Our scripture lesson this morning has been called one of the most disturbing passages in the gospels. And it is disturbing on many levels.
On one level, it is disturbing, because Mark tells us that Jesus goes on a trip to a Gentile region and enters a house hoping no one would know he was there. This is so unlike our portrait of Jesus as a fisher of people, as a good shepherd who seeks and finds.
The story becomes even more disturbing, when he encounters this Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin. Mark tells it as if Jesus is bothered by this woman. “Yet, he could not escape notice.” Have you ever had to run to the grocery store early in the morning? Unshaven. No makeup. Wearing a pair of sweats. You go hoping you would not run into anyone you know. But it never fails. You always do. Mark tells this as if Jesus has that same type of disappointment. “Yet, he could not escape notice.”
Then we begin to wonder the real reason he was disappointed. Was it because someone recognized him or was it because a “Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin” recognized him? Why would Mark point out this woman’s ethnicity?
The story gets worse.
The woman begins to beg Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. This is when the seemingly disappointed Jesus gives the woman a callous, seemingly racist answer. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus, using a common expression of his day, says: “Let the needs of the Jews be met first, for it is not fair to take the gifts of God which are intended for Jews and give it to the Gentiles” [he calls “dogs”].
Of course, many have speculated why Jesus gave such an insulting response. Some have said that it was because he was simply tired and needed little break. Jesus was trying to get away, get some rest and have some privacy. And this woman simply ruined his vacation.
Some say that since Jesus was a good Jew, he still had problems sharing the good news to the Gentiles. Jesus had problems and prejudices, like we sometimes have problems and prejudices, sharing the good news with folks who are different.
Others have tried to soften the words of Jesus. They say that when Jesus called the Gentiles “dogs,” he was merely referring to beloved household pets. He wasn’t being harsh at all. He was referring to lovable animals that people cherish and treat as part of the family.
Some have even suggested that Jesus did not really mean what he said. He was only saying it to test the woman’s faith.
Then, just when you think it cannot get any worse, the story becomes even more disturbing, as we hear from the woman. The woman schools Jesus:
Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. [In other words: At my house, the dogs eat at the same time the children eat. So why should have to wait until the needs of the Jews are met before my needs are met? There’s enough room and enough food at God’s table for all of us at the same time.]
Jesus recognizes her wonderful answer and says: “For saying that, your daughter has been healed.”
This is disturbing because this is the exact opposite of what we usually expect from Jesus. It is Jesus who is supposed to answer with a wonderful good news revealing the truth of God’s grace and love for all people, Jews and Gentiles. But here, it is the woman, the Gentile, the outsider, who gives the correct response, who gives the good news, and even appears to correct Jesus with the good news.
Well, I have told you how others have interpreted this disturbing text. Now, let me tell you what this text means to me.
I believe it is very important to interpret this text within its context. Before coming to Tyre, Jesus was back in Galilee arguing theological matters with the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, regarding who was clean and who was unclean. The religious leaders said that all non-Jews, like the Syrophoenician woman, who did not strictly adhere to their traditions were “unclean” in the sight of God. In the previous passages, calling the religious leaders “hypocrites,” Jesus says “no” to this type of thinking with a very deep, insightful theological discourse.
Then he goes to Tyre, and he is confronted by a non-Jew who has a daughter with an “unclean spirit.” It is now time for Jesus to practice what he has been preaching. However, Jesus is still thinking theologically. It may be because that was the purpose of his solitary stay at that house. He was perhaps there to do some theological reflection regarding the nature of his ministry and mission. So when he is surprised by this woman, taking a little off guard, still in a theological frame of mind, he responds with the theological statement that children should be fed before dogs.
The truth is that God did choose to reveal God’s self, first, through Israel. God emptied God’s self and became human as a Jew. However, God did not come for the Jews only, and Jesus never says that. He only says that “children are fed first.” His statement does not rule out a mission to the Gentiles. He was making a truthful theological statement.
And notice that the woman does not dispute Jesus’ statement. She does not say that Jesus is wrong. She does not deny who she is apart from God. What I believe she is saying is this: “Jesus, that may be good theology. That may win you some arguments in the seminary back in Galilee, but you know something? It does absolutely nothing to help my sick daughter. My daughter still has an unclean spirit.” Jesus is then challenged to put all of the theology he has been teaching into practice.
Therefore, the question I believe this text asks us is: “Are we more than theologians?” Because, like Jesus, we are confronted by people every day who need more than our good theology.
I believe there are many who look at us theological church people and say:
You know, I am glad you go to church. I am glad you believe in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but you know something? That does nothing to help my daughter. I am glad you worship every Sunday. I am glad that you tithe faithfully and celebrate weekly communion, but you know something? That does nothing to help my son.
How do we respond to one who is hungry? Are we merely theologians? Do we simply say that we believe God blesses those who hunger? Or do we put our theology into action and feed that person?
How do we respond to one who is lonely? Are we merely theological? Do we tell them that God is with them, and if they pray they will sense God’s presence and not be lonely? Or do we offer ourselves, our presence, and our friendship? Do we offer the image, the presence of God in us, to that person?
How do we respond to one who does not profess Christ as Lord? Do we tell them how he came and died on the cross for their sins? Or do we show them by our own actions of sacrificial love?
How do we respond to people who are: sick or depressed; marginalized or imprisoned; poor or homeless; afraid or dying; grieving or suffering? Are we more than theologians?
And how do we respond to people who are different? How do we respond to those who have been taught by society, and even by the church “on God’s authority,” that their lifestyle is outside of God’s grace and love? How do we respond to those we sometimes refer to silently, if not out loud, as “dogs?”
If anything should disturb us about this passage, it is this! Because I think we know the answer.
Fourteen years ago this month, shortly after September 11th, a husband and wife and their beautiful daughter visited a church in North Carolina. They were new in the community and had heard about the reputation this church had for being a warm, friendly, loving community, so they decided to visit.
After the service, the pastor was at the front door shaking the hands of these visitors letting them know how glad he was that they had come to worship with them this morning. A deacon, one of the most revered, theologians in the church, passed by. He had been a Sunday School teacher for 30 years. The pastor got the deacon’s attention and introduced him to the visiting family. The father extended his hand to shake the hand of the deacon. The deacon, however, looked irately at the pastor and then walked out the front door, leaving the visitor’s hand extended in the air.
For you see, this visitor’s hand had a Middle Eastern tone. He was Arabic. And his wife’s hands were black. And the little girl’s hands were a mixture of both.
I don’t know what the family said to one another when they got back to their car. I do know that it was the last time they visited that church. But they might have said something like:
You know, I am glad that you say that you love the Lord. I am glad that you people are faithful to this church. I am glad you believe the things you say you believe. But you know something? That does nothing to help my daughter. And no, we are not like you at all. We are not the traditional Norman Rockwellian family, and you may think we are dogs. But, you know something, at my house, even the dogs eat at the same time the children eat. At my house, there is enough room at the table and enough food for all.