What can we make of Jesus’ harsh reply to the Syrophoenician woman who came to him for help? Here’s a sermon from the archives for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. It includes an allusion to the lively discussion between God and Moses about the golden calf in Exodus 32.
Going to the Dogs
A Sermon on Mark 7:24-30, with allusions to Exodus 32:7-14
This was one determined Gentile mama! Whatever it took to get help for her sick child, this woman would do it, even if it meant getting in somebody’s face. Even if it meant breaking the taboos against a woman speaking to a man in public. Even if it meant crossing the line that kept Gentiles and Jews separate. Even if it meant risking a rebuke or worse. Mark doesn’t tell us the family history, but if this woman of Syrophoenicia was anything like some of the mothers I’ve seen seeking help for their children in need, she left no stone unturned. She went to every doctor. She tried everything. She refused to give up.
Jesus the healer came to town. Mark tells us he was trying to get away, trying to stay hidden for a while. It’s not hard to see why. Just in the two previous chapters of Mark Jesus had experienced rejection at his hometown and coped with the horrible news of the murder of John the Baptist. He had fed 5000-plus people with only a little food. He had argued with his adversaries the scribes and Pharisees about what truly is clean or unclean in the sight of God. He even had to explain it all again to his disciples, who themselves were thoroughly indoctrinated into the view that touching certain things or being with certain people contaminated you. The disciples didn’t get it, just as they didn’t get a lot of what Jesus taught. He had to keep working with them. Jesus had to be tired when he arrived at this woman’s town. He needed a retreat.
Perhaps that could explain the harshness of Jesus’ response. When the woman heard Jesus was nearby, she immediately sought him out and begged him to help her daughter. I don’t know what tone of voice he used, but this is what he said: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Whoa! It’s hard to imagine that Jesus would call even his worst enemy a dog. Had he actually bought the prejudice of the day, that Gentiles were dogs? Calling somebody a dog then was just like using certain words we’ve been taught not to use to refer to people of other races and cultures.
Calling somebody a dog just doesn’t sound like Jesus. It’s troubling. And through the years people have come up with a variety of explanations, trying to put a positive spin on it. Some say that Jesus was definitely speaking tongue in cheek, having just come from a group of Jews who really would have considered this woman and her daughter to be dogs. He was parroting a common prejudice. Jesus was being ironic. Others say he really didn’t mean it pejoratively, that the word he used really referred to people’s household pets, puppies, not mangy, vicious cur dogs.
Still others suggest that Jesus really thought his mission was only to Israel. But I can’t buy that at all. Jesus had already been into Gentile territory once in Mark and healed a Gentile man possessed of a legion of demons. He never shied away from outcasts. And here he was going into gentile territory again of his own volition.
Still others—and this makes a little more sense to me—point out the many places in the New Testament where the Christian mission starts at home, in Jerusalem, and then expands to the ends of the earth. First in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then further into Gentile territory, then all the ends of the earth. As Paul writes, first to the Jew and then to the Greek.
Perhaps it was a question of timing. Start with the children of Israel first, then go to the others. Was this the time to go wholesale into reaching out to the Gentiles? It reminds me a bit of the story in John 2 when the wine failed at a wedding, and Jesus’ mother asked him to do something about it. His response there seems to have a harsh tone: “Woman, what is that to us? My time hasn’t yet come.” Yet he went on and helped, changing water into wine. It became the time to begin his ministry.
Is that Jesus’ tone here, “let me tend to the children of Israel first”? But make no mistake about it, this is what Jesus said: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I can’t put a positive spin on that. I’m still mystified. I’m non-plussed.
But this mama was not non-plussed. She didn’t lose a beat, “But, sir,” she answered, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Touché! There’s enough bread for her daughter to at least have some of the crumbs. What spunk!
It reminds me of Moses getting in God’s face in Exodus 32. God was so terribly hurt and angry because God’s children had made an idol and were saying that that idol was what brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Naturally God was grieved to the heart. God was on the verge of chucking the whole project, despite centuries of promising to lead these children to the Promised Land.
“What a stubborn and hard-headed people, these people whom you brought up from Egypt!” God declared to Moses. “Now stay out of my way so my anger can incinerate them. Then I’ll start over again with your family.”
It’s hard to believe God said anything like that, either. This doesn’t sound like a loving God to me. Moses spoke right up, to this effect: “Lord, remember who you are and who they are. Don’t do this. Don’t give the Egyptians the chance to say, ‘See, their god brought them out just so he could kill them.’ You’d better think twice, Lord. Think of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the promise you made to them.” Moses was vigorously engaged with God. In utter faith he spoke right up to God. Moses told God to stay true to God’s character, true to God’s will and purposes.
That’s what the Syrophoenician mother did. “I may not be a Jew,” she reasoned, “but I do know this. God’s got enough mercy to go around. Be true to that!”
Maybe the zinger she delivered to Jesus really was what showed him that the time was right to broaden the scope, expand the mission. It was not going to be possible any more for him or his followers to stick with the homefolks only. No turning back now. This gospel definitely is going to all the ends of the earth. It’s going everywhere, and yes, it is going to the dogs.
Jesus was impressed. Wow! He marveled at this woman’s faith and courage. She was right! In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus even says, “Woman, great is your faith!” In Mark he heralds her wise and witty and wonderful response. “Because of that answer,” he says in Mark, “go back home, where you will find that the demon has gone out of your daughter.”
But I still can’t put a positive spin on Jesus using the word “dog.” Maybe it just shows how human and earthy he really was, but I still don’t know what to make of it. Some people might, though. Last Sunday some of the younger adults were talking about a Christian rap song they had heard that went like this, “Listen to the Lord, he’s calling you, dog.” Dog with the positive spin it has with some folks now.
Be that as it may, I’m still puzzled over Jesus talking that way. However, I do see wonderful good news and challenging news in how Jesus responded to the woman. Notice this: Jesus really was listening to her. He listened and responded. Two-way conversation is possible here. Jesus took very seriously what this woman had to say. Just as he listened to that woman, just as God listened to Moses, God listens to all of us. God takes very seriously what we have to say. What we say matters to God. Yes, two-way conversation is possible.
What’s more, there’s no need to pussyfoot around God. People of vigorous faith tell God what they really think. They’re not timid around God. They don’t worry about trying to put any spin on what they say to God. They’re just honest, like Moses, and the Syrophoenician mother, and the psalmist and a whole host of others.
This woman told Jesus that it was time to broaden the scope of his ministry, and what did he do? The next thing you know, in the very next chapter of Mark, Jesus was literally feeding bread to four thousand people in Gentile territory. He gave them much, much more than a few crumbs. And not too long after that, at a place outside Jerusalem called Calvary, Jesus gave much, much, much more, infinitely more for everyone. There truly was—and is—enough mercy, enough grace, mercy and salvation to go around.
What a zinger that woman delivered to the Lord! What a zinger she delivers to all of us who are his body now! Her message is for all who want to be true to Jesus Christ. Be true to the mission. Be true to who God is. There is enough grace for all. Time to broaden the scope. “Even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s crumbs,” she declared. Yes, home is where we start our ministry. Our family and our church family is where we start. We start with the children, the insiders. But we can’t stop there. The gospel is for the outsiders, too. It’s got to go to the ends of the earth, and even to the dogs—especially to the dogs.
Stay alert: you never know when the Spirit might call you to be the one to deliver the zinger, the zinger that calls the whole church to be true to the Lord Jesus and true to his mission. Stay alert!