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Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.* For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” Mark 7:25-29It has always been easy for me to gloss over this story and its language and focus on the merciful healing action of Jesus. A closer reading always brings me to an uncomfortable place. How am I to understand the clear fact that Jesus the Messiah engages in demeaning, perhaps even hateful speech, when speaking to a "Greek," a term of convenience for all Gentiles?
Jesus in other settings and perhaps at later times makes clear his mission and the commission he gives to the apostles includes the Gentiles. Mark typically contrasts the faith of the Gentiles to the lack of faith of the Jews. This is given as explanation of Jesus' inability to perform healing miracles in some localities. Yet here we hear Jesus refer to the woman and her relatives as dogs, not fit to eat at the table with the children of the family. While Mark is traditionally listed as the second evangelist, his gospel is universally regarded as the earliest, probably written within 30 years of the death of Jesus. It thus has a claim to coming closer to the actual words and actions of Jesus. Why would he include this jarring story if it were not accurate?
I understand the importance of this story as telling us something about Jesus and something about the way to relate to those in power. It is easier for me to think of Jesus in way that stresses his divinity rather than in a way that stresses his humanity. Our faith tradition makes clear that he is "fully human and fully divine" as paradoxical as that appears. As fully human he became Jesus the same way I have become Bill. He grew up in a specific culture with its unspoken but nonetheless powerful norms of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. We become our own persons as we become conscious of these dynamics and aware that these norms do not always have to govern our behavior or speech. If we cannot quite rise above them, we can act out of an awareness of the power and often destructive nature of these norms.
I think these words of Jesus to the Syrophoenician woman fall into this category. Wherever Jesus ended up on this issue, he at this point viewed his healing miracles as restricted at least in terms of priority sequence to the Jews of his own culture. Referring to others as dogs makes that point clearly and without reservation. It is not that he is refusing to heal but rather that since she fell into a different essential category--god versus human--she would have to wait her turn and not be so "uppity" as to directly request a healing. I think most of us can relate to being either the source or the object of such speech; perhaps both. The fact that ultimately Jesus rises above these cultural norms is the important message. He rises above them, not because he is "fully divine" but rather precisely because he is "fully human" and thus has the ability to experience, reflect, learn, and change. We can see this played out in this story.
The Syrophoenician woman is a powerful example of "speaking truth to power." Staying within the confines of her culture, she doesn't object to the characterization but calmly points out that however one might think about her and her relatives, even dogs ate from the crumbs dropped by the children. Because Jesus is open to experience and to learning, this appears to have been enough for him to recognize his own cultural flaw. He somehow realizes through this interaction that his message and ministry is not to be restricted by cultural norms and prejudices. This is similar to his interchange with the Gentile woman at the well where he learns the same lesson.