A reflection on Mark 7:24-37 by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M. S. Ed.
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
What on earth is Jesus doing, saying a thing like that to anyone? How can these words be coming from the Jesus who has just told members of his own group that observing food laws is not as important as what is within a person? I find myself disliking this passage for two reasons. The first is personal. This is not the Jesus I want to believe in. I want Jesus to be unfailingly kind and loving, always generous, always comforting to those in need. I am a recovering codependent, praying daily for healing from old, distorted teachings, working daily to uncover and recover from my own need to always be the good girl, the teacher, the helper, and never to admit my own needs, anger, bias, or sinfulness, not to mention plain old bad moods. I wonder whether I want Jesus to be the ultimate codependent. Certainly I don’t want to believe he would say something so cruel to a woman who wants healing for her child.
As I begin work on this passage, I want to find an excuse for Jesus, a reason those words aren’t really as cutting as they sound. The second objection takes shape: it is a sense of distance from the culture in which the Gospels take place, combined with the sense that God is alien and unpredictable. I am haunted by a remark from one of my Education for Ministry mentors, a passionate conservative who was doing his internship year in a wildly liberal parish: when we discussed some troubling passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, Gordon would smile and say, “Ah, but that was before God was a liberal.” He always got a laugh from us, and he got us thinking as well. I like to think that God agrees with me. It is easy for me to see that some passages in Scripture are written out of assumptions we no longer share—and it is easy to bear that as long as I am sure mine are an indication of the spiritual growth of the church as a whole, more true to the spirit of the Gospels, more just, more loving, more, well, right. In my indignation and unease at Jesus’ words to the Syro-Phonecian woman, I find a deeper fear: what if I’m wrong? What if Jesus was sexist and prejudiced? What if God is?
I feel again the sense of distance between my culture and the cultures from which Scripture grew. The Jesus whom I take for granted is in many ways a stranger, and his world is not mine, though my faith stance tells me that my world is also his and he is present with me. Still, in the world of this story, I don’t even know why this woman is there, what treatment she has faced for having a child who is seen as demon-possessed, and why Jesus makes such a distinction between their groups that he can call his people children and hers dogs.
Chasing the uncomfortable questions through commentaries and articles, I find that the woman’s act goes outside many rules. She breaks in on Jesus’ privacy by walking into a house where he has gone to be free of the demands of others. In a culture where public life revolved around men and a male relative was expected to do the talking, she addresses Jesus directly as she begs for a healing for her child. She does all this despite the fact that their ethnicities and faiths are different, and that his group regards hers as inferior. She is no coward; having come this far with her request, she is unlikely to shrink back at one rude sentence. Like the woman with a hemorrhage who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment despite the deep taboo against a bleeding woman touching a man, she has gone outside the rules of her time and place. She has the courage of desperation, the determination to get what she needs for her child no matter what stands in her way.
Jesus does not simply react by telling her to go away and leave him alone: he responds by gives her an opening. He tells her the “children” must be fed first, that their food must not be thrown to the “little dogs.” The initial sense of a rude refusal hides an interesting nuance. Has he taken her measure and offered an argument that those around him will expect to hear, trusting a brave woman to press her point? Whether he is surly or setting up an argument for her to knock down, he has not slammed the door.
There is also a hint of a conversation between groups: it is possible that the “little dogs” refers to the Cynics, followers of a Greek philosophy whose adherents frequently went outside social convention and who were scorned as “dogs” as a result by the respectable folk of their time. If Jesus is making a reference to the Cynics, the phrase about dogs has the potential to be both an intellectual joke and a way of engaging the woman as an equal. The audacious female outsider is as worthy of serious conversation as a respected Pharisee. This could, after all, be Jesus crossing boundaries and extending respect to a stranger and an alien.
As a teacher, I know my students often learn best when they teach each other or teach me what they have learned. Jesus, in offering an opening, gives the woman a chance to teach him and those around him, and she does so, using her wit and courage to turn his utterance around with a skill worthy of Jesus himself. The dogs eat the children’s crumbs, she responds, taking the image and turning it back so that there is a reason he should grant her request and give her just a little grace, just one deeply needed healing. There is a compliment to his power hidden in her clever answer. I wonder whether Jesus laughs at that perfect response. Certainly, he respects it, and dismisses her only as he grants her request: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” The commentators say that she is the only person in this gospel who teaches Jesus something; the woman, the alien, the breaker of rules is a teacher after his own heart. Whether she wins an argument with a Jesus who needs to learn a lesson, or engages in a game of words in which, as Frost says, “the work is play for mortal stakes,” he has, in the end, respected her for qualities and actions that are very like his own.
There is much of which I cannot be sure in this story, but one thing is certain: God is indeed unpredictable. In both of the stories in this Gospel, the healings take place in ways that could not be expected. The woman’s daughter is healed at a distance: the man is healed by intimate contact. Jesus does not turn away someone who breaks the rules: he does command those around him to keep a healing secret, a puzzling theme to find in an account of good news meant to spread to the whole world. God may not always be a liberal or a conservative, and Jesus is not just a creature of his time or of my own. We would do well to keep a sharp but open mind as we ask Jesus for healing, and we must be ready to take it in the way and time that it comes, not as we would expect it.