In the midst of so much hate-speech, “What would Jesus do?” is a bit problematic in his encounter outside his hometown with a Canaanite woman. Mark’s version is addressed in this chapter from Out of The Crowd. Matthew’s version is addressed in a link to an audio sermon file.
Jesus did not have an administrative assistant to set his schedule. We don’t have old copies of Jesus’ calendar so that we can see the persons and groups Jesus intended to meet. His encounters often seem random, as if there was no plan, and the people Jesus met were haphazard – like the woman who happens to be at the well in the middle of the day or the blind beggar on the outskirts of Jericho. However, perhaps Jesus wasn’t just going away from crowds but instead headed toward particular individuals. If Jesus had a calendar, it might have listed the names of these individuals, one by one. For Jesus, they would have been more than appointments and agenda items, but each a person a distinct encounter, like this woman. While others had to stand up to family, religious crowds, even soldiers to claim their place in the world as beloved of God, she had a unique challenge. She had to stand up to Jesus. Here is their encounter in Mark 7,
Jesus journeyed with the disciples to the region of Tyre. Upon arrival, Jesus secretly entered a house.
A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. The woman was not Jewish but a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin. She begged Jesus to help her daughter.
Jesus replied, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.”
She answered Jesus, “But sir, even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s crumbs.”
Jesus laughed and affirmed her answer. He said, “You may go, the demon has left your daughter. She is well.”
The woman went home and found her daughter lying on the bed, the demon gone.
The next day, Jesus and the disciples left the area.
Imagine you are this woman. You have heard that Jesus was coming. Your daughter is ill, and you have been unable to help her, so you go looking for Jesus. The rumors you heard about him are enough to make you cross whatever social barriers there are to see if he can heal your child. Even those closest to you daunt you, “He won’t see you,” or “They won’t let you in.” Their discouragement might have been enough to stop you, but you weren’t just going for yourself.
You get through your friends and Jesus’ followers, and you see him, your hope. You take the position of subservience; you fall to his feet as a beggar seeking mercy from the only one you believe can help you. Pleading, you cry out, “My daughter is ill. Can you… Will you please help her?”
Jesus does not raise you up. He does not lift you from the floor. He speaks down to you in a condescending attitude as if the floor is where you belong. Why does he not lift you up as the rumors say he had lifted others? He speaks to you as you were afraid he might, rejecting you and your request, rejecting your daughter. He confirms your fear with an insult, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Essentially, Jesus says, “I’m here for the children of Israel, the children of God, not your child, and not you or your daughter. There is not enough to go around – not enough food, not enough love, not enough help. No one throws scarce food meant for the children to dogs – like you. Now, go away.” Jesus insults you, your gender, your race, and your people. Jesus tells you that you are less than a person and so is your daughter, you are less than human, you are dogs and don’t deserve help.
Jesus, who had earlier, taught, “Don’t let evil things come out of you,” lets the insults fly, and does so at the dinner table, not only an important symbol in Judaism, but for the early church, and for Jesus. While he had given many sinners, traitors, and social reprobates places at the table, here he denies this woman her very right to health and life for her child and gives her a metaphor that not only doesn’t allow her a seat at the table – Jesus puts her under it.
Most of us have difficulty imagining Jesus being rude. There are multiple excuses granted to Jesus in commentaries for this behavior, “He was tired and hungry. This just shows he’s human, we can all be rude when we are tired and hungry.” “Because Jesus was human, he had his own bigotries and prejudices.” “If you knew the Syrophoenicians and the evil they had done over time, you’d see she deserved it.” Even with these excuses, the Gospel writer would likely have not included it unless Jesus was intentionally rude for a purpose.
These excuses overlook the underlying implication of Jesus’ journey. Though this woman is an intruder to their dinner, it may be that she’s the very reason that Jesus came. The encounter begins in Mark with, “Jesus left from there and went away to the region of Tyre,” and after the encounter, the next day, “Then he returned from the region of Tyre.” Jesus travels, encounters her, and the next day returns. Perhaps she was the only reason for the journey. There are no other encounters. While in this region, Jesus didn’t go see any of the Jews living there, didn’t go meet with any leaders or philosophers, didn’t go to any place of teaching or worship, didn’t meet with any government leaders. Though she seems like an intruder, she may have been exactly the person he traveled to see, the encounter he expected, the moment he wanted. If so, then perhaps this insult is just the gift she needed from him for her to claim her place as a beloved daughter of God.
Jesus challenged her with the insult, but he also gave her other images: children of God, a table, and the house of God. Though Jesus threw scarcity at her, he offered her images of abundance in God’s house. Because it is God’s house, the rules change, and she knows it. If God does love humanity, and God does love her, then it is a Godly love. It doesn’t rank on value but gives value. There is nothing she can do to make God love her more, but because she is loved, there is a lot she can do – even challenge Jesus if he limits God’s love.
When she comes, she goes to the floor. That’s the appropriate social place for a Syrophonecian woman coming uninvited, without permission to the presence of a Jewish man. He affirms her self-placement, “You are lower, down there with the dogs.” To be beloved of God, we must claim it. Jesus lets her. Here is how she does it. First, she doesn’t argue the insult, but accepts it as a gift. Even a dog in the house of God is loved with God’s infinite love. You cannot add to an infinite love. So in the Master’s house, in the house of an infinite value giving love of God, even the dogs are loved infinitely. If the children are loved more, infinity plus one, it is still infinity. She does not debate Jesus’ insult; she removes it of all power by placing herself at the table of God, the God of infinite love. Granted, she may not have known the math or added infinity plus one, but she felt it. At God’s table, it does not matter if you come as Moses or a mutt, sit at it or beneath it. The table is God’s table and therefore a wondrous place to be.
Jesus also gives her another hint. Bread. He implied that there is not enough bread for her or her family and that God’s chosen get it first. The crowd says, “My group not yours,” or, much more subtly, the crowd says, “My group – then yours, later.” The crowd accepts an idea of justice for the whole world, an image where no one will hunger – one day. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first,” not that you won’t get food, medicine, love, “That will come one day, just be patient.”
In Turkey, there is a longstanding tradition of when a woman sees a bird near her house or land on a windowsill, she says, “Haberes Buenos.” Haberes means ‘news’ and Buenos means ‘good.’ The hope is the bird will bring good news about why women are always placed in a subservient role to men.
The tradition is rooted in legend. Long ago, women asked King Solomon why men were allowed to marry more than one woman but women weren’t allowed the same right. Even wise King Solomon was stumped. He replied, “Only God knows.” Well the women weren’t satisfied with that answer, so Solomon said, “Let’s ask God.” Solomon wrote the question on a piece of parchment and tied it to the leg of a bird. Solomon sent the bird to flight with the instruction of taking the message to God and not to come back without an answer.
So, the women keep waiting, they look to birds and ask, “Good news?” But the birds come empty handed. So, they wait, accepting the world as is, hoping that God, King, men, or some government or organization will value them and raise them from their position of less-than to a place of equality, of mutual status as valued and beloved.
Injustice is promoted as “the will of God” as others since have sited the place of women, slaves, other nations, all part of God’s hierarchy for the blessing and benefit of those in power. There is another answer, not that injustice is the will of God, but that one day, like the slaves in Egypt, God will make a way. For now, the faithful are to wait. Jesus uses both with the woman, her place at the floor is just, and she will have to wait for the children of Israel to be fed first as there is not enough bread for everyone.
Again, she is onto him. This of course is Jesus, the guy who feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Here, Jesus speaks of scarcity, “There is not enough food to go around, but maybe one day.” Hidden in the image of bread, she gets the wink. Jesus’ metaphor points again to abundance. There is room, now. There is plenty, here. She answers him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
She speaks of a limitless power of God where even the crumbs, the leftovers, the discarded is more than enough. So, she refused to accept insult because she believed that God was abundantly loving and gracious. She claimed her place. She would not be forced to take an assigned space in a world where some are the beloved of God and some are dogs. She would not accept an image of God that valued one race, one people, one gender higher than another, one at the table and one below it. She claimed a value giving love, and for her, the categories of the crowd disappeared. For her to wait and not claim her place at the table would have been a sign of a terrible lack of faith.
Jesus affirmed her answer. In my imagination, though not in the text, he laughed and smiled at her, affirming her bold stance, affirming her refusal to wait on God, government, Jesus, or any other to claim her place as beloved child of God, at God’s table, and God’s kingdom. Then Jesus sent her on her way telling her that her daughter is well.
The next day, Jesus left the area. Perhaps she is why he came, but not for her alone. Perhaps it was for so much more. By challenging her to take her place as beloved at the table of God, Jesus encouraged her to take a stand, and she became a model for the rest of the area. She overcame what Henri Nouwen refers to as our greatest temptation,
Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation of self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
Because she stood up to Jesus and claimed for herself her place as beloved, she could encourage others to do the same. Perhaps this text was in the gospel because of her, she was remembered throughout the area as the woman who would not wait and who would not take less than “Beloved,” for an answer, not even from Jesus, and she encouraged others to do the same.
While we often place power in the Empires, it is the power of single individuals taking a stand that begin true social change, as Scott Peck observed,
The whole course of human history may depend on a change of heart in one solitary and even humble individual…. For it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost.
She may have set a fire that transformed all of Tyre, not just for herself, but for her daughter, and for all the generations to come.
(To read more, click on the book cover on the right.)
(For an audio of a sermon on this story in Matthew, click the podcast picture on the right.)