Proper 18 Year B:
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17: Mark 7:24-37
I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .
Today’s gospel reading consists of two stories – two stories about Jesus ministry of love, compassion and healing. The first story is about a foreigner, a Gentile woman who seeks Jesus out to ask him to heal her sick daughter. The second story is about a man who can neither hear nor speak. Jesus opens the channels of healing and wholeness for his man by first opening his ears then touching and releasing his tongue. There are definitely many sermons begging to be preached in these two stories. This time around I want to focus on the first story: the story of the Syrophoenician woman and how she approaches Jesus to plead for the healing of her daughter.
This story is unique among stories about Jesus’ healing: This is the first time Jesus has ever seemed to refuse healing to anyone who comes to him in faith. The story goes like this: Jesus travels to Tyre – which is a bit of a distance away from his home region of Galilee – Galilee where he began his public ministry. Just prior to today’s story, it is apparent that Jesus’ teaching and healing have caught the attention of the Jewish religious establishment. They find Jesus a threat to their religious claims – a threat to their position of power and control.
At the beginning of today’s reading, we find Jesus seeking some time away, some vacation time. He has traveled alone, without his followers to a place where he can lay low for a while. But as in many other instances when Jesus tries to escape the public, his privacy is invaded. Somehow the mother of a demon-possessed girl tracks him down – and pushes her way into the house where he has taken refuge. She falls on her knees before him and begs for healing for her daughter.
At first, Jesus’ response seems to be a decided – NO. 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.” If this indeed is the case, if Jesus truly means to refuse the woman’s request for healing, then the woman’s quick witted response changes Jesus’ mind. She answers Jesus by saying “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus praises the woman for her words of wisdom. And “All’s well that ends well” – in the end Jesus does declare the daughter healed, free of demon possession.
The puzzling question that remains is — what do we make of Jesus’ initial response: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus is speaking in metaphoric language; he’s using a parable of sorts. The children’s food is the Word – Jesus’ gospel of salvation – the bread of life. When Jesus speaks of the children, he is referring to the Jewish people – Israel in its covenant relationship as the chosen children of God. And Jesus’ reference to dogs implies all non-Jewish people – the Gentiles. His statement reminds us that Jesus understood his mission to be first and foremost to the “lost sheep of Israel.”
In essence Jesus is calling the woman who is pleading for help for her daughter – a dog. This sounds very un-Jesus like to our ears. It sounds like an insult, a put-down. And here we experience a disconnect: Why did Jesus call her a “dog”? It just doesn’t square with the character of the compassionate Jesus we think we know – right?
Biblical scholars over the years have come up with several explanations for the words Jesus uses in this passage. None of these explanations can be definitively asserted, perhaps. But here are four thoughts, four possible explanations. What do you think?
1) Some experts explain Jesus statement away by concluding that Jesus really didn’t say those words – that Jesus actually did not call the Gentiles dogs in this instance – that this story is wrongly reported in the Gospels. Their conclusion is that it didn’t happen this way at all . . .
2) Other scholars see in this story a testimony to the humanity of Jesus – Jesus as truly and completely human. Our tradition from early teaching of the church is that Jesus is at once totally human and totally divine. In this instance, Jesus is being completely human. He’s tired – he’s wanting to get away. He doesn’t want to be bothered, and so he responds with an unsympathetic put-down, hoping the woman will go away. As one scholar expressed it “Jesus was caught with his compassion down.”
3) Another plausible explanation for Jesus’ initial refusal is that up to this point in his ministry, his mission has been targeted exclusively to the Jewish children of God. Jesus is not saying NO to the Gentile woman’s request for healing, he’s just saying NOT YET. So this story would serve as a turning point – the point where salvation history opens to non-Jews. The bread is now made available to Gentiles as well.
4) But a fourth explanation for Jesus’ words comes closest to what may be happening in this parable of the children and the dogs: Jesus may be challenging the woman with his shocking insult, drawing out her inherent virtues of persistence, humility, reasoning and faith. Jesus may even be challenging her motherhood – that deep-down dedication to her child – a parent’s will power to do anything to save her child who is in grave danger.
Throughout the gospels, when Jesus teaches in parables, he uses the shock factor to open his listeners eyes, to bring others to a new way of seeing – a vision that is more in line with God’s vision. Jesus’ very own disciples were often slow to understand these teachings. But this woman is an amazingly fast study! She gets it! She picked up the meaning and immediately responded with wit, courage and conviction using the language of the parable: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
What do the words of her response convey to us? Why did they seem to catch Jesus attention and elicit his praise? What do they say about her character?
This story speaks to five classic virtues:
1) First of all: humility. Did you notice that the woman does not argue with Jesus about his designation of her status as a “dog.” She immediately acknowledges that she is not a child, at least in the Jewish sense. Instead, in her true identity, she continues to press forward with her request based on her need. She knows her true relationship with God. And humilty is all about knowing our right relationship to and with God.
2) Second virtue: wisdom: Jesus praises the woman’s logos – her logic. Her reasoning is sound. She is wise, reflecting these words in the reading we heard today from Proverbs: “The rich and poor have this in common; the Lord is the maker of them all.” The woman understands human equality and equity. She understands that we are all creatures. And in that sense we are all children of God.
3) Another virtue: persistence: The woman doesn’t crumble at Jesus’ initial rejection, or his insulting words or the denial of her request. Her persistence echoes other scripture that urges us to be persistent – to be persistent especially in prayer.
4) Faith: The woman never doubts that Jesus can heal her daughter. In this story faith is the unspoken virtue, the underlying virtue. Faith is a given.
5) And finally, this woman totally understands – she completely gets – the idea of abundance. With Jesus there is always plenty of mercy and grace to go around – plenty of crumbs to feed the dogs, – – plenty of bread to feed the 5000 and plenty of wine when the initial supply runs out.
Likewise in our Eucharistic celebration there is always an abundance of bread and wine, an unending offering of Christ’s Body and Blood. And at our table, everyone is always welcome. Come – – you are all invited!