Genesis 2:18-25 | Psalm 128 | Mark 7:24-30 | Mark 7:24-30 (NRSV)
24 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, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
In this story, as in no other story in the Gospels that I can think of, Jesus doesn’t come off very well. At least at first. Oh sure, the woman eventually gets what she asks for, and there is a happy ending, but at first Jesus seems to me to be rude, condescending, harsh, even insulting and abusive of this woman who is concerned for her daughter’s health.
There are three possibilities here, it seems to me: 1) Jesus is initially indeed genuinely rude and insensitive to this woman who pitifully throws herself in the dust at his feet. Or Jesus is “testing her faith,” only pretending to be thoughtless and condescending, hoping to prompt from her some noble response. Or we are missing something, and he is not really being rude at all. Which of these three you choose, will, as always tell you something about yourself.
I know that the story made me uncomfortable because I was unwilling to think of Jesus as rude or harsh, as ever being anything less than perfectly compassionate and noble, as ever being in need of knowing more than he did.
I was offended by this story, that is, because I was unwilling for Jesus to be a human being. I must be missing something, something lost, perhaps in translation – that familiar escape hatch. And that opinion places me firmly in the crowd on Palm Sunday saying, “Crucify him. Crucify him” along with those who would only allow Jesus to be the kind of Messiah they had in mind. My reaction to the story told me more about me than it did about Jesus. Thomas Merton says of the bible, It is the kind of book that when you pick it up and say “What kind of book are you,” it looks back at you and says, “Who are you that is reading me?”
But I now it believe will no longer do for me to think of Jesus as something other than a human being. If he is going to be my savior, my hero, my model, then he has got to have, in large measure, a life like mine. If he exists only in some ethereal theological Never-never-land he has little offer my life except religiosity and superstition. That is not what the Christian faith is about.
So how else to understand it?
Jesus encounters a Syrophoenician woman. Notice how she is identified to us by her ethnic group and by her gender. We are not told that she is so-and-so’s friend, or so-and-so’s sister, or so-and-so’s wife. She’s a Syrophoenician and a woman. Jesus’s people had nothing to do with Syrophoenicians, except to despise them; and, culturally, not much to do with women except to keep them in them in the places patriarchal culture said they should be.
So when Jesus encounters her, he responds as his culture, among the most compassionate and moral of the ancient world, says he may: by reminding her that in this man’s world she is an outsider and not entitled to the things she asks of him. Jesus knows the rules of his people. He knows the proper religious thing to do.
But then there is the response of this woman who seems somehow to understand things more completely than Jesus and his culture do. In her pithy little statement about dogs and tables and crumbs, she makes her audacious and refreshing claim to grace. She even embraces Jesus’ metaphorical language – something the disciples are never quite able to manage.
What she says and what she believes and what she comprehends is all so bold, so insightful, and, to Jesus’s ears, so terribly beautiful. Immediately, this Syrophoenician woman, this outsider, stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd, and even the disciples must now come within her shadow.
Her faithful assumptions are strikingly simple. She knows Jesus can heal her daughter. She has, in one sense, rejected her role as submissive, and boldly struck out for justice. And yet, on the other hand, this Syrophoenician woman comes before the Savior and asks in all humility for her place in the Kingdom of God, however little a portion that may be.
Jesus is thunderstruck. She gets it. No matter how tiny she is from the Jewish point-of-view, she is willing to struggle faithfully – even with God himself – to obtain healing for her daughter. She has assumed her rightful position in the Kingdom.
She gets it, and through her bold, bald-faced claim on him, so does he. In Mark’s Gospel, at least, she is the matriarch of the mission to the Gentiles. She teaches him what it means to be who he is. This is a Jesus I can relate to. Someone who not only genuinely tries to do what is right, but can learn from others what that means; can even learn when he has gotten it wrong. I saw a saying on one of those usually infuriating church signboards which, to my surprise, I actually liked. It said, “The only serious mistake is the one you don’t learn from.”
It may shock and offend that I suggest that Jesus made a mistake. To do so is to project onto him a life free from learning from experience. It is not a sin to make a mistake. And if we are unwilling to allow Jesus to be fully human, and – within that context – to be also God’s beloved Son, then we are also unable to appreciate the magnificence of the Christian claim that God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made human. Letting Jesus be only all-knowing and all-seeing, letting Jesus be only divine and not also fully human is not Christian. It is superstitious and magical.
This all has a very important significance for people today, in our world in which children are pawns in border disputes. In which racial tensions continue to burst into flame and engender resentment and violence. This is the tribal behavior that has been going on since forever: the holocaust, the sickeningly un-Christian Christian crusades – all these are the result of looking at the world and seeing others’ differences as threatening. dirty and inferior.
Jesus walks onto the scene carrying all that baggage – all the baggage of his own culture. All the baggage of the human race. He walks onto the scene and sees a Syrophoenician woman, and he responds, first, as a man of his time. But she will not let him go. AND THEN he sees her not only as a Syrophoenician, as a dirty foreigner, but as someone’s mother, someone’s child. He steps beyond all his nation’s prejudice and exclusivity. In that moment he understands that the Kingdom of God includes all humankind. In that moment he realizes God’s healing love is for all humankind. Not just for his kind, but for her. Not just for his kind, but for you and me, because we are all his kind. Now that’s a man I can respect. That’s person I can love, and that is glimpse of a God whom I can worship, not with terror and dread, but with joy and gratitude.
Thanks be to God for an uppity Syrophoenician woman who banged on the doors of the kingdom until all of us were let in.