No, that’s not a click-bait title. That’s what actually happened in one of the stranger stories in Mark. Check it out:
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Some things to note about this woman: 1) She was not a Jew – strike one. Jews intentionally separated themselves from the rest of the nations, being unwilling to even speak or dine with them. 2) She was a woman – strike two. Women simply did not have the same rights as men in that culture. They ate separately, worshiped separately, worked separately. It was frowned upon for a woman to even speak to a man who was not a direct relative. 3) She was the mother of a demon-possessed daughter – strike three. You know some people would have blamed her for her daughter’s predicament. We do it all the time. In another story, the disciples asked Jesus if the parents of a blind man had sinned.
But she has one thing going for her – she has nothing left to lose. The worst that Jesus could do is say no, right?
Wrong. In a strange turn of events, Jesus unexpectedly adds insult to injury. Read his response again, but read it with disgust, disdain, and pretentiousness in the voice of Jesus.
“First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
What is Jesus doing? This bothers me. It has for a long time. Jesus looks at the desperate woman who’s only concern is that her daughter be made well. This reminds me of many others in the gospels. Many desperate parents came to Jesus and asked the exact same thing. Why would he help them, but then turn around and degrade this woman, shrugging off her request?
Like I mentioned, this was a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed. Jesus is surrounded by his followers. His disciples and those traveling with him were from a culture that looked down on people like her. The Jews were God’s chosen people, his special possession – and nobody else was. They lived in a very divided, segregated world. It was all Us vs. Them. If you’re not for us, then you’re against us. You’re either one of us, or you’re dead to us. Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, Gentiles in general – they’re all dogs.
So what was Jesus doing? I think he was simply saying what everyone around him was thinking. No one else would give this woman the time of day. She would be written off and ignored. If Jesus hadn’t been around, we would never know this woman’s story. He engaged her by first revealing the racist, uncaring, calloused hearts of those around him. It’s shocking that he would say something like that. But it’s a little less shocking that we would think something like that.
And that’s the problem.
So many of us have racism and hatred in our hearts, but we would never dare speak it out loud. We think things that we would never say directly to someone’s face. I think Jesus, in this story, calls that out. Jesus is showing us that having those thoughts in our hearts is just as bad as saying it out loud. In some ways it could even be worse. At least if we say it out loud we give the other person an opportunity to respond. Whereas if we keep those hateful thoughts to ourselves it just sits and stews. We may not be outwardly aggressive, but we are more likely to ignore the needs of those we secretly hate.
To Jesus, anger and hatred are just another way of committing murder. We are purposefully denying the Image of God within the other person. We cannot love others and Christ loved us if we harbor hatred, racism, and prejudice in our hearts.
If this encounter took place today, I could imagine the woman storming off and finding the nearest news station. Suddenly her offense at Jesus’ words would be fed into the outrage amplification machine, known as social media, to be disseminated across the country in a matter of hours. I can see the click-bait headline now: Racist Rabbi refuses request of desperate mother in possible hate crime.
But look at her response. I’m still blown away by it.
“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
First of all, make note that she is the one and only person in the entire gospel of Mark to address Jesus as “Lord.” Secondly, she is the first person in Mark’s gospel to actually understand on of Jesus’ parables on her own. The story Jesus tells about throwing the children’s bread to the dogs is the way most people around Jesus would have viewed the situation. But this woman refuses to live in that story. She is choosing a different story.
She accepts her place as a dog within the story. That word, however, can have two different connotations. When Jesus uses it, he’s implying the dogs around the house that clean up the scraps. They’re basically living garbage disposals. They aren’t pets, they’re scavengers that happen to hang out around your house. The way the woman uses that word, though, is more like a lap dog, a beloved pet, that hangs out under the table hoping to clean up the crumbs that fall.
I can attest to this. My dogs learned quickly that the place to be during meals is right next to our sons’ chairs. They’re almost guaranteed to get something if they hang out by the kids.
This woman reframes the story. She accepts that she is not one of the children of Israel. She may be a dog, but she’s not an unwanted stray. She’s a beloved pet, one of the family. She’s not asking to take what the children have. All she wants is a crumb from the table.
Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
What a powerful story. I picture Jesus’ whole demeanor changing from harsh and bitter to loving and compassionate. I imagine the disciples were all sitting their thinking, “What just happened?” You know they don’t get it. They probably don’t have a clue what Jesus and this woman just did or how powerful that moment was.
It’s fitting that the very next story is about Jesus healing a deaf man. He cried out to heaven “Be opened!” I think he wanted to cry out the same thing for his disciples’ hearts. We may hear, but never really understand. This woman heard and understood.
May we be opened to the message of her story.