"Damas y Madres" – Mark 7:24-37
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 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.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
I was a Spanish major in college. As part of my major work, I became enchanted with the country of Chile. My first introduction to Chile was a documentary featuring a group called las Madres de los Desaparecidos--the Mothers of the Disappeared. These women, these madres, were moms and wives whose loved ones had been disappeared during the military coup.
It was these madres who had the courage and fierce love to raise their voices in protest at the disappearance of their loved ones. They didn’t have any political standing or connections in high places, and they didn’t have a whole lot of financial resources, and the madres agonized over how to speak truthfully and forcefully the injustice of what had happened to their lost loved-ones. They finally settled on telling the story by using something they already knew how to do, and to do well. They created traditional tapestries like this one, called an arpillera. Usually, arpilleras depicted colorful scenes from daily life:
The arpilleras the madres made featured families at the dinner table with a conspicuously empty chair
scenes of soldiers seizing unarmed civilians,
and crowds of black-clad women holding a banner asking “Where are they?”
I was young, and I was idealistic, and it seemed to me that these madres were humble, righteous, and brave. And these madres became the heroic face of Chile.
I marveled at how they faced tragic circumstances with grace and grit. I admired them for their courage, and wanted to have the same hunger for justice they had.
Back then, if you had read me this passage from Mark, it would have been one of those madres that I imagined throwing herself before Jesus asking for healing for her daughter. And it would have broken my heart to hear Jesus insult her by comparing her and her afflicted daughter to unwelcome dogs.
Maybe you’ve had the same problem with this story. Here’s a woman who’s desperate, right? She’s scared to death about her loved one, and she’s come looking for help...and all Jesus does is sneer at her, call her a name, and deny her request. Could this really be something Jesus would say? Is this how the Son of God treats this humble, righteous, suffering woman?
Because of what I’d learned about Chile in college, I ended up studying there as an exchange student in 1994. When I got there, the women who offered us our orientation to the elite Catholic University we would be attending bore no resemblance at all to the madres whose heroism and courage I had admired from afar. These were proper ladies, damas as we called them in Spanish.
The grammar of the damas was as impeccable as their manicured nails. Their hairstyles were as in fashion as their tailored clothing. Both of the damas lived in Alto Las Condes, a super-wealthy district on the north side of the capital. When we as students asked the damas about the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and the deaths and disappearances that accompanied it, the damas laughed dismissively and said: You don’t understand. Pinochet was a hero. Our way of life would be completely impossible if he hadn’t made the difficult decisions that needed to be made. To our astonishment, the damas, in their fur coats and designer heels, were not the least bit sympathetic to the people who had been arrested, tortured, and executed. For the damas, the disappeared were irrelevant, and the grief of las madres was simply the collateral damage required to maintain the high standard of living to which the damas were accustomed.
So, Chile, it turns out, is a country with both madres, poor righteous women demanding justice, and damas, rich privileged women accustomed to getting their way.
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, whether the same was true in the Gentile territories Jesus is visiting in today’s story? Does it change our reading of today’s story if the woman who enters the home where Jesus is staying is more like one of the diva-like damas rather than one of the long-suffering madres? What if, for the sake of argument, this Greek syrophonecian woman is part of the social and financial elite? There are some clues in the text that would suggest this, including the fact that she is idenitifed as Greek, which the upper classes spoke, as well as the fact that her daughter is reclining on a bed, a real piece of furniture, rather than the mattresses that would have been the common sleeping surface.
If this is true, What if we imagine her striding into someone else’s home and advancing to the front of the line because that’s where she’s used to being? What if she doesn’t even have to assert her privilege? What if her privilege is so ingrained that it has become invisible to her? Just like at the market, people part to let her pass. Just like at the local restaurant, where every wait person in the place scrambles to find a place in their section for her to sit. Everyone knows who she is, and how many resources she has at her disposal. And it matters. To everybody in the room. And so when she enters and bows respectfully to Jesus and implores him to help her ailing child, no one can believe their eyes. Here’s a high-society dama, bowing to a traveling Jewish preacher! And the only one who isn’t impressed is Jesus.
“Sorry,” Jesus says, “Take a number. I’m sort of busy helping these people I care about, and low-lifes like you aren’t really at the top of my list.”
The whole place gasps. Does Jesus have any idea who he’s talking to? Does he not care that one word from this dama could undo his ministry in this whole county?
It’s a tense moment while she assesses the man who’s just insulted her. She collects herself, and says “yes, but even low-lifes get scraps from the soup kitchen!”
And suddenly, Jesus is moved. He’s seems genuinely impressed with her humility. And in that moment, a miraculous transformation occurs: in that blink of Jesus’ eye, the dama is transformed before everyone’s eyes into a madre! She has counted the cost and decided that the well-being of her daughter is worth the risk to her own reputation, that securing her daughter’s wholeness is more important than maintaining her social status. She has stepped down from her pedestal, stooped from her high place. She has acknowledged her need...for Jesus.
Now here’s what I suspect. I suspect that we’ve all got a little dama in us. We’ve all got streaks of vanity. We’ve all got some area or other where we enjoy a privilege that we’d just as soon not name out loud. Even we pastors aren’t immune. How many of us have gotten a discount on some good or service from somebody who just loves “taking care of the preacher?” Or gotten to sit at a place of honor at some important event because the prefix Reverend is attached to our name? And it’s not all just public privilege either--the stuff that’s obvious to everybody. What preacher hasn’t gone on vacation and attended a worship service only to walk smugly out of the service thinking: “At least I preach better than that guy?”
Y’all know, don’t you, that story about the Methodist preacher’s kid who went to the nearby Lutheran college? Turns out chapel was mandatory. And when he came back home for Christmas break, this preacher’s kid had all kinds of things to say about how the Methodist Church he been obliged to attend all his life didn’t measure up to the fine liturgical tradition he was being exposed to at college. His father listened patiently as the son noted how the Lutheran pastor crossed knelt to pray and made the sign of the cross afterward. And how the coffee served at the Lutheran coffee hour was fair-trade, Equal Exchange AND rainforest certified! It was the coffee Jesus himself must have drunk! And oh how he went on about how the Lutherans used real wine in their service instead of Welch’s grape juice. The poor Methodist preacher took about as much of his son’s wisdom as he could, until finally, at Christmas dinner, he couldn’t help himself. “Lord,” he prayed aloud over the family meal, “thank you for coming to us as a little child. Thank you for forgiving us. Thank you for the promise of heaven. And if you decide in your wisdom we Methodists are not fit for heaven, Lord, at least take us as far as the Lutheran college!”
No matter what we wear, no matter our salary or our social status, we can always identify someone who’s beneath us. Someone we can be thankful we’re not. And by the end ofthis story, at least as I’ve imagined it, no one in that house that day wants to trade places with this humbled, humiliated woman.
And that is precisely the moment that Jesus looks with compassion upon her at her and grants her request. Jesus says yes to the powerful woman who has bent low. He says yes to the mother whose love has triumphed over her ego. He says yes to the dama who, for love’s sake, has become a madre.
And isn’t that reassuring, for those of us who are damas to one degree or another?
I tell you one other thing I’ve become convinced of. Just like we all have a little dama in us, we’ve also all got some madre in us. And yes, guys, I’m talking to you, too. We’ve all got losses, wounds, sufferings. We’ve all endured injustice of one kind or another. And we’ve all cried out to God asking for things to be set right. For the tumor to shrink. For trust to be restored. For kindness to uproot cruelty. We all yearn for what is broken to be made whole.
And when we do, we look up and there is our merciful Judge, Jesus. Whose word, we are told, is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit...able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
And even the crumbs from our Lord’s table are sufficient to restore us. Even the hem of his garment is enough to heal. How gloriously good it is that we have the honor of feasting as children--Sunday after Sunday, week after week, season after season! Come, then, beloved children of God. Come Damas! Come Madres! Feast at the table. Receive the broken body that promises wholeness to all!