Mark 7: 24-30
As you read this text, it is a source of some uncomfort, because it seems that Jesus is actually being corrected by someone. And not just anyone: someone who is not a Jew. Someone who is not a member of the “Chosen People”; this woman is a gentile. Add to that, Mark’s description of her as “Syro-Phoenician”; it meant that one of her parents was from Syria, and one was from Phoenicia.
In our culture, we’d call her a mixed child; perhaps a mixed race child.
She was not Jewish, and there was no claim of “pure” blood of any sort at all.
Jesus has gone to Tyre, along the Mediterranean coast, outside of the boundaries of Judea, maybe to catch a little beach time, certainly to escape from the pressures of his ministry; maybe somewhere that his cellphone signal won’t work, and it’s foreign enough that it’s an expensive call internationally by land lines. He’s not taken his iPod, so he doesn’t have to worry about email.
But this woman knows about him, and hears he is coming. She finds him, as asks him to heal her daughter.
Now whether you believe in demon possession, or rather, that what this woman is describing as possession is really what we would call mental illness, it really doesn’t matter; This woman is looking for a supernatural cure for her daughter from this stranger who has a reputation as a healer.
And what does Jesus say to her when she asks?
Let’s get the words exactly right: “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.” (Mark 7:27, NRSV)
It’s very hard; as much as you may want to, it’s very hard to take this as anything other than ugly. He’s calling the woman a dog.
Now, if you tell me how you interpret this passage, and I’ll tell you who your Jesus is. There are two basic ways you can go here. Some say that this an example of Jesus’ struggle with his human side, struggling as the son of God with the prejudices and biases he was surely raised with as a member of the Judean culture of the first century toward their neighbors, especially neighbors of mixed culture. And his comment is an example of the bigotry that the Judeans saw their neighbors through.
The other way this could go is sort of the same way that he’s portrayed in the Gospel of John, where he will intentionally say something, so that someone else will say something, and then he’s presented with a teachable moment. This method allows us to believe that Jesus is completely in control of the situation. (Problem is, John always tells us that this is what Jesus is doing, and Mark doesn’t here.)
His statement is that his gifts and graces, his call, his vocation, is to only serve the Chosen people. They are the children of his statement, and they are, as he says, to be fed first.
What happens next, however, is the crux of the story. The woman refuses to give up. She’s a feisty one! She’s quick, she’s smart, and she’s desperate to help her daughter. Her attitude is “are you really going to come in here, to our land, which is NOT yours, and not give us even a little of the gifts you have? Do you often to go the beach and not spend any money? Really?” She says that “even dogs can eat the crumbs from the children’s table.”
Now here is where whichever version of Jesus you prefer comes into play; does he then save her daughter because he’s changed his mind at her argument? Or has he, according to some, made the trip into Tyre for the express purpose, besides picking up some beach fries with malt vinegar, and some saltwater taffy, of spreading the gospel to those who are not of the chosen people, and this woman is the linchpin of that effort? Does he say the ugly prejudicial thing just to get a reaction, just so he may then present the gifts of God?
You tell me about your understanding of this passage, and I will tell you about your Jesus.
She gives her tart reply, and Jesus either says “excellent, here’s my opportunity”, or “oh, my. I have acted shamefully! I must address my own biases.”?
Either way, whichever way his internal monologue goes, the lesson of the text is that, to be a follower of Christ, our gifts are not to be withheld from ANYONE.
Imagine someone like the Syro-Phoenician woman in our time and place. Not only someone who is of mixed race or culture, and female, but a little insistent and assertive and bossy. Your first impression isn’t going to be that positive, is it?
But the gifts of God that we have been given are not to be withheld, not even from the people who work our last nerve. The people whom we don’t trust; the people who smell funny; who speak a different language, who have another color skin.
So when you go to Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia, and he has that sign that says you can only order in English; that attitude is exactly the opposite of Jesus’ teaching here.
As followers of Jesus Christ, as people of the Way, our blessings are for the whole world. No exceptions.
Our blessings are for Iraquis. Our blessings are for Iranians. Egyptians and Libyans. They are for Chinese. But they are also for the Poles who live next door to us on the one side, and the stuffy Welsh on the other side.
Our blessings are for the whole world. And that moment when you feel like it’s just too much? That you just can’t go that far, however far that is? Just remember, Jesus had that moment too, and look what he did to overcome it.
The Christian model is to struggle and to finally overcome and defeat our prejudices.
Xenophobia, Sexism, Racism (though I don’t like to use the word race, it’s an artificial structure anyway, we are all one race, the same way that Dalmatians and Chihuahuas are both of the same race)
Our call, our vocation, is to overcome it all, because we are to share the love and the blessings of God with the whole world.