Crumbs for the Dog

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Reading: Mark 7:24-37

This is a Bible passage that always makes me think. There is something going on, and the text is not entirely clear exactly what it is. There are some traditional answers that have been used over the years, and I’ve probably used them myself. But as I stand here this morning I confess that I’m not entirely sure what’s happening in the first part of this text.

Jesus wants a break, so he goes to Tyre. Tyre is a city that is mentioned many times in the Bible and in secular sources. It’s a seaport, and it was one of the major commercial ports of David and Solomon’s time. As recently as 20 years before Christ’s birth, Tyre was operating as an independent republic, but by
Jesus’ time it had been incorporated into the Roman Empire.

Jesus goes to Tyre the same way some of us might go to the Outer Banks or to Ocean City. Jesus wants to get away, to relax, to take a break from things. So he goes to the seaport of Tyre, and he doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s there.

How well do you think that worked? How well do you think it would work if Pres. Obama or Pres. Trump wanted to go someplace and not let anyone know they were there? Jesus was not as well known in his day as those two are, but he was well known enough. Jesus’ fame as a healer had spread to Tyre, and once he arrived word got around that he was there.

A Canaanite woman learned that Jesus was there, and ran into the house. She knelt at Jesus’ feet, and begged him to heal her little daughter who was possessed by a demon. That the woman is Canaanite matters. The Jewish defeat of the Canaanites was viewed as God’s gift. It was confirmation of the status of the Jewish people as God’s elect. It was celebrated in Jewish traditions. This woman not only was not Jewish, she was someone that the Jewish people looked down on.

This whole question of Jewish rituals and traditions may have been on Jesus’ mind when he went to Tyre. In Mark chapter 7 before our Gospel reading, Jesus had been criticized by the Pharisees for not keeping Jewish law.
Now we’re to the point where something is going on that I don’t understand. The woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, and Jesus says no. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s the part I don’t get.

I understand what Jesus is saying when he says no. Jesus is saying that he came for the Jewish people, the people of Israel. Jesus is saying that his healings and his blessing are for the people of Israel first, and then for the Gentiles. His ministry to the Jews is not finished, and the Gentiles will have to wait.
I get that part. What I don’t get is why Jesus has to refer to this woman as a dog. What, precisely, is she doing wrong? She has a daughter who is possessed by a demon, she has heard that Jesus is in town, she believes that Jesus can cast out the demon, she approaches Jesus and asks him to do what she believes he can do. I get that Jesus might want to say no, but I don’t get what looks like a gratuitous insult added on to the end of it.

That’s still an insult, just to be clear. What was one of the major criticisms of Pres. Trump’s response to Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s book and her press tour? He called her a dog. And a lot of people thought that was inappropriate. And it was.

There are a couple of traditional explanations for what Jesus is doing. One of them tries to soften Jesus’ words. He wasn’t really calling her a dog – he was calling her a little puppy. It was a kind of affectionate joshing. I’ve seen that a time or two, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure that makes it a whole lot better. Whether you think “puppy” is sweeter and kinder than “dog” is up to you, but it’s still a pretty rude thing to call a woman who has come to beg for healing of her daughter.

Another explanation is that Jesus is testing the woman. I guess that’s possible, but it really doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense because the woman has already shown a lot of faith and a lot of courage by approaching Jesus as she had. She’s already shown that she believes that he can heal her daughter, she’s already done the work of figuring out where he is and how to get through to him, and she’s already overcome the natural antipathy between Jews and Canaanites to ask for help. This woman has already jumped through several hoops of one kind or another; it seems cruel to make her jump through yet another.

There are a couple of other things that go against the “test” explanation. First, there’s no indication in the text itself that this is a test of any kind. There are many places in the Bible where people are tested, and in almost all of them it says that they were being tested. Not here. Second, if this is a test of some kind it would be the only one in Mark’s version of the Gospel.
Is it possible that Jesus is just being rude? A couple of weeks ago Micah talked a little bit about Jesus being fully human and fully God. If Jesus was fully human, if Jesus was tempted as we are, if Jesus felt the emotions that we feel, then why couldn’t Jesus feel exasperation? Why couldn’t Jesus feel unwarranted anger or frustration? Why couldn’t Jesus say something rude to somebody?

One of the things we can learn from this passage is that Jesus really was fully human in addition to being fully divine. Jesus really did have the same feelings that we do, both the good ones and the bad ones. Jesus really does understand the temptations that we face and recognize the ways that we can fall short. God understands what we’re going through. God has gone through it too.
The next twist in the story is the woman’s reply to Jesus. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” I admit, I wouldn’t have thought of that. If I’d been in that woman’s place I probably would have started to cry, or I would have shouted back at Jesus in anger, or I would have just kept saying, “Please, please, please.” Using Jesus’ imagery of food and dogs and turning it around on him would never have occurred to me. It’s really clever.
And after the woman says that, Jesus replies that because of what she has said her daughter has been healed. Not because of her faith. Not because of her persistence. Not because of the love she was showing for her daughter. But because of what she had said.

It is possible that Jesus is referring to her faith or her courage or something
similar. To come up with a line like that in the midst of what was happening would certainly require a lot of bravery and a lot of faith that your words would matter. But that gets us back into the “testing” explanation we had before and that doesn’t feel right. Also, frankly, it implies that Jesus knew all along that he could heal the woman’s daughter, but that he would let her walk away and leave her daughter demon possessed if she didn’t come up with the right answer. That doesn’t sound right to me.

Something that doesn’t necessarily feel right but that might be closer to the truth is that Jesus learns something in this story. We don’t think about Jesus learning. And to be honest, why would we? Jesus is a part of the Godhead. Jesus was present at the creation of the world. As the old hymn puts it, “Immortal, omnipotent, God only wise.” If God knows everything and sees everything, then why would Jesus ever have to learn anything?

It’s possible that the baby Jesus was born speaking perfect Aramaic and Hebrew. It’s possible – the Bible doesn’t say anything about it one way or another. And that’s why it’s doubtful. When Jesus discusses things with the Jewish scholars in the temple at age 14, the Bible makes a point of mentioning it. It’s just about the only thing between the ages of 3 and 30 that the Bible does mention about Jesus. Don’t you think that if Jesus had been born speaking the native language perfectly that the Bible would have found a way to let us know?

So someone had to teach Jesus how to speak. Someone had to teach him Aramaic, the everyday language, and Hebrew, the religious language, and maybe even a little Greek since there was a Greek influence in the area where Jesus grew up. His father Joseph had to teach Jesus about carpentry. Jesus probably went to some sort of religious school from time to time, and he was probably homeschooled aside from religious training, but someone taught him things.
Maybe Jesus is learning here, in our story from Mark. Maybe Jesus is learning that his role as Messiah encompasses more than just the Jews. Maybe Jesus is learning that the Gentiles don’t necessarily have to wait for blessings until the Jews are all taken care of.

Maybe Jesus is teaching. Maybe in his initial reply Jesus is expressing what the disciples believe, and then uses the woman’s clever response to demonstrate to the disciples that wisdom, intelligence, and blessing are not the sole province of the Israelites.

We can’t get inside Jesus’ head to figure out exactly what it is that is going on for him. We cannot know exactly what this story means for Jesus, or what motivated him to respond as he did. We can have ideas about it, but we can’t know. Sometimes we have to live without answers, but that doesn’t mean the questions aren’t worth asking.

This passage can still teach us a lot, though – a lot about ourselves and our faith. Do we have the faith, do we have the courage, to do as this woman did? Are we willing to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up to insult and hurt like she did? Are we willing not just to open ourselves up, but to push through and persevere when our actions are mocked and our faith is challenged?
Are we willing to open ourselves up to wisdom and teaching from outside our regular sources? Whatever your politics, are you able to share with and learn from people who disagree with you? Wherever you are in your faith journey, do you recognize all the different places and people that God can use to bring wisdom to us? Are we able to learn from people who we might otherwise look down on?

Are we open to the transformation of our lives after an encounter with Jesus? That’s what happened to this woman. She begins the story as the mother of a troubled, demon-possessed girl. She ends the story transformed, the mother of a little girl who is as happy and healthy as other little girls of her time. That’s a change. That’s a radical re-making of her lifestyle and her expectations, and while it’s a positive change even positive change can be difficult and stressful.

This can be a difficult passage, but it is also a hopeful one. I take comfort in being reminded that Jesus had the same emotions that I do. I take hope in knowing that there can be healing, even if at first it seems like healing is going to be denied. I take courage that faith and prayer make a difference. I thank God that I’m one of the dogs that gets some of the crumbs. Amen.

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