Well, let’s go ahead and admit it. This is a hard passage to hear. It’s a hard passage to hear because Jesus treats this non-Jewish woman so harshly. Mark says she was of Syrophoenician origin. Matthew calls her a Canaanite. But what both agree on is that she is a Gentile, a non-Jew. The hard thing about this story is that in Jesus’ initial response to this Gentile woman, he treats her with a harshness and a disdain that is so unlike the Jesus we read about in so many of the other Gospel stories. In story after story Jesus extends welcome and hospitality to all people, tax collectors and prostitutes, poor and wealthy, unreligious and religious, Samaritans and Gentiles.
In an attempt to lessen the impact of Jesus’ words it has been pointed out by some that “dogs” were pets and members of the family as they are today. And while that’s true, it’s fairly obvious Jesus does not use the word here in a positive sense. And the fact is, most often when this word in used in ancient Jewish texts it is used in a derogatory way. For example, in Matt. 7:6 Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, do not throw your pearls before swine.”
It’s important to keep in mind that this is not Jesus’ first encounter with non-Jews, according to Mark. In chapter 5 Jesus enters Gentile territory and is confronted by a Gentile, a non-Jew, whom Mark says is possessed by an “unclean spirit.” He lives among the tombs and is clearly deeply disturbed and mentally ill. Jesus sets him free and tells him to spread the good news of his liberation among his people. Certainly Jesus has no racial bias against Gentiles. So what’s going on here? Why does Jesus seem so unkind and ungracious in his initial response to this non-Jewish woman who seeks help for her daughter?
One factor to consider is why Jesus is in this predominantly Gentile region in the first place. In the storyline this is right after a long period of ministry and Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish leaders. The fairly clear implication in the text is that Jesus needed to get away – to be in solitude, to be alone with God. Mark says “he went away” to the region of Tyre. Went away from what? He went away from where his primary ministry and mission was centered. He went away from the work and the crowd and his adversaries. Mark says, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Apparently that included the twelve as well, his most trusted associates. I suspect Jesus was exhausted. I suspect he desperately needed quiet and rest and silence. Jesus knows that it just takes one healing and he will be deluged with the sick and hurting, and he is not ready for that.
Another thing to consider is that Jesus’ primary mission was to Israel, his own people. That is not to say that Jesus didn’t care for those outside of Israel. But he knew that it was Israel’s mission to take the good news to the non-Jewish world. His people, however, were in no spiritual shape to do that work. He knew that it was God’s intent that the world be blessed through the seed of Abraham, but the seed of Abraham was not in a healthy or good spiritual place where they could fulfil that mission. Jesus was first and foremost a Jewish reformer and prophet to his own people. And what is implicit in Mark, is made explicit in Matthew. In Matthew’s version Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His first and primary calling was to ready Israel, to prepare his people to accept and own their calling to live out the kingdom of God on earth and share that good news with the rest of the world.
A third factor, which I was unaware of until I dug a little deeper this past week is this. The region of Tyre where Jesus retreated to was known for its socio-economic injustice. The wealthy Gentiles, the Greeks and Romans in the coastal cities depended on produce brought from Upper Galilee. The Jews in upper Galilee that provided that produce were often exploited and taken advantage of. (We know how this works in our time don’t we? Consider the sweat shops in other parts of the world that make the products we buy where the workers are working for a dollar a day in terrible conditions.) Well, the Jews had no way to protest such injustice. These Jews were basically the slaves of Rome. They were not Roman citizens. Jesus would have been aware of this injustice and that may have been weighing heavily upon him as he visits this region.
I think we can learn a couple of very important lessons in this story from both the woman and Jesus. This is the only story I can think of in the Gospels where another person outwits Jesus. In some stories in the Gospels Jesus outwits his opponents with clever responses. Some adversary of Jesus comes with a question to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him, and Jesus always ends up baffling and outwitting his opponent and winning the day. This woman is not, of course, Jesus’ opponent, but she is intrusive and she is part of a society that has oppressed Jesus’ own people. She comes begging for his help and breaks into his life abruptly, putting this demand on him when he so greatly needs rest and renewal. Jesus responds in an uncharacteristic manner by saying, “Let the children be fed first [obviously referring to his own people], for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The “dogs” of course being a reference not to this woman in particular, but her people in general who were exploiting his people and treating his people like “dogs.
This woman does not take personal offense at Jesus’ words. This woman has one thing, and one thing only on her mind – getting help for her sick, mentally tormented daughter. That’s her determined purpose. And she is not to be deterred. “Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She is desperate, and she is clever. She gets the best of Jesus. And Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
I am reminded of a story about Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he was in the Gulag, the Russian forced labor camp. All they did was shovel. He was exhausted from shoveling. One day, he just quit. Life wasn’t worth it anymore. He tossed aside his shovel and sat down on a rock with his head between his knees. He had seen others who quit and witnessed a guard taking the shovel and beating to death the one who cast it aside. He felt someone come over next to him and braced himself for the pain. He was ready to die. But it was a fellow prisoner. An old man. He took a stick and drew in the sand in front of Solzhenitsyn’s face the sign of the cross. Solzhenitsyn found strength in the cross. He understood, so he got up and shoveled.
Sometimes sisters and brothers, it just doesn’t pay to get angry or offended or give up. It may be your life on the line or your family or the life of someone you deeply care about. What is needed at that moment is to get up and shovel – to press on. Maybe it’s your own life hanging in the balance. Maybe you are the one who needs help, and unless you admit your need for help and seek that help, in an AA group or from some other person or community, you will keep hurting yourself and others.
That’s something I learn from this woman in our story –determination and persistence. The importance of not giving up. But I also learn something from Jesus. Jesus is perhaps feeling the weight and burden of his people and is mentally, physically, and spiritual drained. This Greek woman intrudes into his space and Jesus reacts in a negative way. But when she meets his rejection with wit and wisdom, Jesus is quick to acknowledge her and reward her. He immediately recognizes her faith and courage, and he rewards her, knowing full well he will not get a break from the crowds. Jesus changes course. “The demon has left your daughter,” he says to the woman. Whatever physical or mental demon plagued her daughter, Jesus sets her free, and Jesus is now prepared to pay the price for granting that freedom.
When I look at the story this way, I don’t see in this story so much a flawed Jesus, as I see a spiritually mature Jesus. Jesus is human, and humanity comes with flaws. He is not perfect. But Jesus is called and knows he’s called to be God’s human agent for mercy and justice in the world. Jesus is filled with the Spirit of God. So even at his worst moment, when he is mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted, he is quick to recognize his fault and make the correction.
Being spiritually mature does not mean we stop sinning. It doesn’t mean we never struggle anymore with a negative attitude. It doesn’t mean we completely overcome our addiction or addictions and that we never fall back and regress. It doesn’t mean we never again become attached to something that pulls us down or that we never again lose our temper or are quick to react. Being spiritually mature doesn’t mean that we will never say anything hurtful or negative again. We will never be perfect. You may want to disagree with me here, and that’s certainly okay, but I personally don’t believe we will ever be perfect, ever – even in the world to come. The word that is often translated perfect in the Greek New Testament, does not mean faultless or sinless. It means complete or mature. The word actually conveys a sense of fullness, not flawlessness. I don’t think we will ever be perfect, but what I do believe is that the more spiritually full, or complete, or mature we become, the quicker we are to admit our failures and faults, and make the necessary change and course correction.
The late Fred Craddock tells about running into a person who was a member of one of the churches in the Midwest that he got to know when he taught and ministered there. A grumpy sort, says Craddock, who was very controlling. Dr. Craddock gave Bible studies and preached in his church a number of times. Fred says that this man would act like he didn’t know much, that he was in the background, but he really knew everything and had his hand in everything and wanted to control everything as much as he could. He wanted to set the agenda.
Fred noticed that his friend looked different; he had a gleam in his eye, that he had never seen before. So he asked him how he was doing and his friend said, “Better than I’ve ever been.” Fred asked about the church and he said, “We’re in better shape spiritually and in every way than we’ve been in my memory.” Fred had never heard this man talk this way about his church. So Fred asked about their minister and he said, “We have a woman.” He never did give her name, but said, “We have a woman.” Then he said, “I voted against her, and all my family voted against her, but we got outnumbered.” Then he paused and said, “I was wrong. I was wrong in my estimation of women.” And then he looked at Fred and said, “Brother Fred, if I was wrong about her, I was probably wrong about a lot of other stuff too.”
There are different ways we can describe what happened in this man’s life. We could say that he finally heard the gospel. We could say that he had a born again kind of experience. And we could say that he finally grew up. There can be very little spiritual growth and moral development in our lives, until we are willing to see our faults, admit our mistakes, own our sins, confess when we are wrong, ask forgiveness and grant forgiveness, and make the necessary course corrections in our life. Jesus did it. We can too.
O God, may we be filled with the Spirit of Jesus. Not a spirit of perfection. But a spirit willing to accept and learn from correction. Help us to see more clearly, so we can adjust course more readily. And give us strength and endurance, so that we may stay the course that leads to life. Amen.