Ask the kids gathered for the children's time: "If someone asked Jesus for bread, would he give it to them?" They would answer, "Yes!" and "Of course!" But not here, at least not at first. This week we get the fully human Jesus - one with apparent compassion fatigue who not only refuses to give the woman what she's asking for (even though she's thrown herself at his feet, even though it is on behalf of her little girl), but also calls her a name to boot. Do you recognize this Jesus?
I remember a heated discussion about this text in a Presbyterian Women's Bible study. The curriculum said something along the lines that this Syrophoenician woman had prompted Jesus to change his mind. The author of the study claimed that Jesus had shown his prejudices in this story. One of the women in that group wouldn't have it. She was incensed. Jesus didn't change his mind! The divine Son of God would not be prejudiced and certainly not subject to the power of a human being! It was heresy, blasphemy, anathema. Hmmm...
Then what do we do with this not-so-quaint story? Is there a way to soften the shock of Jesus calling a desperate mother a racial slur? Is there a way not to feel jolted by his seeming uncaring response to one who is clearly hurting? Preachers and scholars alike have tried, but it takes some big exegetical leaps to get there.
What's striking, too, is how this story contrasts with others. Look back to Mark 5:22-24. There Jairus, leader of the synagogue, falls at Jesus feet on behalf of his little daughter. Compare and contrast: a named, male, Jewish leader versus an unnamed Gentile woman. All we get in Mark 5:24 is this: "So he (Jesus) went with him." Bada bing, bada boom. No refusal, no questions, no name calling, no nothing. It makes one seriously wonder if Jesus does have a double standard like we do, like systems do, like the world so often does.
Then you could take a spin through Luke 13:10 and the following verses. There Jesus gets in trouble for healing a woman on the Sabbath - a woman he noticed, not one who sought him out. Jesus calls the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite, proclaiming that this "daughter of Abraham" deserves to be set free. Why her and not the pleading Gentile mother's little girl? Is it because she is a daughter of Abraham and the Syrophoenician woman is not?
Something important is at stake in the story for this Sunday. Mark wants to make sure we get the fact that the unnamed woman of Mark 7 is not Jewish. He says it in three ways: Jesus is in the region of Tyre, Gentile territory; she is a Gentile; she is Syrophoenician. It is like Mark is holding up a neon sign with an arrow pointing at her: NOT JEWISH! But wait, there is more. Jesus holds up that sign, too. He says let the children (i.e., children of Abraham, Jews) be fed first. Food isn't thrown to the dogs, a racial slur for Gentiles. This woman is NOT JEWISH! Do you get it?
For me this is the key that helps unlock this text. Mark, by making sure we are crystal clear about this woman's status, or lack thereof, is setting us up to make sure we get the magnitude of the miracle Jesus ultimately performs. She helps make the point, too. Yes, I am a dog (NOT JEWISH!), but I am still a member of the household, aren't I? I may be under the table, but I am present and therefore eligible to be FED. Maybe this is where those baskets of leftovers come into play, so that nothing, no one, will be lost.
Brian Blount, president and professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary, has an interesting take on this scene. He writes
, "Jesus was using this moment as a teaching opportunity for the disciples who still found it difficult to move with him all the way in his boundary breaking efforts. Believing that he had found someone who would respond in the proper way, he allowed himself to be shamed so that he could show the shame of an attitude that considers Gentiles prohibitively unclean. In other words, Jesus expected her to rise to the occasion, and she did."
It seems fitting that the One who takes on our sin, takes on our shame, too. Surely, the disciples did take notice just as we do when we read this shocking, cognitive-dissonance-producing chain of events.
Blount goes on to say that Jesus finds the woman's response remarkable and therefore so should we. Given that, perhaps our preaching should emphasize her bravery, her brilliance, her ability to both stand down and stand up in order to save her daughter. Perhaps we should consider how we could do the same to facilitate the casting out of demons that torment so many in our context. Where do we need to go? To whom do we need to beg? What is so important that we must endure name-calling and refuse to give up? How can we be in solidarity with the "dogs" of this time and place?
This text ultimately reveals that God's love, care, circle of concern, covenant, saving grace is for all people. All are to be fed, satisfied, with the bread from heaven and, yes, even the crumbs of Christ have the power to do that. The question for us to wrestle with this Sunday is how we often don't "move with him all the way in his boundary breaking efforts."
Little daughters and little sons of powerful synagogue leaders and powerless Gentile women are sons and daughters of the Most High God and Christ lived and died for them all. Therefore, we are called to care for them as if they are our sons and daughters, too, and it is shameful when we don't. And, in real ways, we simply don't.
Read Proverbs and James again. Clearly, we've been struggling with this painful truth for a long time. Again and again, God has to remind us that our faith is intimately, inextricably, ultimately tied to our treatment of the least of these. There is enough bread, leftover, leftovers, and even Christ's crumbs are filled with life giving power. Imagine if we shared a whole loaf?
- Does it bother you to think that Jesus may have changed his mind? Why?
- Think of the racial slurs we use today and those used in recent history. How do they demean and dehumanize? Why is there power in such words? What do we need to do to eradicate them from our mouths and even our consciousness?
- Mark says of Jesus, "Yet he could not escape notice." What do you make of this sentence? How is this still true?
- The categories that separated people in Mark's day were Jew and Gentile. Consider the ways we are separated today. What keeps us apart? How can we really break down those barriers? What can you do in your sphere of influence to follow Jesus fully in his boundary breaking work?
- James was not a popular book among Reformers. How do we address the seeming "works righteousness" in this week's passage from James?
- Use this prayer in your personal devotions this week:
O God of many names, lover of all peoples; we pray for peace in our hearts and homes, in our nations and our world; the peace of your will, the peace of our need.
Dear Christ, our friend and our guide, pioneer through the shadow of death, passing through darkness to make it light, be our companion that we may fear no evil, and bring us to life and to glory.
O God of peace and justice, of holiness and love; knit us together in mind and flesh, in feeling and in spirit, and make us one, ready for that great day; the fulfillment of all our hopes, and the glory of Jesus Christ.
Keep us in the spirit of joy and simplicity and mercy. Bless us and those you have entrusted to us, in and through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.