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,[b] 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.” (Mark 6:27-29 NRSV)
I don’t know about you, but this story makes me cringe in embarrassment. Jesus has put his foot in it this time. No matter how you look at it, the Son of God has behaved badly.
People have tried to understand this scripture and have come at it from different points of view.
1. She’s a Gentile Woman. Even Mark makes it very clear that she is not Jewish. And maybe Jesus is tired of the Gentiles lording wealth and fortune over the sidelined Jews.
2. Perhaps Jesus is testing her. Could this be a teaching moment for either her or his disciples?
3. Maybe Mark put this story in here as a message to the early church that whether they like it or not, the Gentiles are a part of gospel proclamation.
4. On the other hand, maybe Jesus didn’t mean to be, well, mean. Perhaps he was simply saying, “Charity begins at home.”
I can’t buy this. He called her a dog: lowly and despised. Some have argued that Jesus was a part of his culture. This woman was being bold by stepping out of her cultural norms to address a man. He was putting her back in her place.
Maybe these answers speak to you. And, if they do, that’s fine. But, they don’t satisfy me.
It’s tough being a pastor in the 21st century. Recent research indicates the following:
• 1,500 pastors leave the ministry permanently each month in America.
• 80% of pastors feel discouraged in their roles.
• 70% of pastors do not have a close friend, confidant, or mentor.
• 71% of pastors stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.
• One out of every ten ministers will actually retire as a minister. (Research compiled from The Barna Group, Focus on the Family, Fuller Seminary, and the Institute of Church Leadership Development. Cited from: Lance Witt, “Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 2011)
Let’s look at what Mark has been telling us in his Gospel up to this point.
• Jesus heals and teaches.
• The more he accomplishes, the greater his success and the larger the crowds.
• He tries to retreat. The crowds find him. He heals and teaches.
• He returns home, possibly for a break. He’s rejected.
• His friend/cousin/mentor, John the Baptizer, is killed because of a lusty dance and a drunken despotic king.
• He tries to retreat. The crowds find him. He heals and teaches. And then he provides food for them. His success is mounting and with it exhaustion.
• His success comes to the attention of the scribes and Pharisees. In their desperate attempt to remain under Rome’s radar, they push back on Jesus’ teachings. But, he’s seen too much pain and suffering and too many of his people have been sidelined. So he pushes back on the religious leaders. And that doesn’t go well.
Why do we find him in the region of Tyre, so far from home? Mark answers that question: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet, he could not escape notice.” He couldn’t be hidden.
He’s tired. He’s worn out. There’s nothing left inside. He needs a vacation; a retreat; time alone with his thoughts and to pray.
What do you do when you’re worn out, burnt out and can’t catch a break? Do you tend to respond poorly to others’ needs? Have you been known to say things you later regret?
Yet, we want, we even expect Jesus to rise above his fatigue. We want him to be better than this. After all, this is the Messiah, God’s son. He’s supposed to be divine; perfect. We want him to be more like the Christ of John’s Gospel: always in charge, knowing what he’s doing, always knowing what’s coming next. In John, he transforms water and reads Samaritan women’s minds.
But, Mark’s Jesus is grittier. He’s human and divine: fully human, fully divine.
We need that humanity. We need the assurance from the author of Hebrews: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are…” (Hebrews 4:15 NRSV)
This is the man who suffered on the cross. He felt fatigue and anger and sadness. Luke reminds us that he grew in wisdom and stature. He was fully human as well as fully divine.
So, when in extreme exhaustion, he says something shameful. Just like us humans would do. We’re no more immune from hurting others and name-calling and fatigue-induced hurtful words.
I love this woman. She’s bold and courageous; witty and intelligent. She could have responded to Jesus any number of ways. But, there’s a lot at stake here: the life of a child: her child. And who would blame her if she made an equally offensive remark, or defended her position? Instead, she moves deeper into the conversation. Just like Jesus did at times.
“I may not be able to sit at the table, but I’m still a part of the household,” she reminds him. (Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary: 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (September 6) The Presbyterian Outlook: pres-outlook.org)
Can’t you hear the stunned silence? Jesus gets it. The gospel is for all; no one is to be left out.
We are all entitled to be fed and obligated to feed.
We are called to teach and to be taught.
The barriers are broken. This woman’s daughter is healed from a distance. And she managed to change Jesus’ mind.
What do we read next? Jesus returns. But, he doesn’t take a direct route. He heads north through more Gentile territory, makes an arc and enters the Decapolis: again, Gentile territory.
This time he heals by touching. And he does it in private. A man is able to speak clearly and listen with care.
Jesus has had time to rest and pray and consider his ministry. He remains in Gentile territory in order to live out God’s call to heal all those who cross his path. He gets to know them, not as “those others” who aren’t like him, but as children of God.
Jesus heals this man of his deafness and his speech impediment. And I can’t help but wonder:
• Where are the Gentiles in our community and our world?
• How are we deaf to their needs?
• How can our tongues be loosed up to speak the gospel loudly and with clarity?
What barriers do we live with that we can’t even see anymore? Do they belong there or do we have the courage to break them down and meet the Syrophoenician Woman on the other side?
All glory and honor be to God.