By: Emily K. Bisset
From there [Jesus] 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.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone ( Mark 7:24–30 NRSV).
This story is one that most preachers and Christian educators wish wasn’t in the Gospels. But since it is, we try to avoid drawing attention to it, hoping that others won’t notice it, and ask the dreaded question, “What was that all about?”
Jesus is in the region of Tyre, remote and rural, fairly far from his usual haunts of Capernaum and Galilee. The story says, “He did not want anyone to know he was there.” This seems to be a perfect opportunity to discover the true nature of Jesus’ character—a sort of candid camera moment. There are no bumbling disciples to lead. There are no religious leaders to test his wit and wisdom. No one is looking. Jesus is sitting down to eat. He has ordered toast and coffee, and picked up a newspaper to hide behind (just in case someone comes looking for him) when he hears her clear her throat. He tries to ignore it, telling himself it’s just the owner of the B&B. But she does it again. Jesus peers over the edge of the paper, and there she is, looking at up him with expectant, even desperate eyes.
She tells him about her little daughter, who is possessed with an evil spirit. While we may not know what that means, we can be sure that it was a terrifying and heartbreaking experience. Seeing your child suffer is among every parent’s worst fears. Jesus, who is supposed to be compassionate, kind, healing, patient, and good, even (and perhaps especially) when no one is looking, replies, “Let the children be fed first. It is not fair to take the children’s food, and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus didn’t make up this ethnic slur. It was part of the common cultural vocabulary. The point is Jesus dismisses her completely, hoping his statement will be the end of this interruption. But it is not the end. “Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
How are we to understand this story? There are a number of interpretations of what happens in this exchange. Some say that Jesus is just testing the woman and her faith before he gives the healing, which he intended to give all along. But, Jesus doesn’t do anything like this to anyone else, and, if it is a test, why the insult? Others say that healing Gentiles simply was not part of Jesus’ agenda. Jesus had no intention of healing this woman’s daughter. He came for the Jews, the chosen people of God. It was not his mission to serve, convert, or save other people outside that group. I am inclined to think that the latter is the more faithful interpretation. That leads us to a couple of issues in the story.
First, the woman embodies faith. It is perhaps not the kind of faith that we mainline Protestants are comfortable with, but we can still identify with it if we are honest. She is a mother whose child is suffering. She is not willing to give up. She doesn’t expect to be treated as one of the children. She doesn’t ask to get what they get. She is desperate and she is tenacious. And she realizes the potency of Jesus’ healing capacity. Even a speck, a crumb, of his grace will be enough to heal her daughter and change their lives. New Testament scholar Matt Skinner says, “Who says things like desperation and tenacity aren’t the same thing as faith, when that desperation and tenacity are brought to Jesus? In Mark, ‘faith’ is … about clinging to Jesus and expecting him to heal, to restore, to save. It’s about demanding he do what he says he came to do.”1
Second, this nameless Gentile woman is able to see beyond the current moment to what God is doing in the larger picture. This woman, with her tenacious faith, knows about God’s abundance. She knows that grace is intended for her, too, even if others would deny her that right. She is simply not willing to believe that the door of God’s love is closed to her and her daughter. And she is right. Some would say that she knows this even before Jesus knows it, which is why he responds to her the way he does, and why she responds to him the way she does. In fact, there is some evidence that she, in fact, changes Jesus’ mission.
That leaves us with another theological knot to try to untie here. Isn’t Jesus God? If God intended all along that the Gentiles be included in God’s reach of grace and love, why would Jesus have responded to the woman the way he did? And how could it be that the woman was able to change Jesus’ perspective, and broaden the range of his mission? I don’t know. But having wrestled with this story, here is what I think. God and the power and wideness of God’s grace simply cannot be contained – not by cultural norms, not by religions, and not even by Jesus himself. It is like light that seeps out of any crack it can find—under the doorframe, between the stones, around the edge of the curtains. When the day comes, you cannot keep it out. You cannot hold it in. The sun rises, and the light comes, even on those days when it is veiled in cloud and rain. The sun rises, and by its light the world awakens. God comes to us in Christ, giving us a glimpse like none other, of God’s holiness, compassion, love, and grace. Yet, even Jesus, who was God incarnate, cannot fully show us the expanse of God’s grace. This story radically teaches us that God is on the loose—working through more means than we ever thought possible, seeping through the cracks of the church, Christianity, social boundaries and sensibilities, to bring about healing, transformation and new life. It also teaches us that none of us are ever beyond the reach of God’s grace.
Wrestling with a difficult biblical passage that no one wants to talk about will often yield a blessing, if we refuse to let it go until it does. There is certainly biblical precedent for doing so. When we muster the courage to talk about difficult things and work through difficult texts, we may well be surprised to discover God’s grace seeping out in powerful, transformative ways that we have never witnessed before.
Matt Skinner, Commentary on the Gospel, www.workingpreacher.com September 9, 2012.
Emily K. Bisset is minister of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Ontario. She holds a Th.D. in homiletics. She and her husband have a two-year-old daughter, Rachel.