Nobody in this scene comes off looking good. Especially not Jesus, although the portrait of Jesus in Mark’s gospel shows a far more human figure, perhaps because this one is the earliest of all gospels, written perhaps seven years after Jesus’ death. Mark’s Jesus gets angry. He gets fed up with his disciples. And in this exchange, he is flat rude.
He calls a woman a dog. His chief concern seems to be that she is of Syrophoenician origin, a Gentile, and he insists that he has come to rescue only the lost sheep of Israel. This appears to be the only occasion in the Scriptures in which Jesus turns down a request for healing.
Is it simply that he is tired? Or is he really choosing to withhold his gifts from someone from a different ethnic background? Might I propose the radical suggestion that it doesn’t matter why Jesus behaves the way he does? It seems to me to be far more interesting to examine why the woman behaves as she does. Is this behavior that we should emulate when it comes to our relationship with Jesus?
It’s worth noting the extraordinary persistence it must have required for her to find Jesus in the first place. He had taken refuge in a region where he had not moved about much and to a private home for some much-needed rest. He didn’t want anyone to know where he was, yet she found him. Imagine her going from house to house, asking questions, making a nuisance of herself, because of the importance of her mission. Her child was ill, and nothing was going to stop her from getting what she needed.
How often do you and I promise to be persistent about a matter and then tail off? “You’re in my prayers,” we might say, and maybe for a day or two they are, and then we forget. We might start off eager to find a much-needed job, but after a few discouraging weeks it gets harder and harder to keep trying. But this woman refused to be discouraged by the negative answers she must have received: not only, “No, he’s not here,” but surely she must have been told to mind her own business, to go back home where she belonged, to stop bothering people.
So if we are to learn from this encounter, one lesson we might take to heart is persistence. To continue in prayer, to continue in a spiritual practice, even if it seems that we’re not getting results, to keep going, trusting that in the fullness of time, we will find what we seek.
And what do we do when, in prayer, we get an answer that doesn’t sit right? By no means am I suggesting that we ignore God’s leadings. But there was a reason that the woman couldn’t accept the answer that she was initially given. If she had been asking for herself, she might have slipped away, and we would never have heard of her again. But her focus was not on herself. She was caring about someone outside herself, and isn’t it interesting how obstacles seem to fall away when we have our attention and energy fixed on something outside ourselves, something greater than ourselves?
When Jesus rejects her, when he calls her a dog, when he says he isn’t interested, she accepts what he says – sort of. “Yes, Lord,” she says. Bowing at his feet, addressing him as “Lord” and “Son of David,” she is humbling herself before someone she acknowledges as having great power. “Yes, Lord,” she says. “You’re right.” And she turns his exclusion back on him. “If you call me a dog, then you must acknowledge that the dogs are a part of the family as well, and they at least get the crumbs from off the table. You can heal my daughter with just a word, just a look. I’m not asking you to deprive anyone of what they should be getting. Only at least give me the crumbs – not for me, but for my daughter.”
One of the reasons this text seems so problematic is that we’re not accustomed to Jesus responding this way. It makes us want to question whether we heard correctly. What do you and I do when in our prayer life, in our ongoing conversation with God, we hear something unlikely? We might do as this woman did: we can question. We can challenge. We can ask, “Are you sure? But what about this, and what about this?”
Never be afraid to challenge God.
When we are seeking God’s will for our lives—as Jesus taught us to do—we may think we know what we’re supposed to do on any particular day, but sometimes we’re confronted with circumstances that can shift our perspective and make us realize God wants us to do something we hadn’t planned on. And that’s what happened with Jesus. He finds himself being invited instead of being the one doing the inviting. And he changes his mind, something you and I can be so reluctant to do. He allows himself to examine the evidence, to hear from a point of view different from the one he holds, and he learns from someone he would not normally have allowed into his life.
And what happens as a result? The woman gains what she needs most – from an unexpected source. And we gain a lesson from Jesus, although perhaps not the lesson we might have been looking for.
Jesus’ behavior shows us that we can challenge God, that when we come to God in prayer seeking wholeness not for ourselves but for the sake of the world as a whole, we can persist, that in fact we should persist. We can trust in ourselves to know when something is not right and needs to change.
And we can learn as well what Jesus learned. He has entered into this exchange with a fixed idea: the people of the region of Sidon and Tyre are enemies of the observant Jews, and his mission is to the house of Israel – or so he thinks. And he thinks that because that’s the way he was raised. You and I have been raised with our own ideas of who is in and who is out – of where the borders and boundaries must be for our own safety.
And Jesus has learned that inheriting that bias is inevitable – but that holding on to that bias is a choice.
What are you and I holding on to simply because it’s what we have always known? What will happen if you and I allow ourselves to be open to different opinions and different outlooks?
Perhaps we might find what the persistent woman finds at the conclusion of this exchange: that crumbs are more than enough from the hand of God.