This story of Jesus always messes with my head. It’s so ugly. Jesus defies our image of him – the patient, loving, accepting one who welcomes children, heals the sick, and only gets abrasive with those who think they’ve got God all figured out. But what do we do with a Jesus who gets abrasive with a mother who is concerned with the well-being of her daughter? It’s such a strange text. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus spends almost his whole ministry in Galilee, but here Jesus travels out of Jewish territory into the region of Tyre. It’s like he was trying to take a retreat away from the pressures of ministry and he went to a place where he hoped to go unnoticed, a place where people would not know who he was or what he was capable of.
Yet, in Mark’s words, “he could not escape notice” (7:24). An unnamed woman seeks Jesus like a guided missile, bows at his feet, and requests that Jesus cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus is in Gentile territory. It should come as no surprise that this woman is a Gentile herself. There are centuries of built-up conflict between the Jews and the people of this region. Humans are prone to getting tribal, and it seems that’s what Jesus does here. We expect that Jesus will help her. Jesus is a nice guy, isn’t he? But he responds not just negatively but with a slur. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27).
Did we just hear him right? Did he just prioritize his people over other people? Is he endorsing a tribal understanding of the world? Is Jesus really saying that anyone who isn’t Jewish is outside of his help until he’s completed his work with this one particular people group? And, here’s the cherry on top of this dirt sundae, did he really just infer that this desperate woman and all her people are dogs? That is, is Jesus really saying that Gentiles are less than Jews, not part of God’s household? The more I think about this text, the more I find it hard to swallow. This is not a text that supports our being a Christ-centered community of acceptance at all.
It is tempting to skip over a text that troubles us. It is easier to focus on those texts that affirm what we believe to be true about Jesus. No one likes dwelling in the place of discomfort. Yet I found myself challenged not just by this text but by another interpreter of the text named Chelsey Harmon. She challenges us to dwell in the discomfort. She writes, “Discomfort serves like a funnel in Scripture: we aren’t meant to escape it but go through it, and slowly.”
So, let’s sit for a while in the discomfort of this text and see what may be going on with it. First, let’s talk about dogs. In our world, we like dogs. In many homes they are part of the family. They live inside. They sleep in our beds. We even breed them to be like we want them to be – size, type of fur, personality. I used to never feed our dog at the dinner table, but his reaction is just so heartwarming when he gets a little bite of burger that I can’t help myself sometimes. He doesn’t get crumbs from the table. He gets steak sometimes.
Not so in Jesus’ day in the Middle East. Dogs were there for protection. They were not members of the family. They guarded the home. Jesus’ statement infers that this woman and others like her are dogs – outsiders, not fully part of the family, less than those in the household. So, some scholars have pointed out that the word Jesus uses for “dog” is in a diminutive form. It’s like he’s calling her a little dog or a puppy. This is not the 100-pound animal guarding the home; it’s the playful innocent puppy that doesn’t know enough to keep away in its own spaces. I think they’re hoping to let Jesus off the hook here, soft-pedaling the insult. Whether Jesus meant “dog” or “puppy,” this slur is still highly negative. It throws a barrier up between Jesus and this woman. It’s like he’s saying, “You are this, and I am that. Leave me alone.”
Others wonder if Jesus’ harsh statement is a test for the woman and a test for his disciples who are witnessing what he’s doing. For the woman, it’s as though Jesus is seeing if she’s willing to push through his resistance to get what she wants for her daughter. That’s certainly possible, even if it seems like a harsh way of testing her. For the disciples, some have wondered if Jesus was testing their own ability to understand the way God’s reign was breaking down barriers. They’d seen so many amazing things and heard so many remarkable words. Would they apply it to this situation? So, Jesus spits out, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” and then looks around at the room to see if Peter or James or John will apply what they know about Jesus to this situation. Will they interrupt this awkward situation and say, “Jesus, I thought the kingdom of God was drawing near. Shouldn’t it be doing so even now? I know this is defying a lot of our expectations, but you seem to do that a lot, Jesus.”
I feel a lot better about that take on things, but now I want to move this woman into center stage. What if she’s the hero of this text? What if she’s the one who helps direct the conversation to a new plane? The way Mark writes about this story, it looks like she’s found herself in an argument with Jesus, wins the argument, and signals to Jesus that the time has come for his ministry to broaden beyond its familiar places and faces. What if she is the one who helps Jesus extend God’s love and healing to all the people who need it? It’s time for all people not just his people.
In his sermon on this text, Brian Blount heads in this very direction. “Scholars have long wondered why Mark and Matthew kept this story in their gospel accounts because it tends to make Jesus look like he didn’t want to help her. I think they kept it in, particularly Mark, because she is exactly what Jesus is, a transformer. Because she doesn’t break apart. She breaks back bad on Jesus. She does to Jesus what Jesus does to the Pharisees and Sadducees. She takes his response, stands up to what that response means, and then turns the response upside down and inside out. ‘Sure, Jesus, I don’t care if the food is meant for the children, that doesn’t mean that your loving gracious Abba God wants everybody and everything else to go starving. That can’t be what you’re saying, Jesus, is it?’ And Jesus marveled, evidently as much at her guts and determination to say it as for what she’d said. And when Jesus celebrates her remark to him, her standing up to him, I think Mark thinks he was maybe smiling inside and saying, ‘Yeah, this is what I want. This is what I’ve been looking for. What a contrast to the sheep who follow me.’”
She took Jesus words that seemed like a “no” and turned them into a “yes.” “Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:27). Mark’s writing is so fast-moving, it’s hard to tell if there are pauses. Did Jesus make his comment and leave an uncomfortable silence waiting for her to leave or for his disciples to respond? Did this woman really get the heart of Jesus so well that she immediately pointed out to him that she knew better? Did she know he would bring wholeness to her daughter? After she responded, was there another uncomfortable silence, or did Jesus jump right into responding positively? I like to read the story with the awkward pauses. If this were a movie, there would be a whole lot of anxious glances around. It would give us the time to think, “Did she really just say that? Did she just beat Jesus in an argument? Did she change his mind?”
I’d call this a good loss for Jesus. He gets into an argument with her, and she wins. This woman was a boundary breaker. She crossed ethnic boundaries – Gentile and Jew – to claim promises that some thought weren’t for her. She broke gender barriers. In their world women were not supposed to speak to a rabbi. She throws herself at his feet and even recognizes him as “Lord” long before others around him do.
We read Psalm 146 as part of worship this morning. I wonder if she had overheard this psalm read a few days earlier as she walked by a synagogue. I wonder if she heard about this God who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry, who lifts those who are bowed down, who watches over strangers, and who upholds the orphan and the widow. Perhaps she came to Jesus with the ultimatum, “If God is who you say God is, then you can heal my daughter. I don’t care if we’re outsiders. God can help us too.”
In the verses that follow this story in Mark, Jesus continues through Gentile territory. People bring a deaf man to him. Without so much as a challenge, Jesus heals the man. The crowds that see the change are astounded at what Jesus is doing. I think Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman signaled to Jesus that it was time to expand his ministry. God was at work in the world. God was breaking down those boundaries between enemies. God’s love was big that included all. Thank God that this woman knew this to be true and stood up for love even when others didn’t believe that was true about God. She unleashed Jesus’ healing power on the whole world.
So, I’ve taken almost all my time today to focus on this challenging text, but now is the time to bring it home to us. We’re like the disciples in this story witnessing Jesus and this woman. We see his harsh remark. We hear her respond. We see Jesus change. The question for us is this: are we overhearing ourselves in this story? Are we open to changing our minds? Are the signals in our lives that we’re missing or ignoring, signals that say, Christian, you’re better than this.
Have we stopped listening to the voices of the outsiders who expect Christians to be more like Christ? There come moments in our lives where we aren’t Christ-like. All people are hypocrites, and we Christians can be as well. Instead of closing our ears to others, it would serve us well to be better listeners – to hear clearly the voices of those who say to us, “Christian, you’re better than this!” This would be a good loss for us all because it would bring us to a better way of living and would help us be a better witness to Jesus’ love for all. What if we listened more to others and let what we learn broaden the way we love others? What if we were open to change?
 Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, 131-132.