In this passage, Jesus sticks his fingers into a man’s ears (this is definitely pre-COVID!), then spits and touches the man’s tongue…and then calls a woman a dog!
Now, for those keeping track, this is my 5th Sunday sermon here and so far I’ve been given texts that feature Jesus:
- Saying there is an eternal sin for which there can be no forgiveness
- Losing many of his followers by suddenly calling for them to eat his flesh and drink his blood
- And now we have this!
So: it seems that Jesus saying and doing odd/offensive things is not a marginal, peripheral feature of the Gospels. It’s fairly pervasive. He is a wild and crazy guy, to quote that old Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd sketch.
This is important to understand because there is a tendency to sanitize and domesticate Jesus. But Jesus is wild, and defies our attempts at taxonomy – that is, neat, clear classification.
There is no question about that. I think the real question this week, however, is: did Jesus sin (when he called this woman a dog)?
A closer look: Jesus is in Gentile territory: “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre (modern day Lebanon).” And he wants some peace and quiet: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there… Yet he could not escape notice.”
This sounds like Beatlemania: George Harrison said that the only place they could be alone on tour was in the bathroom. Then, “a [Gentile] woman [of Syrophoenician origin] whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet… She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.”
Despite his apparent tiredness, we might expect Jesus here to be the good shepherd, gentle and humble in heart, who welcomes everyone. But that is not how Jesus seems to handle the situation, at least not at first:
“He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’”
So instead, Jesus sounds like a jerk here. What’s going on?
One way of looking at this is that it is evidence of Jesus’ human weakness, limitations, or even sinfulness.
We could imagine that Jesus is tired, even exhausted, from all the commotion around him; that he was not at his best, was having a bad day or moment, and let an unkind word slip. This is certainly relatable!
But: this reading doesn’t seem to align with the theological tradition we’ve inherited as Episcopalians and as Christians. As a friend once said, “The Episcopal Church does actually have beliefs.”
There is a reason why we say the creed after sermons, which confesses Jesus as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”
Central to our faith is that in Jesus, God became like us in every way, yet without sin. Jesus is God incarnate, and the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. How can he take away our sin if he himself shares in it?
What if there’s something else going on here?
This exchange follows a passage where Jesus has been caught eating without washing his hands. This is part of a series of Jesus breaking purity codes by associating with or touching the “wrong people”; those who were considered “unclean.”
This woman, just for being a woman, already connects to this purity issue. We see this in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel, when his disciples “were amazed that he was talking with a woman.” For a man, talking in public with a woman was, apparently, out-of-bounds.
Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman echoes today’s story of the Syrophoenician woman not only because both were women, but also non-Jews, both of whom from ethnic and religious groups who were in conflict with the Hebrews.
In John, the woman asks Jesus what he, a Jew, is doing talking to her, a Samaritan. There, Jesus behaves more like we might expect: he disregards this barrier between groups and reaches out to her.
This makes his apparent callousness and tribalism in today’s story all the more startling and surprising.
Even more surprising when, at just about every turn in Mark, Jesus similarly seems to have no issue with moving past traditional religious/cultural barriers and drawing the circle wider and wider.
As to this point of widening the circle:
As mentioned before, this passage has Jesus moving into the region of Tyre, that is, Gentile territory. This is the first time he does this in Mark. After the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, he continues further into Gentile communities, expanding his mission to the wider world.
It seems like everything else in the story — both in this passage and in the Gospel generally — points towards Jesus’ disparaging comments being a set up. It’s as if he’s play-acting and assuming, for a moment, the narrow tribalism of those among him – including some of his disciples, to be sure.
Perhaps this was a teachable moment for his disciples. Perhaps Jesus responded as they expected and wanted him to, only to see this way of thinking subverted as Jesus instantly acquiesces to this woman’s challenge to his initial rejection.
And we might see a bit of the Rabbinic tradition at play here, as well. Jesus may have been testing the woman to see how determined she was to have her daughter healed. There is a tradition, for instance, of Rabbis rejecting potential converts or students three times, testing their desire before accepting them.
And this woman passes the test! She is a match for Jesus: quick, witty, and aware. She knows just what to say. She’s likely way ahead of the disciples; the oppressed often have superior insight into social dynamics.
Perhaps she has been watching Jesus. She knows what he’s about, and that he is ready to connect with and embrace the non-Jewish world.
And she is right. Jesus accepts her challenge immediately and heals her daughter.
What might this mean for us?
This story takes places against a backdrop of deep tribal divisions and we are so divided today. More and more over the last few years. How can we be a source of healing rather than of further fragmentation?
When we follow Jesus, he leads us on a journey of ever-expanding concern and compassion until, finally, we exclude no one – in thought, word, or deed. We cast no one out of our heart because no one is outside of the limits of God’s love, and this love is in us, and flows through us and out from us like light through a lamp connected to its source. This is the way of love.
But this way — and this love — is wild; it has thorns; it can be razor sharp; it cuts through illusion, prejudice, resistance — including our own. This way is often bewildering and humbling, but it always leads closer to home. It is the best adventure we can take; it leads to a fullness of being that is available nowhere else.
So: may our hearts be opened; that we may hear — and follow — the call of our wild Lord, who stands at the door and knocks, who leads us into life. Amen.