers of Jesus not giving sufficient loyalty to the state. Or, read the newspapers today about the church in China, how the government has gotten very nervous about Christians there not giving sufficient fealty to the party and the state. This, after a period of liberty that saw churches built throughout the country. Churches now are getting bulldozed while Christians are being intimidated and interrogated.

            People get nervous in the presence of God, and one gut instinct is to try to domesticate God. So one of the callings of the Christian church is to resist that instinct. It is to refuse to try to domesticate God. So Mark sets a good example. He just tells it as he sees it, and resists trying to explain it. And the Apostle Peter did, too. He was minding his own business, praying on the roof one day, when he got this odd vision of animals descending from heaven, and a message “Rise, kill, and eat.” Peter resisted because he was a kosher Jew, but the voice said, as persistently as that foreign woman, “You must not call unclean what I have declared clean.” And so Peter agreed, and then went to the home of a foreigner, Cornelius, to preach the gospel. Because, who was he to argue with God? And the apostle Paul, in the midst of persecuting Christians, got struck blind on the road to Damascus. “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.” And for three days Saul couldn’t see, and didn’t eat or drink.

            Sometimes, the best a person can do is keep silence before the mystery. Williams likens it to “the silence at the end of a really good play or concert, the pause before the applause starts. There’s something about that silence that says, ‘I [shouldn’t] wrap this up too quickly. Let’s give that little bit of extra space to allow it be what it is and not rush to react.’”

            That sounds like a good strategy for the church. Let’s allow the Gospel to be what it is and not rush to react. The first Jewish Christians could not fathom that God would welcome Gentiles into the household of God. They rushed to react, trying to get Gentiles circumcised and following the food laws. But Paul and the other apostles received a revelation, even though, Paul said, “I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ….” And look what happened. It started with a foreign woman begging for a blessing: “Help my daughter.”

            At the end of the day, who could argue with that? I hope you still make that plea, yourself. I hope you haven’t become too tired, too cynical to make daring requests of God, to risk offending God with your persistence. Jesus told a parable about a woman who pestered a judge so much that the judge finally gave her what she wanted. And Jesus said, “Pray like that.” So, pray like that. May the whole world pray like that. “Jesus, help us.” If you’re Christian or even if you’re not: “Jesus, help us.” It’s not necessarily a declaration of faith, if Mark is accurate. It is a witness to persistence. It’s not a promise that you’ll get whatever you ask for. It’s silence before the mystery that sometimes Jesus gives people exactly what they ask for. It’s certainly not assurance that God can be domesticated, kept within the comfortable bounds of our expectations. It’s testimony that God is doing far more than we could predict. God has a plan that he is carrying out in Christ Jesus our Lord.

            There is one more detail that Ephesians offers that is fascinating: God’s plan in Jesus and in the church is to show something to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Whatever those authorities are, whether they are angels or demons, or tyrannical governments who try to squelch the gospel, or even longtime members of the covenant family, God’s plan is to show them his wisdom in the form of the church. It’s Jews and Gentiles. It’s people who speak English and people who speak Chinese. It’s a universal family that defies every form of division that evil powers try to concoct in order to breed anarchy. Who are we to argue with God?

            Eugene Peterson says that, as a matter of fact, the books we call mysteries “aren’t mysteries at all.” In fact, they are “problems that always get solved by the last page.” So, if he’s right, then Agatha Christie was a red herring.  The Gospel isn’t solvable if you are a good enough detective. It’s a real mystery, a God thing, and God is more wonderful and gracious and powerful than any human being could begin to understand. And Jesus is always showing up in foreign lands, and people are begging him for blessing, and sometimes he says “yes.”  Who could argue with that? So while you’re at it, why not take a cue from that foreign woman, and make your own plea? “Help my son.” “Help my daughter.” “Help those poor people.” “Lord, help us all.”


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