I Can’t Believe It’s the Bible #1: The Syrophoenecian Woman

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

“That Time Jesus Called a Woman a Dog So Maybe She’d Go Away. Wait, What?”

At least that’s what the titles should read above Mark 7:24-30 (or, if you prefer, Matthew 15:21-28). Instead, it’s usually just titled “The Syrophoenecian Woman.” Really, it should come with a warning label. I consider it one of the strangest stories in all four Gospels, right up there with the infamous Fig Tree Incident.

Yes, believe it. This woman came to ask our Lord for help casting a demon out of her poor daughter. To which he said, and this is a direct quote from Mark, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Meaning, You’re a Gentile. I have to help my own people first.

To which she replies, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” Meaning, quite literally, Throw me a bone here.

And he says, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” Okay, you convinced me. It’s a deal.

It just seems so unlike the Jesus we think we know, the gentle shepherd, the good teacher. Refusing to heal someone? Name-calling? Really?

We tend to not like this passage, we Christians and other Jesus fans. We would like to pretend the passage doesn’t exist, or just skim our eyes over the page, or mutter something about how some dastardly person must have snuck it in there.

But most of us can’t do that, not forever. We are compulsive readers of these relatively few stories. We have to wrestle with the words so we can clearly understand the Word.

I’ve heard a lot of explanations from these wrestlers. Some people say Jesus was testing this woman and that he exulted at her snappiest of comebacks. Some even say he was joking with her, calling her a dog with a wink. Some say there was no irony involved and she straight up taught him a lesson about not being so mean to Gentiles.

Me? I’ve done my share of wrestling, and I know I’m far from done. But here’s the meaning that leaps out of the text and into my heart today.

For me, it’s a story about Jesus’s unique nature: 100% human, 100% divine, both at the same time. And it can be a story of comfort and hope for those of us who are just plain 100% human.

First, a little context. At the beginning of this story, it says Jesus has just arrived in a new place, the region of Tyre. The Mark version of this story says that despite his efforts to keep his healings secret, people keep completely mobbing him. There is seemingly no end to the people who need to be healed. Seems reasonable. There’s enough healing that needs to go on in my neighborhood to keep Jesus busy for weeks.

So at the beginning of this story, it’s the human side of Jesus we see. He is exhausted from a long day of healing. He’s trying to set limits on his ministry so he can come back to do it another day. Right now he inhabits a single human body, and he has to sleep like anyone else. He doesn’t have the time or the energy to do everything.

Who can’t identify with this – the aching feeling that our dreams for every twenty-four hours are bigger than what we can actually get done? What largehearted, well-intentioned person has not felt momentarily paralyzed in the face of so much more suffering than one person’s heart and intentions can handle?

So this woman comes begging, “Heal my daughter!” and I imagine it breaks Jesus’s heart to say no, but in that moment he feels like he can’t say yes. The line must be drawn somewhere.

When you think about it, who would want to choose between feeding their children and feeding the family dogs? What a horrible thing to have to decide. How it must have torn Jesus apart to realize even he couldn’t heal everyone, couldn’t feed the whole family.

In the same way, who wants to live in a world where children go hungry, die of preventable and treatable diseases, die of violence, die at all? Who wants to live in a world infected with all kinds of injustice? Yet don’t we all decide, at a certain point, that there’s more need than our time constraints, our energy levels, our pocketbooks can take? We are only human, after all.

But Jesus is more than human, and the Gentile woman confirms it, loudly, claiming the table scraps of grace God has surely set aside for her.

She says, in essence, One person can’t heal the world – but God can. And God will.

God and man flicker gloriously in the same person. He savors her answer, the cry that expresses her strong faith. She knows without a doubt that Abba can feed the whole family.

Jesus smiles and says to her, You’re right. It’s done. Go home. He doesn’t have to leave the house where he’s staying, go out in the open and get mobbed by more people, lose sleep. The healing can happen despite his exhaustion, despite his limits. God can make a way.

And God will make a way for us too. We are not perfect and limitless, but God can perfect us and fill us with holiness, giving us more than we can ask or imagine. There are no superheroes saving the world singlehandedly, but if we’re humble enough to accept God’s directions, we can find our part to play in the grand plan. We can’t do everything, but in and through God’s holy people, God can do anything.

I love this beautiful, hard story, showcasing the struggles of Jesus who was man and the soaring glory of Jesus who is God.

How do you interpret this Bible story? What questions does it leave you with? What other Bible stories do you wrestle with?


Nothing Happened and It’s a Miracle

Apologies to Disney.

Apologies to Disney.

All of a sudden it’s sweater weather. Soup weather. Back to school. Just days ago we were enjoying sunbathing and ice cream. Is summer really gone already?

If you’ve been following along at home, you know this summer has been an intense one in my world. September me feels a world away from June me. This season tested my faith for sure. I’ve never woken up so many mornings in a row going, I cannot make it through this day without you, Jesus. Help me.

I’ll never look at a lot of things the same way again – most of all myself. This summer took me down a peg in a serious way. I’ve built a lot of my adult identity on being a do-gooder: giving blood, volunteering, going to church on Sundays. I’ve thought of myself as a friend of the poor and homeless, because isn’t that what Jesus wants from us? Duh.

This summer asked, “Yeah? What if one if your family members is homeless now? What if you can’t just give them five dollars and a hug and they’ll go away and you get to feel great about yourself? What if your prayers apparently mean nothing in the face of their problems and their pain? What’ll you do now, huh? Where are all your big ideas about Helping the Poor, mini Mother Theresa?”

This summer I saw the truth: I’m not that good. I am not doing much to help the world. Not at all.

I saw more clearly than ever before that really helping people is hard, not straightforward or feel-good at all sometimes. Now some of my past posts, like this one, seem at best super silly and at worst super callous in the extremity of their cluelessness.

Yet, as I wrote before, all of this has made me cling to the Gospel more strongly than ever. I truly do believe the grace of God is infinitely stronger than all my sin, all the ways I fail.

As everyone who knows me knows, I don’t deal with my own failure very well. My instinct is to beat myself up and decide I shouldn’t even try anymore. It was less tempting to do that this time than it’s ever been before, which is actually a pretty hopeful sign. Maybe God is finally allowing me to see more of the ugly truth about myself because finally, finally, I can handle a little more.

I didn’t give up on myself, on God, or on my loved ones this summer, but I was often tempted. These last few weeks especially, I’ve really had to fight the inner voices that urge me to just give up.

Why go to church today? You’ll just hear how important it is to take care of the poor, and then you’ll feel like the hypocrite you are.

Why pick up the Bible? You just read the comforting parts, the parts that make you feel good about yourself, like some kind of pill to get you through the day. Clearly you don’t care about following God’s commands, at least not when they’re actually hard for you.

Why pray? Won’t God just get angry with you because you honor him with your lips but your heart is far from him? Why don’t you do something for a change?

And then, paradoxically, Why try to do good? Who are you trying to fool? You can’t change the past. You’ll never be enough.

I told those voices to shut up over and over again, but I got really tired doing it. At times, going about my normal life seemed totally exhausting because I had to fight negative thoughts constantly. I was seriously tempted to stop doing things I knew were good for me and would help restore me because they brought on such internal resistance.

Yesterday, feeling yet again weighed down and defeated by all this soul struggle, I prayed Psalm 51.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51:10-12

Restore to me the joy of your salvation. I want to run toward you, God. I don’t want to shrink from you in shame anymore. I know you love me despite everything, but I want to believe it in my heart, not just my head.

And this morning – you guys, a miracle! – I woke up happy.

Here’s the thing. I never wake up happy and full of energy. Never ever. I am not a morning person. Usually my first thought is Ugh, already? Five more minutes. Certainly not Wow, I feel so incredibly lucky to be so so loved by God. Literally everything good in my life is a gift from God – how do I not see this all the time?

But that’s what I thought this morning. I woke up and I felt energetic, which also never happens but especially not lately, when a normal workday often feels exhausting. I felt like singing. It honestly shocked me.

Nothing changed in my life today. I’m still a sinner, and I will keep on sinning for the rest of my earthly life despite my best intentions. My family is super duper broken. I don’t understand how to help people. It’s still hard and complicated.

Plus, happy feelings aren’t everything. They’re certainly not proof that God loves me. I could go back to feeling sad tomorrow, and my redemption by grace would still be true as ever.

But today, a prayer of mine was answered. God restored to me the joy of salvation. I wasn’t even expecting joy in my life right now. I felt prepared to keep on slogging through. I figured I’d have to wait longer and learn some more patience and stuff. But God declared a holiday from those negative thoughts in my brain today. Today, I don’t just know God loves me – I really feel it.

What can you call that but a miracle? Just in time for fall, like God was buying me a new white wardrobe for Back to Discipleship.