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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “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.
Let’s be frank: this is a pretty difficult, and even disturbing, passage.
First, let’s set the context: Jesus is again on the move, crossing yet more boundaries. He is journeying, in fact, far, far afield, both geographically and socially. Tyre is a good deal further north than he’s ever gone before, on the edge of the Mediterranean and well into Syrian territory. We don’t know if he’s scouting out new territory for mission or if he just wants a break from the crowds and controversies that have attended him in Galilee.
Yet whatever his motive, he’s not successful, as even in this remote locale people notice him. More than that, like everywhere else he’s gone, they come to him and, indeed, want something from him. In this case it’s a woman, a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician Gentile woman, to be exact. Which might be Mark’s way of locating her as far away from Jesus socially as he can imagine.
Her daughter is sick, possessed by an unclean spirit, and so she comes and bows down at his feet in a posture of complete humility to beseech him to do for her little girl what he’d done for so many others.
And here’s where things get disturbing. Jesus refuses. More than that, he insults her. More than that, when you think about it, and given the form and manner of her appeal, he humiliates her, comparing her to a dog. But she is undeterred. “Call me dog, will you?” we can almost hear her say, “Fine. Because I love my daughter so much I’ll be a dog, but I’ll be a dog demanding the crumbs off the table.”
And then Jesus relents, responding to her tenacious, desperate faith by commending her and healing her beloved daughter.
But why did it have to be so hard?
The standard interpretation softens the story by saying Jesus isn’t really insulting her, he’s just testing her. She passes and so her daughter is healed. Maybe that’s the way it was. Maybe.
But maybe Jesus himself has not quite realized the implications of his kingdom yet. Maybe it was all too easy to fall into the typical dichotomies of in and out, saved and damned, worthy and unworthy, Jew and Gentile. Maybe, that is, he really has come for the Israelites and then he stumbles upon this woman – or maybe God even put her in Jesus way – to test him, to stretch him, to extend his imagination to believe that God’s kingdom includes all people – Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles – everyone.
You can read it either way, I suppose. The more traditional way certainly conforms better to our standard imagination and dogma about Jesus’ omniscience and all that. But something about the latter interpretation – that God’s kingdom is so huge, so big, so unexpectedly gracious and wildly inclusive that it even takes Jesus a little while to really grasp it – something about this interpretation appeals to me.
And so in a heartbeat I move from feeling indignant for this woman to admiring her chutzpah to being grateful for her willingness to challenge, and thereby teach, the Teacher.
Prayer: Dear God, thank you for this woman, for her love of her daughter and her desperately courageous faith. May we challenge and trust you just as much. In Jesus’ name, Amen.