Children and Dogs - the Syrian Woman
Mark 7: 24-37
Insults. I like insults. I confess it. There is nothing quite so pleasing to an old cynic like me than a well-crafted insult. Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Yes, Madam, and you are ugly. But in the morning, I will be sober." Priceless, isn't it?
We all know, though, don't
we, that insults can easily cross the line between gentle playful fun, and
downright hurt and offence. Certain
words have the power to wound...for all sorts of reasons. Which is why it is
quite surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the
non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a
dog has always been a gross insult. And
yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her
daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and
throw it to the dogs'.
Jesus appears to be saying
that his ministry, his power, his gifts, are meant only for the people of
Israel - not for anyone else. What a
shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me
saying that only white English people can be Christians.
But when we read the Bible,
we have to be very careful. Only a few pages earlier, especially in chapters 3
and 5, we find that Jesus quite happily and regularly preached his message to
non-Jews, all around Tyre and Sidon, casting out demons into a herd of very
So the immediate context of
Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus was happy to preach to non-Jews, happy to
heal them. He clearly wanted all peoples
to know about God.
So - we've got ample
scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist. But then, we've got
scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much
hated each other. So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of
Jesus statement about children and dogs?
Mark tells us that after some
intense theological arguments with Jewish religious leaders, Jesus went off to
the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee. And, according to Mark, he "did not want
anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in retreat...trying to
get away from it all for a while...needing to get his head together in a quiet
place without crowds all around him asking for another miracle.
Then along comes this woman
- a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle`. Weighed down by the
difficulties of his mission, tired, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus
actually appears to snap. We can imagine
him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to
himself "I need to focus on Israel...I need to get them to understand
before we can take this message any further". He gropes for a metaphor.
Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all
Notice the use of the word
"first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states
that as a Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring
salvation to the world - Jesus needs to focus on the Jews first.
Then comes the difficult
line: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the
dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic
response. In fact, although we translate
the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred
to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful
word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!
But the woman is more than a
match for the tired, worn-out Jesus. And she's desperate to get Jesus to change
his mind. She persists - she spars with
him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the
Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under
the table eat the children's crumbs".
You can almost see Jesus
laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not
give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly turned
his own metaphor against him. Mark tells
us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left
So what do we learned from
this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?
First, we've seen something
of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was
God. He felt cold, hunger and fatigue just like we do. For those of us who are struggling with what
feels like a never-ending lockdown, we can be sure that Jesus feels our
tiredness, and our frustration.
And, just like us, when he
was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things a little out of
balance. The same goes for us. It is not
sinful in itself to hold a wrong opinion. But it would be sinful to continue
steadfastly holding that opinion in the face of revealed truth. When strong science, or the Holy Spirit,
reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply wrong (a false truth, perhaps!) we
sin when we refuse to change our mind – to repent, to turn around, to face in
the new direction of truth.
Secondly, I think this story
reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things
wrong. It’s good to recognise that we
are all human… that we can all mis-speak from time to time. We need t be always ready to forgive and move
on in our relationships with one another.
As someone who enjoys both giving and receiving a bit of teasing, I know
that feeling of ‘Oh no, I’ve over-stepped the mark there!’. I pray for the forgiveness of those around
me, when that happens. Just as I offer
forgiveness if their occasional careless words cause me pain. That’s part of what it means to live in a
Christian community – forgiving others, as we too are forgiven.
So, what do we learn from
this story? We learn that we follow a
Lord who know what it is like to be us – to be tired, fed-up, and in need of
getting away from it all. He stands with
us, alongside us, sustaining us and encouraging us – knowing completely what we are going
through. He is with us today, just as he
was with the Syro-Phoenician woman. He
is our rock, the source of all our forgiveness, and the healer of spirit, body