“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Mark 7: 27

If this had been my introduction to Jesus, I’m pretty sure that – no matter how desperate I might have been to heal my child – I’d have told him where to get off and walked away.  (NB: my last post was on evangelism.  This is not a good example of how to earn disciples.)

And yet: I’m a mother.  I can sense, very dimly, what it must have cost this woman to watch her daughter’s suffering.  Watching my toddler work through an asthma attack is bad enough, when I have a nebulizer and inhaled steroids and the possibility of an emergency room with good medical care.  To watch a child struggle with none of those things available, possibly for years, is beyond the realm of my comprehension. Would we not, any of us, have grasped at this chance, this itinerant preacher and miracle worker of whom word has spread even beyond his own home region?

The story goes deeper than that, of course.  A Gentile seeking out a Jew; a Gentile woman seeking out a Jewish man; a woman of means (her child – her daughter – had a bed) seeking out the son of a carpenter, an itinerant preacher of no means at all.  Despite their respective genders, she has the higher social position, and they both know it.  The power ought, rightly, to be in her hands.

One side-effect of parenting, however, is the realization that power and control are illusory.

How shocking must it have been for Jesus to see this woman throwing herself at his feet, begging for his help?  Had she touched him, he would have been rendered ritually unclean; despite his condemnation of the Pharisees immediately prior to this story, and his insistence that impurity comes from internal, rather than external sources (Mark 7: 1-23), one must still wonder whether his reaction to this Gentile woman doesn’t come from a instinctive, reflexive place.  Can one who has been raised with those purity laws abandon them completely in such a short time?

How tiring it must have been, as well.  From very early in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been surrounded by incessant need.  More and more, we see that his rare moments of escape must be half-spent in worrying about his rather inept disciples, these fishermen who seem to have lost even the ability to sail without Jesus’ help.  As a last resort, he headed into Gentile territory, to a place where maybe, for once, his reputation might not have preceded him.

And then along came a woman of means, desperate to the point of humbling herself before this man of low social standing.  He’s been arguing with the Rabbis and dealing with incompetence in his own camp; she sees him as her last, grasping hope.

And he was a jerk to her.

There isn’t much getting around it.  This is not the patient, loving Jesus we all prefer to see.  This is the Jesus who overturned the tables in the Temple and drove out the merchants with whips (John 2:13-16).  This is the Jesus who argued with the Pharisees, who called them hypocrites (Mark 7:6 among many).  (NB: again, not a particularly helpful way to evangelize.)  This is the tired, frustrated, slightly-burned-out Jesus whom we see throughout the Gospels, but for whom we’re usually cheering; after all, the anger is usually directed against one or more of the biblical “bad guys”, the ones who (spoiler alert) are going to end up conspiring to have our hero killed.

On the surface, perhaps, this woman of means might seem to be one of the bad guys.  Relations between the Jews and the Syrophonecians aren’t exactly cozy, after all, and Jesus tends to have trouble with people of power and privilege.  But we, as readers of the Gospel, find ourselves sympathetic to this mother, this “woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit” (Mark 7: 25) She isn’t simply a soon-to-be-killer-of-Jesus; she isn’t a faceless-merchant-Temple-defiler.  More than many, in the Gospels, she’s one of us.

And Jesus is a jerk.

He calls her a dog.

He refuses to help a suffering child.

He does not see the humanity of this non-Jew crouched at his feet.

He’s acting like one of us, not like Jesus.  He’s acting like one of us, faced with one of the untouchables of our own society, doing more to keep himself clean than to cleanse her.

We read this passage and it sends us reeling.  It upends the theology of those rubber bracelets and bumper stickers and lanyards: WWJD?  He’d be a jerk.  Don’t you want to come to my church?

I didn’t think so.  And I still think I might have told him what he could go do with his itinerant ministry.

The Syrophonecian woman is a better Christian than I am, it seems.

Because I can read the passage, read the commentaries, try to find a loophole (“oh, he was tired and crabby that day” “oh, he was on the defensive because of how the wealthy usually treated him”) but I can’t quite escape the disappointment, the resentment, that Jesus’ humanity had to rear its ugly head in that moment.  I can read the passage as a reminder that we, all of us, are in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, but that doesn’t make it easy to deal with God’s own Son, the Word made Flesh, needing grace and forgiveness.  I want Jesus to understand all our human weaknesses and failings without actually indulging in them himself.  I want him to be better than we are.

Not so this Gentile mother.  This powerful woman, humbled at the feet of one she trusts with the health of her child, claims a new power, before which even Jesus is humbled.  She loves him.  She empathizes.  She recognizes that he is tired, recognizes that he’s become so used to being defensive that it’s become his new normal, recognizes that he’s not really responding to her, but to his own fatigue at being needed.  She recognizes that her need, coming from outside his own community – that the idea of need from outside his own community – is overwhelming.  She might even recognize herself in him: the mother of a sick child, for whom her constant present is required and probably tiring.  She recognizes that he is in need of grace, and does not despise him for it.

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  (Mark 7:28)

Did she know about the feeding of the five thousand, just a few Gospel verses earlier, when the crumbs were more plentiful than the original meal?  Could that have been how she’d heard of this preacher – had one of the five thousand witnesses to this miracle been through her region, telling the tale?

Perhaps.  Or this may simply be a movement of the Spirit, tuning Jesus’ ears more keenly to this woman’s perfectly appropriate rejoinder, reminding him of the abundance that God has promised.  Reminding him that love knows no bounds, that the kingdom promise is not exclusive, that he is, himself, the embodiment of a new covenant.  Reminding him that God’s love for us is like a parent’s for a child; like the love that put her in Jesus’ path in the first place.

What do you do when Jesus is a jerk?  You understand him, as you hope that he understands us.  You participate in God’s grace, in the love that forgives us our humanity and builds us up.  You embody Christ for him, until he is ready to embody Christ for you.

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