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.’ So
she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
I like a good insult. I confess it. 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 even playful insults can easily
cross the line into hurt and offence. 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
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 non-Jewish pigs.
So - we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a
racist – which is great news, considering that Sunday will be ‘Racial Justice
Sunday’! But then, we've also 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
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 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 they want...".
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 fells the need,
strategically, to focus on the Jews first.
But was he right? Does it mean
that if he came to Britain, Jesus would have joined ‘Britain First’?
The next line is even more troubling, potentially: "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 your daughter".
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 wise challenge. When strong
science, or the Holy Spirit, reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply
wrong (a fake 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.
We know that Jesus could frequently get exhausted by his ministry. He took frequent naps in boats just to keep
going. 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 and mind.