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I recently heard a pastor with decades of experience remark that the passage in Mark 7:24-30 is one of the most difficult in the Bible. “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus said. How does one defend this apparent ethnocentrism directed at a marginalized mother who is desperate to find a cure for her child?
Confronting difficult passages is, well, difficult. And the Mark 7 passage is but one of many that we or people in our congregations may struggle with. However, as I’ve taught and preached in my home church, I have discovered this very difficulty can help illuminate the Bible and our relationship to it.
When preaching to myself or to others, I often return to these three good things about difficult Bible passages:
We learn about veracity of the Bible. In other words, a difficult passage about the life of Jesus (or of any other Biblical “hero”) reinforces the historicity of the documents, because this is exactly the kind of thing writers of hagiography or fiction would avoid.
We learn about our church’s relationship to the Bible. A church leadership that routinely walks paragraph-by-paragraph through a biblical book demonstrates a posture of humility and submission to the Bible’s authority. In other words, verse-by-verse progression provides a practical demonstration of a church doing its best to simply take God at his word. It’s the difference between asking, “What does the Bible say?” and, “How can I make the Bible say what I want to say?”
We learn about our own biases. It’s important to recognize that when it comes to the Bible, “difficult” almost always means, “contrary to the norms, presuppositions, or expectations of my own culture.” No single culture or people group finds all of the Bible’s teaching attractive – not even the cultures recorded in the Bible itself! The fact that the very passage you find “so difficult” is one millions of others find “so obvious” (and vice versa) is both humbling and heartening.
This means that as students and teachers of the Bible, we don’t dodge Mark 7:24-30. We read it. We meditate on it. We discover we needn’t defend Jesus at all, at least not in the way we originally feared: compelled to “explain away” or “spin” his words with present-day categories that have nothing to do with his original intent. Instead, we discover the sum total of Jesus’ action with the woman in Mark 7 is like his action with us: offering bread (himself) that was never earned or deserved in the first place.
So before gritting your teeth or quickly scanning to the next chapter heading, remember there are (at least!) three very good things about encountering difficult passages in the Bible.