Wow! Now here’s a food story to grab your attention. Jesus checks out of the crowd and the hectic pace of “healer-of-the-moment” celebrity and has the most politically incorrect encounter of his ministry. A poor woman pleads for help for her daughter and he calls her a dog. What is going on here?
Mark has been called the heretical gospel, in part for the times when Jesus and God are not in lockstep. Think, in the garden when Jesus asks for a different path, or at least a different dinner cup. Here in this story we expect our kind, loving Jesus to say, “Of course I will save your daughter.” Instead Jesus is caught with his compassion down. He says 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.” Jesus calls her a dog, telling this desperate woman the mission God gave him is for the Jews and the Jews alone. Nowhere else in all the gospels does Jesus refuse a direct request to heal someone.
Some commentators try to soften the blow to our senses, that Jesus’ words are not as harsh as they sound. They suggest that Jesus is merely calling her a “pet.” No. The word is “dog” and dog is what it means.
I can imagine most folks who have their desperate hopes focused on a single encounter, might have crept away in utter despair. Not the Syrophoenician woman. The remarkable thing is how this mother corrects Jesus. This poor woman has everything against her when she pushed her way into Jesus’ dinner down-time. She was a woman, a Gentile and from the wrong side of the tracks.
She turns his words around and bends the dog metaphor to her advantage. With boldness, even, she responds “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus recognizes this immediately and heals her daughter. Yet it is not that simple.
This moment upsets our children’s bible version of Jesus. We tend to think of Jesus as: the Jesus that bids everyone to come to him, no matter the time or the place; the Jesus that never tires or pulls away; the Jesus that doesn't have any tricks up his sleeve because what you see is what you get. And what you get are rainbows and sunshine.
Yet Scripture paints a different picture of Jesus. One where he is indeed divine, yet also very human. This is a more realistic version of Jesus experiencing the full range of human needs and emotions: he gets annoyed with the stupidity of the disciples; he gets overwhelmed by the burden he is called to bear. he gets tired of having to be on all the time.
Throughout the Gospels, we read that Jesus goes off by himself to pray, to recharge, to be alone with his Father. Except this time, he is unsuccessful. He gets cornered by a woman in need of help. Instead of encountering “Come-to-me-all-you-who-are-weary” Jesus, she gets “go-away-all-of-you-because-I’m-weary” Jesus.
As polite, well-meaning 21st-century Christians, we don’t really like this Jesus. We don’t like that he doesn’t just heal the woman’s daughter when she asks. And we definitely don’t like that he doesn’t live up to our expectations of who we think Jesus should be.
But if we can step back from our politeness, our expectations, and our children’s Bible version of Jesus, we might be able to see that this passage isn’t about him rejecting the woman’s desperate request, so much as it is about recognizing her desperate belief.
So let’s start with the desperate part. As we’ve noted, this woman is at the end of her rope. Her young daughter is plagued with something no doctor can fix. She doesn’t just have a fever. She is not suffering from a disease. An unclean spirit, a demon, is residing in the innocent body of her beloved daughter.
In the depths of her helplessness, this mother hears a story about a man from Galilee who not only makes the lame to walk and the blind to see, but casts demons into the outer darkness where they belong. Normally she would dismiss such tale tales, but her need is desperate. And these accounts are different from other tall tales. This Jesus is different. His power is evident. His message is clear. His compassion is overwhelming.
Many were saying, as we do today, that it was all too good to be true. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe it was so good that it had to be true.
Friends, this is where the whole belief part comes in. You see, it didn’t take long for the stories to stop being just stories as more and more witnesses came forward, those who had seen Jesus of Nazareth at work firsthand.
And it didn’t take long for the woman’s curiosity to turn into hope and her hope to turn into expectation and her expectation to turn into belief. She began to believe that the stories about Jesus were true. She began to believe that Jesus was more than just an ordinary man. She began to believe in Jesus.
And it was this desperate belief that drove the woman to call in every favor she had and use every trick in her bag just to find out where Jesus would be when he got into town.
It was this desperate belief that gave the woman the courage to fall down at the rabbi's feet and beg him for a miracle.
It was this desperate belief that gave the woman the determination to argue for a crumb when she was denied bread.
And it was this desperate belief, that we, as Christians, call faith.
Despite my initial unease with Jesus’ response in this story, I have come to appreciate what he is doing here. Because if Jesus had just reacted the way we would have expected him to, if Jesus had just healed the woman’s daughter outright like he did every other time in Mark, then not only would we maintain an unrealistic perception of who Jesus is, but also and unrealistic perception of who we are as people of faith.
What I mean is, by domesticating Jesus, we have also domesticated the life of faith. Somewhere along the line, we were told that our faith is grounded in Jesus’ response to our incessant requests. If God gives us whatever we want, when we want it, how we want it, then God must be real, our faith must be real.
We love the Jesus we read about earlier in Mark, the one we see painted on the cover of our children’s Bible, because he gives the people what they want. And whether we are aware of it, or not, we start putting our faith in a divine Santa Clause, rather than a merciful Savior.
But if this Syrophoenician woman teaches us anything in this passage, if Jesus teaches us anything in this passage, it is that faith is not about what Jesus does, but about what who Jesus is.
Because faith is not about getting what we ask for, but getting the one we are asking. Faith is not about our needs, our wants, and our plan, but his need, his wants, and his plan.
When it comes down to it, our faith is not about us at all. Our faith is about him, our Savior, our Messiah, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
But here is the best part. While we don’t know the where, the when or the how, we do know, we do believe, the who, the what and the why. Because as Christians we know, we believe that the who is Jesus Christ. As Christians we know, we believe the what is a life marked by forgiveness, redemption, healing and grace.
And as Christians we know, we believe, that the why is that God loves us more than we could have ever hoped for or imagined.
So while the life of faith doesn’t always happen in the way we would expect, we, as Christians, continue to desperately believe not necessarily because we want to, but because we have to.
After all, Jesus is the only one, we can rely on even in the midst of our deepest sadness. Jesus is the only one we can hope in, even when it seems all hope is lost. And Jesus is the only one we would seek out, fall at his feet, and beg for even just for a meager crumb. Because Jesus is the only one who can take our desperate belief and call it faith.
When push comes to shove, I gotta say that this version of Jesus is way better than the Jesus of our Children’s books. I don’t know about you, but when I close my eyes, I don’t want to see somebody else’s version of somebody else’s version of somebody else’s version of Jesus.
When I close my eyes and imagine Jesus, I want to be surprised, amazed, astonished, even offended by the Jesus I see, because as it turns out, that is the Jesus who bids the little ones to come to him and who casts out demons. That is the Jesus who preaches to the masses and who goes to mountains to pray. That is the Jesus who died on a cross and rose again three days later. And that is the Jesus who carries my faith and carries your faith and carries all of our faith.