Today’s message entertains a different impression of Jesus. Just when we think that we’ve domesticated Jesus something threatens to shatter our idyllic imagery.
The lectionary text (Mark 7: 24-37) begins with Jesus unable to hide from his own notoriety. Jesus went into a house in Tyre, at the Mediterranean coast, and a mother with a stricken daughter found him. Scripture emphasizes that the woman was a non-Jewish Syrophoenician. The mother was desperate, and she came and bowed respectfully at Jesus’ feet, begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter. Then something completely unexpected occurred. Jesus’ response revealed a harsh, uncharacteristic attitude: “He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’ ” (Mark 7: 27). Ouch!
Few people who think they know Jesus would predict such a harsh response from their loving Lord and Savior. Fewer still might suggest that Jesus could ever call a grieving mother a dog, saying in effect that neither she, her daughter, or her entire ethnic group were worthy of his attention. The quaint Jesus of our imagination vanishes in this instant. We’re reminded that Jesus was a Jew sent to the Jews who seldom felt obligated to spread his teachings or healings outside of Judaism: “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ “ (Matthew 15:24).
Undaunted by Jesus’ matter-of-fact insult, the mother kept her cool and gave a brilliant retort. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). This is remarkable. How many of us could keep our cool knowing that a spiritual leader had refused to help our sick child? The mother’s situation makes sense to us two thousand years later because many of us have children for whom we’d do anything. We can also identify with having a pet, whether a dog, a cat, or something else that awaits handouts at the dinner table.
The mother might have hurled an insult back to Jesus and thereby given him a taste of his own medicine. Or she could have run out of the house crying “Jesus is prejudiced and he discriminates!” Knowing the wrong-headedness of such reactions, the mother kept calm and mustered a clever response that decisively changed Jesus’ mind. “Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter’ ” (Mark 7:29). It’s hard to overestimate the significance of this event. The text suggests that Jesus granted the mother’s request solely on the basis of her words, with no mention of any faith being involved.
What on heaven or earth are we to do with this peculiar story? A possible ramification is that a cleverly-worded reply, respectfully uttered, might change God’s mind. Dare we think that God is subject to the power of rational arguments? The answer seems to be “yes!” Consider two key Old Testament examples where God changed his mind as a direct result of brilliant human reasoning. Recall that both Moses and Abraham changed God’s mind dramatically (Exodus 32:9-14 & Genesis 18:23-33). In both cases, God wanted to annihilate people. Moses reminded God that to kill the Israelites who had come from Egypt would damage God’s reputation (and hurt a lot of people in the process). In the other case, Abraham argued that it would be immoral for God to destroy Sodom/Gomorrah since there were innocent people who did not deserve indiscriminate death. There we have it, two magnificent precedents of how we can influence God’s decision-making process.
Biblical commentators wrestle with what appears to be humans changing God’s mind. Such instances don’t seem to fit a comforting, polite theology. Some who deny the role of arguing with God conclude that such cases are either illusory or that they are all planned in advance, part of a divine plan and that no person can really change God’s mind. In other words, God only appears to have a changed mind when in fact that’s how it was planned before any human intervention. This type of theological gymnastics leaves us tied in unhelpful knots.
Another interpretation is that the mother was being tested. The idea is that it’s not about God changing but it is about humans rising over their fears (even to the point of confronting God). Was Jesus intentionally testing the Syrophoenician woman? Was it just some scheme to highlight her patience and to have her gracefully accept her inferior ethnic status? It’s clear that the mother had started her conversation with Jesus by begging, and she further humbled herself by admitting that she and her ethnic group were dogs, but with a giant qualification: even dogs eat fallen table scraps. Therefore the story illustrates the mother’s noble character. This suggests that we, too, must surrender our pride. We must be ready to beg, prostrate ourselves, or do whatever else is necessary to obtain God’s favor. The mother may have been a “dog,” but she didn’t bite back.
What are you willing to do with this story? Has God said “NO!” only for you to consider arguing your way out of it? We don’t usually think of God as manipulated by our wise use of language. It’s awkward to consider that we can radically change things such that God’s “NO” turns into a “YES,” depending on the quality of our intervention. Perhaps the lesson is that if we keep our cool and speak confidently we might get what we want the second time around. Don’t have the stomach to confront God? You’re certainly not alone in that. We’ve been conditioned to not talk back to God lest he get angry and we get destroyed. Yet, if the mother hadn’t stood-up to Jesus then her daughter would remain unhealed.
The story of the mother is strange, so much so that it can arouse spiritual nausea. Yes, it’s weird. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Then again, it’s probably a good thing that our status quo equilibrium is challenged by an odd story, one that shakes our sensibilities. As we struggle to figure-out what’s going on, the mental exercise is productive. We’re using our brains as a muscle when we grapple with tough situations. God can help us grow stronger when we rise to the occasion and not let anything deter our spiritual growth. How can we become stronger if we are not exercised and tested? How can we flex our faith muscles unless we have a burden against which we struggle? So, we should be thankful for difficult stories that stretch our imagination. I’m also glad that Jesus has come alive today. The otherwise familiar silhouette of a shallow Jesus has become distressingly real. For that, I’m grateful. And more power to the bold mothers, sharp rhetoric, and hungry dogs that have made it all possible. Ciao!