“Learning & Solidarity”
Everyone has been asking me this week about how my holidays were. Being off for few weeks gave me a nice break. I enjoyed a long trail walk with the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society, a number of quiet days at home, and a short trip to visit my family in Ottawa and to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary with Nick. As I’ve said to a number of people, it was a good holiday, with a few interruptions for urgent matters, but still a great break.
Jesus wasn’t so fortunate. As we’ve already seen this summer in Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus tried to take a break, the crowds followed him relentlessly. So, in today’s story, when Jesus goes away to the region of Tyre and enters a house, hoping that no one will know he is there, perhaps it’s not surprising that he is a bit rude to the Gentile woman who walks right in and starts begging him to heal her daughter.
Jesus must have been exhausted. And I know that when I’m exhausted, I don’t always say the right things. I mean, we all have our limits. And when you’ve been working and working, giving and caring, tending to everyone else’s needs except your own, it’s not surprising that you might reach your limit and snap at someone who places one more demand on your limited time and waning energy.
You know what that feels like, right? Parents? Caregivers? Volunteers? Dedicated workers? All of you who have difficulty saying ‘no’ when someone asks for your help? All of you who have taken on more responsibilities than you have time to fulfill them?
Jesus seems to reach the limit of his patience when this woman walks right in without even knocking on the door. She does not wait and plead her case from outside on the street. She enters the house and throws herself at Jesus’ feet. Her sheer audacity is nothing short of scandalous in its first-century context. Neither kin to Jesus or even known to him, she enters the house and boldly makes her plea.
And by doing so she breaks the barriers set not only by patriarchy and other cultural norms, but also by religion, ethnicity, and longstanding enmity between peoples. For she is a Syrophoenician (a Gentile), and he is a Jew.
Jesus’ initial response to her shocks and surprises us if we are paying attention. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Yes, you heard right. Jesus called her a dog. And that’s not a nice thing to say. It’s a biting insult, since dogs in first-century Palestine were seen as scavengers rather than pampered pets.
One commentator explains that the dog was not the well-loved guardian that it is today. More commonly, it was a symbol of dishonour. To the Greek, the word “dog” meant a shameless and audacious woman. It was used exactly with the connotation that we use the word “bitch” today. To the Jews, it was equally a term of contempt, and it was often used by Jews to insult Gentiles.
So, what do we make of this difficult Gospel story? How do we make sense of this Jesus who insults, demeans, and begins to dismiss this foreign woman?
I found one classic commentary that suggested that Jesus wasn’t really insulting her. I mean, how could Jesus do something like that? He figures that the word Jesus used might have been the diminutive form of the word for dog – more like “doggy” or “puppy,” describing not so much the wild dogs of the street, but the pet lap-dogs of the house.
I find that a bit of a stretch, since no one else notices a difference in the word, nor evidence that pet dogs were a thing back then.
And then he imagines that “without a doubt, Jesus’ tone of voice made all the difference. The same word can be a deadly insult and an affectionate address, according to the tone of voice… Jesus’ tone took at the poison out of the word,” he suggests.
As you can probably tell from my tone of voice, I don’t really buy that interpretation that seems determined to protect Jesus from any accusation of imperfection, or any possibility that he was fully human, and not just God masquerading as a man.
I do find a few other interpretations more convincing, even if I’m not exactly sure which one may be right.
The SALT Lectionary Commentary suggests: “One is that Jesus articulates this proverbial animosity not in order to endorse it, but rather to dramatize it, to bring it to centre stage precisely so it can be conspicuously overturned.”
If this is right, Jesus guesses that the woman will not accept the rejection based on her race or religion, but she will speak up for herself and push for justice and mercy. “So [Jesus] cues her up to do just that by expressing the prejudice in its popular, folk-wisdom form, perhaps with a satirical gleam in his eye. But isn’t it true that we shouldn’t give the children’s food to the dogs? Isn’t that what everyone says? What do you say?”
Jesus, who always wins the debates he has with the Pharisees and other religious leaders, invites this woman to debate with him the accepted wisdom of their time and culture, and she does. The woman turns the metaphor on its head, saying, “Even the dogs gather the children’s crumbs.”
Jesus has recently fed a crowd of 5000 people with a boy’s lunch, and gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers. The logic of abundance implies that God’s grace is for all people. There’s plenty, so why not share?
“Jesus immediately concedes the point, thus establishing the woman as an exemplar of faith, a model theologian, an outsider who understands better than the insiders do.” He heals her daughter. He heals another Gentile nearby. And then he goes on to feed another whole crowd of 4000 people – this time, Gentile people. And this tenacious mother helps to highlight what Jesus is doing as he opens up the circle of salvation to the wider world.
Maybe that’s right. Maybe Jesus was on her side all along, but he gave her a chance to speak up for herself, to win the debate, and to demonstrate why the old norms of who’s in and who’s out should be thrown out the window.
“A second possible interpretation is that Jesus is initially blinkered by the conventional thinking of his day, and ends up learning from his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.”
Maybe Jesus really was tired, and in his weariness, he was going to limit his ministry to his own people. “I can’t help everyone,” he might have been thinking, “I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”
But when she argues with him – boldly and wisely – she makes a good point, and he can’t deny it. There is enough bread for everyone – the bread of God’s love, and God’s grace, and God’s healing, and God’s hospitality. So why not say the word so that her daughter will be freed from her tormenter too?
Like every human being, maybe Jesus learns and evolves. And with this woman’s help, his ministry moves in a new direction, expanding beyond his own community to all the world and all God’s hungry and hurting people.
I don’t know which interpretation is right, or maybe there’s another one that I haven’t thought of yet. But if Jesus is the model for life and ministry that I am seeking to follow, and that we are seeking to follow as a church community, I think we can learn from both of these possibilities.
First, we may want to remember that when we get tired or overwhelmed, we may say some thoughtless or even mean things. If Jesus could do it, undoubtedly, we can too. It doesn’t make it right or acceptable, but it’s understandable, and that knowledge may prompt us to be patient and forgiving of one another, as well as kind to ourselves when we realize what we have said and the harm that it may have done to our neighbours.
Like Jesus, we live within a society and culture with a long history of racism, sexism, colonialism, heterosexism, and a lot of other isms. And even when we have the best intentions, we will still make some mistakes, default to old language, hierarchies, and assumptions, and say the wrong things.
Perhaps like Jesus, we’re still learning what is the mission God has for us, and I think we’re most likely to figure it out if we follow Jesus’ lead in listening to the voices of those we might be inclined to ignore or dismiss.
And even if we know, as perhaps Jesus already did, that God’s love is for everyone, and there’s enough bread for all God’s children, we may yet be called to listen to the voices of those on the margins, those who would be excluded or rejected by the systemic and institutionalized discrimination that continues to divide us.
Like Jesus, we are called to make space for those like the Gentile woman to speak up and speak out, to stand in solidarity with her, and follow her lead in widening or even re-shaping the circle.
As we gather around the Lord’s Table today to be nourished by Jesus’ grace and love, may we give thanks because we all get more than crumbs. There is plenty of bread for all God’s children to share.