“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.” “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” From Mark 7:24-37.
I think it was poet and satirist Dorothy Parker who said: “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you have one?” I know it was Henry David Thoreau who called consistency “the hobgoblin of simple minds.” I find that as I get older, I value consistency more and more. Perhaps that means I’m getting simpleminded with middle age. But I’ve always prided myself on my ability to change my mind. I do it so well, it drives some people around me nuts.
This morning, we hear the gospeller Mark’s version of this famous story of Jesus changing his mind. That in itself makes for a good story, and we’ll get to that in a few minutes. But first, I can’t get past the fact that Jesus calls this woman a dog.
A dog? Yes, a dog. Jesus calls this woman—known only as “a Gentile, of Syrophonecian origin”—a dog. Her, her children, her whole community. Really?
There is a long history of interpreters trying to soften this passage:
- Some commentators have pointed out that Syrophonecians were rich and abusive landowners, and the Jews living in that region were more deserving of Jesus’ attention. I don’t buy that.
- There is another theory that Jesus’ words are not as harsh as they sound, and that he was simply referring to her as a pet. However, I don’t think people had dogs as pets in those days…do you buy that? I don’t buy that.
- Others interpret this as a made-up story to emphasize Jesus’ mission to all people, including Gentiles. If this were the first healing of a Gentile, that might make sense, but by the time we get to this point in Mark’s story, we’ve already seen evidence of Jesus’ mission to all people.
I don’t like how limited Jesus seems to be here. Our Jesus is expansive and inclusive, right?
I believe this passage, for good or ill, up to and including this insulting rejection, illustrates the intensity of Jesus’ focus. He is so clear in that moment of where he is going and what he is doing. She comes along and breaks his concentration. Anyone who has ever tried to interact with me on a Sunday morning just before worship about something that doesn’t have to do with Sunday morning knows that I sometimes get a little too focused.
When I lived in New York City I spent time in a parish that had made a remarkable comeback from the brink of death. This New York church had gone from average Sunday attendance of seventy or eighty to fifteen hundred. (They didn’t all go at once; there were four or five services on a Sunday.) The rector who presided over this amazing time of renewal was regularly asked: how did you do it? What’s your secret?
He described an ongoing sense of urgency and a singular focus: growth. Numerical growth, certainly, but also spiritual growth for everyone who came to that church. People would come to him with all sorts of ideas and he would ask: will it help us grow? I’m not going to talk about it unless it will help us grow. His singular focus made some people mad. But it worked.
The year I was a seminarian at that church, on Palm Sunday, the church did what several New York churches did: they hired professional actors for a very serious and realistic passion play. Before it started, the Rector got up and invited all the children to leave—at their parents’ discretion, of course—and go to children’s chapel.
The play was very realistic indeed. An actor who looked a lot like Willem Defoe was nailed to the cross, with realistic shrieks, blood, and agony. The play ended, the cross (complete with the actor Jesus) was carried out of the sanctuary, and the Rector proceeded to ascend the enormous pulpit. Just as he was about to start to preach, he noticed a little boy standing in the transept, shaking and crying. The rector came back down out of the pulpit, and knelt next to the little boy. After a few moments’ conversation, he invited one of the acolytes to get the actor who played Jesus to come out from where he was behind the scenes, finishing his latte. “Look,” said the Rector. “He’s an actor. He’s okay.” The little boy ran back to his mother, visibly relieved.
This spontaneous disruption of plans, attending to the unexpected needs of someone who is not one’s intended audience, got to me.
Once we get past the shock of Jesus calling the entire Syrophonecian community “dogs,” we are left with a theological problem: It’s one thing for you or I to change our minds, but how can Jesus “change” if he is divine? Yes, we say that Jesus is fully human and fully God. I think many of us rely more heavily on the “divine” aspect of Jesus’ identity than the human part. If he changes his mind about this woman, does that mean that he was wrong? That he made a mistake? Can Jesus make a mistake? Isn’t he immutable? I think this moment in the gospel story gives us a window onto the “fully human” side of Jesus that shows the complexity of what that means. “In other words,” as one commentator puts it, “the incarnation is not a cakewalk.”
Jesus’ incarnation—his fleshiness—means that he is ever evolving. Kind of like us. Eternally begotten of the Father; begotten, not made. Remember St. Irenaeus? St. Irenaeus left us a very useful definition of incarnation: God became human, that we might become divine. God became human, that we might become divine. Perhaps we might become so divine—so God-like, that we, too, are always expanding our mission, always ready to hear new ways to further God’s mission of reconciliation and healing. Perhaps we, too, might become divine enough to say the wrong thing and move on to the right thing as quickly as Jesus does.
When we read this story, we think, quite rightly, that it’s about Jesus—an important moment of Good News.
But what about the woman? What would it be like to be her? Think about it. If I were in her situation and Jesus said what he said to me, I think I’d just slink away, ashamed and embarrassed. I’d probably cry. But she doesn’t. She comes right back, gets right in God’s face and says: Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. And her words make all the difference. This woman shows us the kind of relationship God wants with us. God wants us to be people who do not rely on their own strength, but instead put their trust in God’s mercy. If those words are familiar, it’s because they’re from this morning’s opening prayer. The Syrophonecian woman has so much trust in God’s mercy, she’s willing to take it in the form of leftover crumbs. She is our hero for the day.
I pray that we might become divine enough to change our minds and respond to those in need, even when they aren’t on our agenda. I also pray that we might become divine enough to step out with fierce courage and perseverance, and that in all of our doings we might be showered by God’s healing, reconciling grace.