SCRIPTURE – Mark 7:24-30 – From there He arose and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And He entered a house and wanted no one to know it, but He could not be hidden. For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.” Then He said to her, “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed.
Crumbs from the Table
Oct. 21, 2012
Well, someone got up on the wrong side of the manger! I preached a sermon series in the Spring called, “Jesus Was Not A Nice Guy,” and I think this passage would have fit perfectly. This is not the affable fellow we’ve known Jesus to be. A person comes to him with an urgent need and instead of immediately helping, he utters a dismissive racial slur? Really, Jesus?
Confession time: I really don’t know what to do with this Jesus. People who say they take the Bible literally must have a ton more faith than I do, because when I read things like this, I feel like I need to have a “Come to Jesus” talk – with Jesus! This is a great example of a text whose meaning for us is buried deep beneath layers of context and history and ethnic identities, and for us to get to that meaning, we have to become scriptural archaeologists, sifting through these layers to get to what’s going on here. Now, we could easily decide not to do that, to just take Jesus at face value here. But if you stop there, what do you do with the Jesus you’re left with? This isn’t the “come to me” Jesus; this is the “go away” Jesus. Well, I’m not going away, and I hope you aren’t either, so, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we have to wrestle with this text to see if we can extract a blessing from it.
What do we know about this story? First of all, it’s set in the gospel of Mark, which is important to know. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is always on the go, always moving toward his goal. Mark’s favorite word is “immediately,” as in “Immediately, Jesus did this.” Jesus has a mission, and his is almost single-minded in accomplishing that mission. The problem is, something keeps getting in the way. A pastor once said, “Church would be a lot easier if it didn’t have all those people in it.” People keep interrupting Jesus, wanting things from him. And several times in Mark’s gospel, this ticks Jesus off. Last week we looked at the story immediately preceding this one, when the Pharisees interrupt Jesus to criticize his disciples for not washing their hands before they ate, and Jesus snaps back at them. Mark’s Jesus did not like interruptions, which means he would have made a terrible debate moderator.
In our story, Jesus enters a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet, he could not escape notice. He just wants to catch 40 winks, to rest a bit from his journey, and yet the line is already forming at the door. And included in this line is our protagonist: “A woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him and she came and bowed at his feet.” No knocking, no standing in line, no passing through security. She barges right in, disturbs the son of God and asks for healing for her daughter.
What do we know about this woman? Mark, who usually is sparse with his words, gives us a surprising detail. She’s a Gentile, which means she was from outside the fold of Israel. She also was of Syrophoenician origin, which is a statement about her race. And she was from the region of Tyre, where Jesus was currently staying. The city of Tyre was a wealthy port city that the Hebrew scriptures calls “a godless oppressor of Israel.” So not only is this woman a Gentile, not only is she of a different race, she is also is from a privileged city that has been an enemy of Jesus’ people. And yet she comes to him for help! Can we understand why Jesus might respond the way he did?
When I was a pastor in Chicago, we would often have people stop by the church looking for assistance. It was my job to assess the situation and determine what kind of help we could give. I drove with one lady to the local service station to put gas in her car for her. As I went to the pump and grabbed the regular unleaded handle, she said, “Oh no, my car only takes premium unleaded.” I took another man to the store to buy him some groceries and he asked if I could also pick up a carton of cigarettes. Really? You interrupt my important work of copying bulletins so that I can buy you premium unleaded gasoline and cigarettes? I think I’m starting to understand Jesus a little bit more here.
When the woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, he responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Let’s unpack this statement. The children Jesus mentions are the Jews, the chosen ones of Israel, and the dogs are everyone else, including this Syrophoenician woman at his feet. This is Jesus as stingy miser, as crabby crank, as the religious Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s as if he’s saying, “Sorry, lady, there’s not enough to go around. You’ll have to wait your turn.”
And what do we do with Jesus calling her a “dog”? Many commentators have tried to explain this away. Some have said that Jesus used this term to make a statement to the eavesdropping disciples, to show them that even though Jews considered Gentiles to be “dogs,” Jesus didn’t feel that way and was ultimately going to grant this woman’s request. Some say he had a twinkle in his eye when he said this, winking at the woman as if to say, “I’m just kidding.” Others have said the term Jesus uses for “dog” is not the mangy mongrel prowling the streets, but the domesticated version, the little puppy with a bow in its hair that yaps at you for table scraps. They say “dog” is actually a term of endearment. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I called my spouse “my little dog” or “puppy breath” or something like that, I would be lucky to get table scraps for dinner. While each of those explanations may have merit, they don’t work for me in explaining what Jesus is saying here. So the only other explanation that I can buy is that Jesus was actually making a derogatory statement about this woman’s race. Jesus knew the Gentiles would eventually be brought into the fold, but it wasn’t there time yet. First and foremost, his mission was to the children of Israel.
But this woman won’t take “no” for an answer. She demonstrates a persistence, a tenacious doggedness, in pursuit of her request. And what was her request? It wasn’t for herself. It was for her daughter. If you’ve ever had a sick child, you know that decorum goes out the window. You’ll go to Walgreens in your raggedy pajamas and fuzzy bunny slippers to get that Children’s Motrin. And if your child is really sick, forget waiting in line. You’ll steal the stuff and leave an IOU on the counter. This woman is driven by her child’s condition to grab hold of Jesus and not let go until he blesses her daughter.
So here’s the point where I have to make some conclusions about what’s going on here, and I want to state up front these are my conclusions. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them. This is what my wrestling has produced this week. In the previous story, Jesus chided the Pharisees for focusing too much on the purity laws, putting too much focus on who’s in and who’s out and missing the bigger picture. Then Jesus pulls away to Tyre, to rest and refocus on his mission after another interruption. And just as he’s getting his mind recalibrated to this mission, our woman barges in and interrupts him again. So Jesus responds out of his sense of mission – “I didn’t come here for you. Wait your turn.”
But the woman doesn’t slink away. She doesn’t give up. Her child is sick. Instead, she gives it right back to Jesus! “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She shows more understanding of Jesus in that one sentence than the disciples do in the whole gospel. She says, “Jesus, I know you have a mission, I know it’s not my turn, but my daughter is sick. Is sticking to the plan more important than my daughter’s life?” Hmm. That’s a tough one. I mean, Jesus has been interrupted so much already. But he looks in this woman’s eyes, he hears the desperation in her voice, and he says, “I’m wrong and you’re right. Your daughter is healed.” This is how you lose an argument. I believe Jesus, in a moment when his full humanity was on display, is reminded by this woman that no plan, no mission, is more important than the life of a child. And Jesus heals the daughter of this unclean Gentile woman.
Wow. So where does that leave us? We now have to wrestle with the fact that God heals the clean and the unclean, the insider and the outsider, the English-speaking and the non-English-speaking, the Republican and the Democrat, the truly needy and the cigarette-smoking swindlers, those like us and those not like us. Jesus tries to draw boundaries and this woman marches right across them, and Jesus realizes that God’s kingdom knows no boundaries.
That’s not easy. I prefer boundaries. I prefer to know who’s in and who’s out, and I really prefer it if those who are in are a lot like me. But this story says there’s enough to go around for everyone. We don’t have to guard the bread and ration the grape juice. There’s enough to go around. Enough mercy. Enough love. Enough grace. And as God’s children, we are called to make sure that what we receive at the table is being offered beyond these walls, even to the Syrophoenicians among us. No one gets turned away. I’m not sure I like that. There are people in my life, my community, my country who are being turned away from getting medical help, from finding jobs, from receiving an education. What do we do about that? “It’s not your turn. There’s not enough to go around.” Or is there? Is there?
So that’s where my wrestling got me this week. Maybe you got somewhere different. Maybe you wrestled and didn’t get anywhere. That’s OK. Faith is often a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey. What we can learn from this story is the power of persistence. If we are willing to engage with Jesus, to wrestle with the words of scripture, there is a blessing to be found, just as this woman’s tenacity and determination resulted in a blessing. God has given us a word to inspire us, comfort us, and challenge us. As we engage with it, wrestle with it, struggle for to find meaning in it, may we blessed.