Mark 7: 24-37
We’re drawing close to the middle of Mark’s Gospel and Jesus has been hard at work, constantly at work. Jesus has been burning the candle at both ends and now he and the disciples are going to get away from Galilee, away from the crowds, away from expectations, away from the call to minister to others—if only for a second. The group heads north into Gentile territory, the region of Tyre, which is modern day Lebanon. We hear how Jesus enters a house, an Air BnB, in an attempt to have some down time. But, even here, in this foreign land amongst foreign people, Jesus’ reputation precedes him. He cannot escape the demands for his healing power.
A woman enters the scene, a gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin, and she will steamroll every conventional barrier to have an audience with Jesus. It makes no difference that she is impure, that she is a gentile—one who is not part of the tribes of Israel, it makes no difference that she doesn’t follow the Law of Moses or that she is a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. It makes no difference that she is a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or a male relative. It makes no difference.
She has a sick daughter, and that’s all that matters to her. She has a demon possessed daughter, and she will stop at nothing to pursue the chance to make her well. Right now, Jesus is that chance, at least from everything she has heard. But despite her moxie, the woman is an outsider, at least for Jesus and his disciples, and Jesus actually has the nerve to tell her that to her face. He does not mince words.
When she falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to heal her daughter, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” There’s only one way to interpret those words; the children are the people of Israel, and the little dogs are everyone else.
That’s a cold response right there. That’s harsh. Disturbing. Why would Jesus say such a thing? Some scholars say Jesus is quoting Jewish folk wisdom, but that doesn’t lessen the sting of being called a dog. Some scholars say that Jesus is testing the woman to tease out an affirmation of faith, that he is setting her up to make a grand show of belief, or he’s doing some playing verbal sparring. Others say that we are seeing the human, crabby side of Jesus, annoyed at the interruption. That he is caught with his compassion down. Perhaps he hadn’t yet considered how wide his ministry would stretch.
While we cannot know what Jesus is thinking, the thrust of his response is that he is called to serve his own people, the Jews. In Mathew’s telling of the story he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
However, Jesus’ words cannot stop a mother’s love—a mother’s desperation. I saw a sign this week which said, “Faith isn’t believing Jesus can, but knowing he will” and that is exactly how this woman continues. She knows even the tiniest portion of Jesus’ abundance will be sufficient for her needs. “Sir, even the little dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” To that statement my dog Otto gives a hearty “Amen.”
I don’t know if it was the mother’s tenacity or her wittiness or her faith or her desperation, but it seems that Jesus changes tact. He relents. He agrees. “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”
For me, this story of Jesus’ ministry is a bit of a head scratcher. Personally, I despise the idea of Jesus testing the Syrophoenician woman’s faith before he provides his healing mercies. It cheapens her staunch witness. First, Jesus never tests anyone else’s faith to see if they’re good enough for a miracle. And second, grace isn’t grace if you must prove yourself worthy in order to receive it.
Equally disturbing is the idea that Jesus is learning about his own ministry, that he didn’t have it all figured out. Isn’t God supposed to be all-knowing? Furthermore, is Jesus getting close to sinful behavior by dismissing a person based on their ethnic or racial or religious background? Isn’t God supposed to be blameless? Sinless?
I am not going to make excuses for Jesus, nor will I attempt pop-psychology on God incarnate. This story has mysteries that I cannot answer, and yet, the ambiguous still directs us to a black and white theological certainty. No matter the boundaries that separate us—be it racial, ethnic, religious, gender, ableness, sexuality, or anything else we can contrive—we are called to a larger vision of ministry, on that goes beyond ourselves and embrace the outsider, the stranger, the one we don’t identify with, and even the enemy.
No matter how it played out in Jesus’ mind we know that he went on to continue his ministry in the Gentile region of the Decapolis, where we encounter his next healing miracle of the deaf man with the speech impediment. Unlike the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus does not ask questions or hesitate, he heals the man; he is unstopped and unbound, opened, restored into community.
I think the message of an expansive and all-encompassing gospel is an important and timely message for us today. Human barriers remain and the good news of Christ must go through and beyond them. We’ve certainly witnessed a resurgence of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia in our country in recent years and the gospel of Christ remains a vital antidote for all of these sins.
This week this gospel lesson also pushed me as I considered and processed the recent close to the war in Afghanistan. On the one hand, like so many others, I desired for the war to end, and for us to stop jeopardizing the lives and minds of our military in a mission that appeared so ambiguous and fruitless. On the other hand, the coverage these past weeks has reminded me of all the Afghan lives that have been and will be destroyed or oppressed as the Taliban retakes the country and exercises its reign of terror.
This week I found myself asking why I value the life on an American more than the life of an Afghan. I struggled to truly justify the fulfillment of a campaign promise given by our last three presidents knowing that suffering will endure because we have left a job unfinished. The human toll of this global event has made me rethink my understanding of our global neighborhood and if I truly can do what Jesus did, to extend life and grace and love and justice beyond borders and identifying adjectives. This week I felt convicted by those thoughts.
I am not trying to equate military action with ministry, but this tragedy has truly shaken me, perhaps in the same way the Syrophoenician woman shook Jesus. I’ve had to reexamine my assumptions, my values, my heart. Who are our neighbors? Who is worth our resources, our ministry, our lives?
In the end Jesus seats us all at his table and claims us as God’s beloved children—children from every tribe and nation. The crumbs that fall from his table would be enough for our healing and salvation, but Jesus sees to it that we are given a whole portion. He has given more than enough. He sets an abundant, life-giving feast for us all. As we pull up a chair to the table, how will we share this feast? AMEN