24 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, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
The New Revised Standard Version labels this first paragraph “The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith”. This paragraph heading suggests the central truth of the passage lies in the persistence of the woman (even in the face of rejection), the fact that outsiders often knew more about Jesus than insiders (Israel and the disciples themselves) and the movement of Jesus’ ministry to include the Gentiles. All of these are well supported and reflect ways the Living Word can speak to us.
I, however, entered the story from a different place. Instead of focusing upon the woman, I wondered what the story meant in terms of Jesus, particularly the rude and insulting words of verse 27: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (The phrase refers to the Jewish belief that the messiah’s mission was to God’s chosen and that the rest of world, gentiles, were second class—dogs beneath the table). It certainly seems incongruous that the God of love and inclusion would ever refer to a suppliant as a dog. At least two commentators remarked that Jesus had been caught with his compassion down.
There are some interpretive attempts to soften the words—suggesting Jesus was being ironic or teasing, or perhaps the word ‘dog’ was diminutive and perhaps kinder and most commonly, a calculated statement to ‘test’ the woman’s faith. All of that may be true—we have no indication how Jesus delivered these word. But I am suspicious that such interpretations seek to avoid the grittier aspects of Jesus’ humanity.
I prefer to think Jesus was rude and dismissive. That would be the human reaction to the combination of fatigue and intrusion that Jesus certainly felt. We expect great things from our political leaders, our pastors and our savior. We want such people to be better than us. We want them to set a high bar. And we certainly do not want to deal with their humanity. We give lip service to Jesus as fully human and fully divine, but there is a reluctance to see Jesus as fully human. Every human I know has bad days. Every human I know has redefined what was important in their life as they grew older. I would expect no less from Jesus. Luke (2:52) tells us Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor.’ Jesus did not come into the world a pre packaged, fully mature Christ. It was a process. It had to be if he was fully human.
From this perspective, this passage is a marker in Jesus’ discernment of his call. We can see how an ordinary real life experience leads Jesus to a deeper understanding of his own call.
Jesus was looking for a respite from his own notoriety. We often read of Jesus pulling back to rest or to pray but we also read that, as often as not, he was interrupted by the wants and needs of the people around him. Surely, by traveling to the Gentile region of Tyre, he might pass unnoticed. If he could be unnoticed, no one would expect anything of him. He could rest. No such luck. ‘Immediately’ a desperate mother, ‘a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin’ begs Jesus to help her daughter. It’s not that much different from a harried mother escaping to the bathroom for a few minutes of respite—only to have a three year old pounding on the door. Or a famous person who avoids restaurants because they can not eat in peace. I don’t know anyone who is always gracious in such situations.
Jesus’ fundamental understanding of himself is challenged by this woman. Initially Jesus saw his mission to the children of Israel. Other people were secondary; they were less than the chosen. They were the dogs. A gentile woman would not be someone worthy of response. She would be without standing and intrusive. Without stretching the point too far, this woman could be any modern day protester who advocates a cause that doesn’t touch us personally. And in real life, our response, as with Jesus, is to avoid such confrontations.
In real life, we often do not want to really know the pain of others. We can protect ourselves by remaining ignorant. We can protect ourselves from truly listening in more ways than I can count—it’s not really that bad—’you’re being dramatic’—the problem may be real but we can’t make a difference’; other people have it worse; other people have it just as bad; you have no right to speak that way—and on and on. Jesus too, had his reasons but in this encounter, I don’t believe he really wanted to listen. He certainly resisted, but he did.
Colin Kaepernick has become a face of protest by kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games. Many people are upset with him. They complain he should find a different venue; he is being self serving and he is being disrespectful. He should stick to playing football. But it is also true that systemic racism remains in our country. Whether the Syrophoenician woman chose the right venue, was being inappropriate or disrespectful, it was also true that her daughter needed help. She pushed Jesus beyond his own self understanding and beyond the social conventions of the time to see the greater need.
Unless we can allow the unexpected and unfamiliar into our lives, we cannot listen to God. There is always more than what we know. There are always needs we would rather not see. Jesus, in his full humanity illustrated his desire to protect himself from the constant demands of life but he also demonstrated a capacity to be confronted and see beyond what he expected. Though disconcerting, God was calling him into lands and cultures he did not know. God was calling him to give up his preconceptions and stereotypes to meet the person in front of him.
Jesus’ humility allowed him to grow into his call. It would have been easy (and socially acceptable) to dismiss this woman entirely. How dare she persist in her challenge? But Jesus listened and when he listened, he responded.
Notice too, that in the second paragraph, Jesus acted on his new understanding. He continued his travels in Gentile territory. He offered a deaf mute man a new way to hear and a new way to speak. And in so doing, he restored the man to the community.
The spirit of the law is to live in the service of love. Last week that applied to the rituals and conventions of the Jewish faith that served to separate instead of include. This week it applies to the stereotypes, prejudices and fears in all of life that divides us.
We belong to God. We can and will miss the mark many times as we seek to discern what it means to follow him. Jesus was a living example of growing into his call. The question is not ‘will we make mistakes?’ or ‘will we be uncaring?’ We will do both. The question is, will we learn; will we continue to discern the unexpected and inconvenient directions God calls us.
Belonging to God means we always have a place. It means we are always loved. That good news is for us and for all of God’s children.
God, help us live in the breadth and depth of your love. Never let us forget your love extends to all of your creation. Let it be so.