As a pastor, there are some passages you think about for years. Either you avoid them, or you come up with some simple solution that might satisfy a Sunday morning sleepy congregation, but if you stay with it enough, one of the characters may leap off the page and grab you, even smack you around a little for dumbing down for too long. The Syrophonecian woman has done that to me and for me.
There is the old hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” but this woman did something far more courageous. She stood up to Jesus.
I’m in the proofing stage of a book about coming out of the crowd and taking a stand as a mature adult. She’s a great role model as she stands up for her child to the Son of God himself, who, as I read the encounter ends their conversation laughing out loud.
Out of The Crowd – The Syrophonecian Woman
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 wanted to encounter and when and where he wanted to see them.
His encounters often seem random, as if the people Jesus meets are 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. Perhaps, it is these particular individuals and personal encounters that Jesus was looking for in each location, not just happenstance, but his purpose all along. If we had seen Jesus’ calendar, we might have seen the names of these individuals, one by one. Each particular, each unique, each encounter distinctive, like this woman. While others had to stand up to family, religious crowds, even soldiers, she had to stand up and claim her place as beloved, even when Jesus told her the opposite. 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 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.
Imagine you are this woman. You have heard that Jesus was coming. Your daughter is ill. You want to help your daughter, but her problem is far greater than anything you can do, so you go looking for Jesus. All you have heard are stories, but you’ll try anything for your daughter. 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 the barriers of those who try and keep you from seeing him. When you make your way into the house, 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 by helping your daughter. You plead, “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 that you had been afraid you would hear from him if you got this far. His tone implies that Jesus can but won’t help your daughter. He confirms it 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, this is, “I’m here for the children of Israel, the children of God, not your child, and not you. 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.” Jesus insults you, your gender, your race, your people, and tells you that you are less than a person and so is your daughter, you are less than human, you are animals, 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 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.
There are multiple excuses granted to Jesus 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.”
These excuses overlook the underlying implication of Jesus’ journey. Though she’s an intruder to their dinner, it may be that she’s the very reason that Jesus came. 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. After this encounter, they leave the area. Though she seems like an intruder, she may have been exactly the person he was looking for, 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. First, the insult, being called a dog. If you are a dog in the house of God, then you are loved. God’s love is infinite. An infinite love cannot be added to. So in the Master’s house, in the house of an infinite loving God, the dogs are loved infinitely. So if the children are loved more, infinity plus one, it is still infinity. She does not debate his 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 in her left-brain, but she felt it. At God’s table, it doesn’t 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 implies that there is not enough bread for her or her family and that God’s chosen get it first. Again, she is onto him. This of course is Jesus, the guy who feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Here he speaks of scarcity… there is not enough food to go around. She gets the metaphor and speaks in abundance. There is room. There is plenty. 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 a place 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.
If you meet Jesus, and he calls you something other than “Beloved,” then he’s challenging you, pushing you, calling you out. If there are others, perhaps some in the name of Jesus or even of God, who perhaps call you something less than “Beloved of God,” no matter how large their title or nice their robe, they do not speak for God.