From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
~Mark 7: 24-29
Jesus sneaks off again, looking for some alone time away from the crowd. And this time, he really gets away, not just heading for the hills, but leaving the region altogether, headed up to Gentile country.
But he is still found out. Because of course he is. This is Jesus, after all. Though you’d be hard-pressed to tell it was Jesus by his reaction to this woman’s request. This is not soft-focused, tie-dyed, hippy liberal, hug-fest Jesus. And honestly, I don’t like him. Not at all.
Look, you can play rhetorical games if it makes you feel better. That Jesus didn’t really think this woman was a dog. That he was speaking ironically. That he was actually trying to coax the woman into standing up for herself and expressing her faith.
Except there’s no indication of any of that in the text.
A plain reading of it (and as my fundy friends are fond of telling me, this is the only “correct” way of reading these things) shows that, well, Jesus is a jerk to her – mostly because he wasn’t sent for those kind of people. This woman was a Caananite, after all, not a Jew, and Jesus was a Jewish messiah. Go get your own messiah, dog-girl.
It isn’t until after her snappy comeback leaves him impressed that Jesus heals her daughter.
It’s frustrating as all get out, is what it is. And it’s all the more frustrating because of what this story comes after.
Clean and Unclean
Jesus has just ripped into the Pharisees, getting explicit about the clean/unclean stuff, and making it clear that it’s the way we treat each other that matters, not some arbitrary rules about what foods we eat or how we wash our hands.
This is Jesus as #TheResistance, getting right up in the face of the Kingdom gatekeepers, defending the poor and the weak. This Jesus makes my little liberal heart swell. He’s dressing down the people who make up new rules when they can’t even keep all the old rules themselves. And it’s really not hard at all to see here the groundwork being laid for Peter’s “what God has made clean, you must not call profane” vision, or for when the Jerusalem council opens the doors wide open to everyone who calls on the name of Jesus.
You don’t even have to squint to see it.
But then this other story drops in, casually and unwelcome, like a fart in an elevator. Or a fart metaphor in the middle of a Bible blog post. And it’s almost like, up until the very moment when this woman gets all lippy with him, Jesus hasn’t thought through the ramifications of this clean/unclean stuff he’s been ranting about.
Arguing with God
For a God who is “Unchangeable,” our God seems to flip-flop quite a bit. You don’t even have to go all Marcionist to believe that’s been going on for a long time.
From granting second chances after the successful lobbying campaigns of both Abraham and Moses, to pulling the rug out from under Jonah after the mass-repentance of the people of Ninevah, our God has a track record of going wobbly.
And let’s not forget the about-face in Acts 15 referenced earlier, when “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” that Gentiles were okey-dokey with God as-is, without any — um — alterations.
So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jesus is moved by a righteous argument.
There is a great scene in the 1997 movie The Apostle. Robert Duvall, playing the almost comically flawed — but most definitely not-a-fraud — Pentecostal preacher Sonny Dewey, has reached the first of many breaking points. With the realization sinking in that his wife is not just leaving him, but she is also taking his church with her, we find him upstairs in the attic, having an absolute screaming match with God about it.
What I especially love about this scene is his mother (played by June Carter Cash) and her reaction to all this when a neighbor calls in the middle of the night to complain about the noise.
“That’s my son, that is. I’ll tell ya: ever since he was an itty bitty boy, sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight, he just happens to be yellin’ at him.”
She says it very matter-of-factly, as if arguing with God, as if yelling at God, is the most natural thing there is. More natural than breathing.
Maybe because it is.
It’s hard out here
I believe — I know — that being human is messy. That it hurts, that it isn’t “fair” (whatever that means), and that sometimes, this haze gray existence really, really, really sucks.
But I also believe it can be exquisitely beautiful. That being human is full of love and grace and, yes, joy, if we would just reach out and embrace it. Because to be human, to truly be human, is to be made in God’s very image. And no matter what anyone tells you, that includes you.
It’s just that sometimes…well, sometimes to get to that beautiful, loving, grace-filled, joyful place, you have to scream through a lot of suck. You have to yell and curse through the mud. To borrow from John Pavlovitz, sometimes you need to remind the darkness just how loud you can be.
Sometimes, that darkness is coming from the Pharisees out there, and you expect that. But sometimes…
Well, sometimes it comes from the very people who are supposed to care about you. Family. Close friends. Sometimes accidentally, but sometimes not nearly as accidental as you’d like to believe.
Sometimes it comes from the good people out there, people you thought you could trust, or at least hoped you could. But it turns out it was just the same trick they’ve been pulling for years, like Lucy with a football, teasing you with a welcoming promise, only to pull the welcome away when they realize, no, they aren’t actually comfortable welcoming your kind.
And sometimes it feels like those wounds are coming from God’s Self. Sometimes your righteous anger burns at the One who has the power to step in and do something about it all, but inexplicably either can’t or won’t.
It is during these times especially, when we most want to surrender, that we must press on through the muck. Not because this is some sort of test for us to pass, but because to strive and to love and to care are what is best about being human.
Teaching an old Jesus new tricks
One of the many interesting things about this story is the way she doesn’t dispute Jesus’s insult, nor does she argue for equality. She is just a desperate mother trying to save her child, and all that indignation would have been counterproductive to her goal. So just wants to help her baby.
So she simply asks for crumbs. Because surely if the Kingdom of Heaven is a bountiful as Jesus has said, then surely there is enough to go around.
Just some crumbs…
Is it her desperation that moves Jesus? Or is it purely the power of her argument? We like to think of Jesus as being a fully formed and aware of everything that lay before him, but the Scripture doesn’t really teach that. Luke talks about Jesus “increas[ing] in wisdom and in years,” so we really shouldn’t be surprised when he learns new things about himself and about his mission.
Yes, it’s hard out here for a Messiah too. There was so much to do, and so many demands placed on him. People pulled him in a thousand different directions, there was never enough time, there was never enough him go around.
Well, except maybe there was. Maybe, in this new Kingdom, there was abundance enough for everyone. After all, isn’t that what the loaves were all about?
Y’all means all.
Mark 7 finishes with another healing story that seems fairly typical, but for one detail: it takes place “in the region of the Decapolis.” Which, like this woman’s hometown of Tyre, is also Gentile country.
So let us give thanks for impertinent women. For those who persistently won’t take “no” for an answer. For those who can teach even the Messiah a thing or two. And let us learn from them.
Learn their tenaciousness. Let us not be afraid to get lippy when the situation calls for it, even when it’s Jesus himself standing in the way. It’s okay! You aren’t the first to call him out; you won’t be the last.
And who knows? You might even change his mind.