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?

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