September 6, 2015 by jmar198013
Act 1: Jesus said what?!
Our Gospel reading today—the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman—makes me itchy. I have squirmed in my chair all week over this text.
I cannot for the life of me understand why Jesus would speak that way to a woman with a seriously ill child. It just seems so callous. So un-Jesusy.
This woman came to Jesus humbly. Mark tells us that she came and fell at his feet [and] begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. She wasn’t all up in his face. She wasn’t acting belligerent and entitled. She was sprawled on the floor in front of him. Begging for mercy. Not for her. For her sick daughter.
And that’s when Jesus did something incredibly ugly. He told her: The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.
Someone might try to justify Jesus by pointing out that he was only telling the woman to wait her turn. After all, he said: The children—that’s Israel, the Jews—have to be fed first. Let me do what I came to do for Israel, then I’ll take care of everyone else. There’s some biblical warrant for this idea. After all, didn’t Paul say that the good news of salvation comes to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1.16)? This woman was Greek, according to Mark. Her time was coming. Maybe that’s all Jesus meant.
That’s fair enough. It’s Israel’s turn right now. When Israel has had her turn, then everyone else can enjoy the gifts Jesus brings. We teach this to our children from the time they are toddlers.
But if that’s all Jesus meant, he chose some very poor words to express himself. Why did he have to call them dogs? For first century Jews, dog was a racial slur. It was a racist name for Gentiles. Now, you have to understand, the dogs you’d see in ancient Palestine weren’t pets. They were wild, and roamed in packs through the streets. They were scavengers, and devoured anything they could get their teeth into. They had no shame about where they relieved themselves, where they fought, where they made love. They were nasty and vicious and useless. You might tolerate a dog lounging under your table and cleaning up any scraps you dropped. But if company was coming over, you’d grab a stick and shoo them away. This is how many Jews viewed Gentiles. Wild. Dirty. No manners. No discipline. Mother has litters of puppies with different dads who never stick around. And with no one to train them, they are inflicted upon the cities and countryside alike. Loud and an unpredictable. Dangerous in packs. Dog was a very ugly thing to call a person. Especially a very sick little girl.
Some folks try to get Jesus off the hook by pointing to what Jesus said in the original language. The word Jesus used meant little dogs. Doggies. But how is that any better? Think of any racial slur you want. Then add the word “little.” Does that make it better? Does it take any of the sting away?
Someone else might offer a super-spiritual-sounding explanation: Jesus was just testing her faith. First of all, I cannot recall anywhere else in the Gospels where Jesus speaks this way to someone begging for mercy. Second, anywhere else in the Bible where someone is being tested—Abraham or Job or Jesus himself—the text always says so. But Mark didn’t say anything about the faith of this woman being tested. And finally, that explanation raises some serious issues about discipleship. Think about it. Discipleship means we pattern our lives after Jesus, right? So if we want to imitate Jesus, we should be able to insult unchurched people who come to us for help to test them. This story gives us permission to make the poor run some sort of gauntlet before we feed or clothe or shelter them. We have to know they’re really serious about wanting help, right? Hey—that would be a great way to weed out the scammers, wouldn’t it? They come and ask you to help with their PG&E bill, you call them a leech and a parasite. If they cop to it, you help them. Brilliant! I suspect—at least I seriously hope—that none of us would ever think doing something like that is okay. So if we wouldn’t be that nasty, why would we think it’s okay for Jesus to do it? Surely Jesus is better than us.
Now, at this point, someone will probably say: Yes—Jesus is better than us. That’s why it was okay for him to do this. The logic is that since Jesus is God after all, he has greater insight and wisdom and understanding than I do. That gives him the right to do things we don’t have the right to do. Like respond to a mother with a very sick little girl by calling them names. We shouldn’t do it, but when Jesus does it, it obviously serves some greater plan. We may not ever understand what that plan is, and that’s okay. It’s way above our pay grade. Someone may even quote Isaiah to support this idea: Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans (Isa. 55.9). God is too big, too awesome, too great for you to figure out. So don’t even try. Don’t question. Just believe. The problem with that answer is, it doesn’t jive with the rest of the biblical story. It’s because God is so deep and so wide and so free that we can and should ask questions. We ought to struggle with God and Jesus and the Bible. We ought to poke and prod and dig. The people of God are not a people of blind faith and unquestioning obedience. The name Israel means the one who wrestles with God. What you see over and over again in scripture is that the most faithful people—Abraham and Moses and Job and the prophets and the people who wrote the Psalms and even Jesus himself—are the ones who boldly ask big questions. Irreverent questions. Challenging questions. They wrestle with God. So should we. Anyway, the Isaiah passage that someone will quote to keep you from asking cheeky questions doesn’t even apply. If you look at the verse in context—it’s in Isaiah 55—you’ll see that it has nothing to do with people asking God hard questions. It’s about God’s willingness to forgive sinful people. When it says that his thoughts and his ways are as far above ours as the sky is from the ground, it means God is more patient, more forgiving, more merciful than we could ever dare to imagine.
That’s why it’s so jarring when this woman throws herself at Jesus’ feet; begs him to make her little child well; and Jesus replies: It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. Where do we find the God who is more merciful than we can imagine in that?
But then someone will say, Jesus knew her heart. He knew all along how she would respond. So that makes it okay? If he knew how she would respond, why not just heal her daughter and skip the whole name-calling business altogether? But then someone else might reply: He did it to teach us to have bold faith like that woman. Really now? So Jesus uses people in tragic circumstances as props for object lessons? Look, that’s a real mother with a real sick little kid. I mean, didn’t she show enough faith by begging a man who is not her people, not her race, not her religion, to do a miracle for her daughter? You seriously want me to believe that Jesus taunted a woman with a sick child for the benefit of me and you two thousand years later? Don’t you think that’s just a little self-centered?
We are fresh out of excuses, apologies, and even theology to explain why Jesus said what he did. We are still left with a story that should offend us. A mother knelt before Jesus and begged him to heal her seriously ill daughter. Jesus responded by calling them dogs.
What if you were that mother? What if it was your child?
Act 2: Jesus only said what everyone else was thinking
After all that, what if I told you that Jesus said exactly what everyone in the room—even this desperate mother—expected him to say? What if Jesus had a good idea how she would respond, not because of his supernatural mind-reading abilities, but because he had a mother, too? What if he was genuinely impressed by her wit when she said, Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs? What if Jesus was actually taking her seriously the entire time, not just putting on a puppet show to teach people thousands of years later about faith? What if this incident had absolutely nothing to do with testing the Syrophoenician woman’s faith? What if this was a teaching moment, not for her, but for Jesus’ disciples?
What if, when Jesus called this woman and her sick child dogs, he was only saying out loud what everyone else was thinking?
What if Jesus knew that there were demons lurking in his disciples’ hearts that had to be confronted and exorcised? What if the disciples had an unclean spirit that blinded them to the full humanity of people who weren’t their nationality or race or religion? What if they looked at certain other kinds of people and saw animals?
What if the disciples were actually in greater danger from their demons than the little girl? What if Jesus knew that the only way to exorcise the unclean spirit from his disciples was to show them how human this woman—a foreigner and an immigrant—really was? What if Jesus needed to show them that a Gentile could be just as good of a mother as their own Jewish mothers?
What if Jesus knew all along that being Israel’s Messiah also meant he was Savior of the world? And that would mean his disciples would need to spread the good news to Gentiles? And what if he knew they couldn’t do this until he had cast out the demon of their racism?
What if this whole thing was just as much about healing the disciples as it was healing the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter? What if Jesus was multitasking?
I know, that’s a lot of what ifs. But I want to suggest that the story gives us plenty of clues that lead us in that direction.
First, we are told that Jesus went into the region of Tyre. That probably doesn’t mean anything to us now. But to Mark’s readers, it would have been quite significant. Tyrians and Jews were longtime enemies. In the Old Testament, the prophet Joel accused Tyre of selling the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, removing them far from their own border (Joel 3.6). During the first century, there were also deep tensions between Tyre and Galilee. And of course, Jesus and the disciples were Galilean. The rulers of Galilee exported much of the food local farmers grew to Tyre. That meant constant food shortages in Galilee.
I wonder how the disciples felt about that? When Jesus said, It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs, I bet they loved it. After all, bread that should have gone to Galilean children was tossed to Gentile dogs in Tyre every day.
Jesus deliberately went to Tyre. Why do you suppose he did that?
Let’s talk about the woman with the demon-possessed daughter. Mark makes sure to tell us that the woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She wasn’t native to Tyre. She was a Syrian who spoke Greek and maybe even worshiped Greek gods. Tyre was an immensely wealthy city. What do you think a Syrian immigrant was doing in Tyre? What kinds of work do immigrants do in America now? Do you suppose maybe she was a nanny or a housekeeper or kitchen staff in the house where Jesus was staying? That would explain how she seemed to get first dibs on this stranger from Galilee who was known to cast out demons. Did you notice Mark didn’t say anything about the child’s father? Ancient Near Eastern cultures were notoriously dominated by males. But in this story it is the mother—a woman—who comes to plead for her daughter. I strongly suspect we have a single mother here. And then, her daughter is demon-possessed. I don’t think I’ve ever met a demon-possessed person in real life. But I imagine it would be the kind of illness that would cause endless interruptions in your day, don’t you? I bet living with a demon-possessed child would involve a lot of terrifying moments and sleepless nights. I suspect even on a quiet day, you couldn’t be totally at ease, because you never knew when your child would have another episode. I imagine that her daughter’s illness totally consumed this woman’s life.
So here she is, this Syrophoenician woman. A migrant worker. A single mother. With a chronically ill child.
That’s how Jesus saw her, too. But I strongly suspect that’s not what the disciples saw when they looked at her. They would have seen an interruption. A nuisance. A woman who didn’t know her place. A drain on their economy. A foreigner. A Gentile. Unclean.
I also think the woman was painfully aware of how a Jewish man from Galilee would see her. She would have known that Jewish men didn’t talk to strange women. That Jews thought Gentiles were unclean. That Galileans hated people from Tyre.
She would have known she had no right to ask what she was asking. And that every eye in the room would be judging her.
But what else could she do? What other advocate did her daughter have?
So when Jesus said, It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs, he really was just saying out loud what everyone else was thinking.
Even the Syrophoenician woman. She knew who she was. She knew who Jesus was.
I suspect most everyone in the house expected her to walk away with her tail tucked between her legs. But you should never underestimate a mother. She was the only advocate her daughter had. Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs, she says. She’s right. And everyone knows it. No one dares to argue with her.
I love this woman. She is so smart. She is so brave. She is so strong. Jesus knows this. Jesus can see this.
He wants his disciples to see it, too. He wants them to see her. A passionate, courageous, intelligent woman. A mother.
Good answer! Jesus replies. He is impressed with her spunk. Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter. The demon has already left your daughter. Do you suppose Jesus had actually healed the little girl before he said anything about children and dogs? That’s kind of what it sounds like.
Mark tells us that, When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
Thank God for this uppity woman who didn’t know her place!
Mark goes on to tell us that, After leaving the region of Tyre, Jesus went through Sidon toward the Galilee Sea through the region of the Ten Cities. This is the really long way home to Galilee from Tyre. It’s like if I was in Berkeley and I told you I was coming back to Stockton by way of Fresno. Sidon and the Ten Cities were Gentile towns, like Tyre. Jesus intentionally went out of his way to stay in Gentile regions!
Why do you think he did that?
I think it was because, unlike the demon that haunted the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, the unclean spirit of racism that his disciples needed to be delivered from couldn’t be cast out from a distance.
It had to be confronted face to face. Over and over again.
They had to learn to see Gentiles as humans, not dogs.
They had so much to learn.
They had so much to unlearn.
We all have so much to learn and so much to unlearn.
Act 3: Thank God for uppity women!
Have you figured out who I think the real hero of this story is? It’s the Syrophoenician woman. Yes, Jesus healed her daughter. And yes, I think he framed the healing by arguing with the woman about children being fed before dogs to teach the disciples something. Jesus was never one to waste a miracle. He wanted the disciples to understand that, yes—the kingdom of God is a place where health is restored and lives are redeemed. But it is also a place where people are reconciled. Where relationships are restored. Where the all the races of earth are united. There is room in the kingdom of God for immigrants and single mothers with sick children and all the people you’re supposed to hate. He wants the disciples to understand that in God’s kingdom, as we heard in our lesson from James today, Mercy overrules judgment. Every time. That’s the law of God’s kingdom. James called it the law of freedom. Freedom means being able to reach out across all the boundaries of race and gender and nationality and immigration status and who has money and who doesn’t and foster relationships. In the kingdom of God, you are free to do this. The world does not always give us this freedom. Jesus wanted his disciples to know this freedom.
The person in our Gospel lesson today who made the first move in the direction of this freedom was the Syrophoenician woman. She initiated contact with Jesus. She is the one who made the bold leap across nationality and race and culture and religion and language.
A Greek-speaking Syrian immigrant, a single mother with a chronically ill child, reached out to a man who wasn’t her people. Wasn’t her religion. Didn’t speak her language. Whose people hated the region where she lived. In a culture where a woman who wasn’t your mother, wife, or your sister talking to you in public was considered shameful. And she did it all for the sake of her daughter. She refused to stay in the place her culture assigned her. If she had, her daughter would not have been healed.
She was so brave. She’s the hero of this story. Maybe the miracle we should pay attention to in this story wasn’t Jesus healing her daughter. Maybe the miracle Mark wants us to notice is this woman crossing all those scary and painful boundaries so that her daughter could have a fulfilling life. Maybe Jesus’ role in all this was a facilitator. He created the space for the miracle to occur. He made it possible by being there and being willing. By seeing her full humanity, and responding as a human being. She told him about someone in need. Jesus responded to the need. Just like we heard in the James reading today: Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? Responding humanly to the needs of another almost always requires crossing some boundary. Some barrier. Going to some uncomfortable place. That’s what we learn from Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.
She crossed all these borders she wasn’t supposed to cross. And because she did, her daughter was healed.
Maybe the most profound and enduring and miraculous healing in our lives takes place when we don’t stay in our place. When we cross the boundaries our world has always told us not to cross.