This is not a passage that gives us warm fuzzies about Jesus. In fact, on the surface, at least, the whole passage is something of an embarrassment to us. We don’t really like the Jesus who is portrayed in these verses. Truth be known, we expect more, much more from him than we get. We have this idea that Jesus is always loving and compassionate and caring and considerate and ready and willing at a moment’s notice to help anyone who needs his assistance. In this passage, Jesus seems to be a bit grumpy and out of sorts, and quite unwilling to respond to a woman who is in desperate straits.
And maybe he was grumpy and out of sorts. We know for a fact that he was extraordinarily tired, maybe even exhausted, and that he deeply craved rest and solitude. But still, does that excuse his surly behavior? We think not. We sincerely believe that Jesus should be always an inexhaustible source of that compassion and care for which he is so famous. We really don’t want him to be human at all. We don’t want him to be testy or angry or even to appear to be self-serving even in the slightest bit. He should be on call twenty-four-seven and gladly so. He should be at least as good as what we expect from our pastors.
The truth of the matter is though, that Jesus has run away, and he’s done it without notice. He’s abandoned Jewish territory altogether and he’s gone into Gentile, or pagan territory in search of rest and renewal. The region of Tyre, often coupled with Sidon, is some twenty miles north of Capernaum. That’s a fair distance to travel in the first century, and I’m sure that Jesus believed that it was far enough away so that he could escape notice. He’s arranged for a place to stay, and he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. He wants to be alone, and he wants some privacy.
But Mark tells us that the twenty miles might as well have been twenty feet, for he has not escaped notice at all. But there’s a purpose here, and it’s God’s purpose, and I’m absolutely mystified by it on the one hand, and gloriously encouraged by it on the other. Jesus was seeking rest and solitude and privacy when he ran away, but God intended for him to have this appointment. At the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, after Jesus is baptized, we learn that the Spirit of God immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness for a very difficult, but very divine appointment. And it was there in the wilderness that Jesus prevailed over vile and demonic temptations. Good thing, too, because had he not prevailed, we would not have had a Savior.
A similar thing, I believe, is happening in our passage this morning. Jesus is intending to escape, and figures 20 miles distance is sufficient to effect that escape, but at the same time, the Spirit of God has driven him 20 miles north, so that the ministry can be expanded. That part mystifies me. I would rather that the Spirit give him the rest that he so desperately needed. And maybe the Spirit did all things. But in this, the ministry of Jesus was expanded to include Gentiles, and for that, I am literally eternally grateful, for I am a Gentile. As far as I know, there is not one drop of the blood of the Chosen People within me. And until Jesus wandered into Gentile territory, or was driven there by the Spirit of God, I was outside of the realm of the grace of God.
And Mark takes great pains to tell us just how Gentile this woman was. If the Apostle Paul had as one of his bragging rights that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” that he literally squeaked Hebrew, this woman is a Gentile of Gentiles. She is so Gentile that she smells like a Gentile.
She’s living in the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is thoroughly Gentile, but she’s not a native of there. She’s an implant, an immigrant. Someone from away. She’s a native of Syria which is even farther to the north. And implied in that is the hint that she is a true pagan. She worships a multiplicity of gods, and more than likely she was little or no knowledge of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. In fact, her roots are so far from the center of Hebrew culture that she probably couldn’t even speak Aramaic, which was the everyday language that Jesus spoke. We’re pretty sure that Jesus was at least tri-lingual, out of necessity. He spoke Hebrew, the language of his religion, but in addition to Aramaic, he also spoke Greek because it was the prevailing language of the then known world. He may even have spoken a little Latin. And so its very likely that this conversation between this woman and Jesus took place in Greek.
But she is in dire straits and at wit’s end. Her daughter has a demon. It is very likely that she has already sought the help of a multitude of pagan miracle workers, spent a lot of money on them, but without any results. And so now she has come to Jesus. And filled with anguish over her daughter’s condition, she falls at his feet and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Mothers, you know all about the depth of this woman’s anguish. And Jesus must have felt this woman’s anguish; he had to have known her pain. But apparently, he is unmoved by it. He seems harsh and uncaring. He refuses to help her.
And here is where it gets messy. On one level, Jesus has tossed a terrible insult at her. He has call called her a “dog”. In contemporary Jewish culture, “dog” was a common, everyday racial slur for a Gentile, and it carried with it every despicable sense that some of our modern racial slurs carry. It was not a nice thing to say. The rabbis had a saying, with which Jesus was very familiar, that went like this: “As sacred food was intended for humans, and not for the dogs, the Torah was intended to be given to the Chosen People, but not to the Gentiles.” It seems for all the world that Jesus is paraphrasing this popular saying. And that’s troublesome. And it is not easily resolved. It is a problem. We certainly expect more from Jesus than that, even if he is tired and grumpy and out of sorts.
And maybe, just maybe, there is more to it than just that. It may be that Jesus is speaking on two different levels here. And so I’m going to toss out a disclaimer here. I’m still pondering this, still toying with it, musing over it, whatever you want to call it, and I may not know of what I speak. I might be right off my rocker.
The traditional interpretation of this passage is pretty much where we’ve been so far. The “children” of which Jesus speaks are the children of Israel, the Chosen People of God. The dogs are Gentiles. Jesus says, “I can’t help you because it would be unfair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”, but, of course, Jesus is moved by the woman’s witty response and because of her grit and her faith, Jesus grants her request and he heals her daughter. Consequently the good news of the Kingdom of God is extended to those outside of the covenant of God’s Grace. And for which we are, as Gentiles, eternally grateful. If Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the region of Tyre and Sidon, it was for this divine purpose and appointment.
But maybe there’s something else going on here. Maybe Jesus isn’t being Jewish at all here. Maybe he’s adopted the role of a Gentile. Mark has taken great pains to tell us that this woman is miles, literally and figuratively from the cultural center of Judaism. She is as Gentile as Gentile can be. It’s a huge stretch, but she may not even know that “dog” is a racial slur for her cultural heritage. It might never have crossed her mind. Jesus may not be insulting her at all.
As a rule, the Jewish people did not keep dogs as house pets. But pagans surely did. And at meal time, in Tyre and Sidon, as well as in St. George, the dogs would sit under the table hoping against all hope that a tasty morsel would drop from the table that could be quickly snapped up. And it might just be, that here, deep in Gentile territory, that Jesus has set his Jewishness aside and that he’s making a reference not to Jewish cultural feelings about Gentiles, but rather to common, pagan household practices. Not even pagans would take the good food, intended for the children, and toss it first to the dogs, leaving only the crumbs for the children. In good pagan homes the children got the good stuff, and the dogs got what fell from the table. So maybe there’s no racial slur here at all.
But there is still, a huge disconnect between Jesus and this woman, and they both know it. Jesus is Jewish, and she is Gentile, and she knows that Jesus is Jewish. Some how, some way, she has found out about Jesus. She knows that he is at least a miracle worker. How she found that out is a mystery. Mark doesn’t bother to tell us. And so she knows that she is asking a huge favor of him, and that she is asking him to act cross-culturally. And that’s not something that Jews and Gentiles usually do. But if I’m right, Jesus has already done that. And he’s done it by passing up on a racial slur and exchanging it for a common pagan household practice. What he’s done is put himself into her shoes, and he’s become, if only for a moment, a Gentile. And often, in ministry, we’re called to do just that. Jesus could have blown her off as being completely irrelevant. But he didn’t do that. But he hasn’t got it quite right. Not just yet. He needs to listen to her some more. And that’s important, too, because sometimes we think we understand the situation, and we’re close to understanding it, but we’re not quite there yet, and so we need to listen some more.
And so this lady fills him in. She teaches him. Yes Lord, we do keep dogs as household pets, but we let them in at dinner time and they sit under the table. And while the family is eating, if anything falls to the floor, it is fair game for the dogs. You see, everyone including the dogs gets to eat at the same time. The dogs don’t have to wait until the meal is over. What I’m asking from you, is not to sit at table with you, I know our cultures are too far apart for that. What I’m looking for then, Lord, is just a crumb. Just a crumb, Lord, just a crumb. Treat me like a beloved pet, and let something fall from your table into my hands.
And with that, Jesus sensed her growing faith, and he granted her request. He said, “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.
But when all is said and done, Jesus didn’t just let a crumb fall from his table, he sat at table with her, and supped with her, and invited her to fellowship with him. And he took the phrase, “As sacred food was intended for humans, and not for the dogs, the Torah was intended to be given to the Chosen People, but not to the Gentiles” and he put it right on its nose and he turned right upside down. He gave sacred food to the dogs, and he opened up the good news of the Torah to the Gentiles. We can do no less.