“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The first half of our gospel reading today tells a tough story, and there’s no way around it. Jesus, needing some peace and quiet, goes on retreat into Gentile territory – trying to get away from the persistent crowds who follow him everywhere. But even here he isn’t left alone. Word gets out, and a hurting mother throws herself at Jesus’ feet, pleading for him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. And Jesus looks down at her at his feet, and instead of responding with his typical mercy, rejects her plea and calls her a dog.
This little story hurts, and personally I would rather not read it. I’d rather it wasn’t included in the lectionary, or even in the Bible. Jesus – the one I have built my life around, in whose sinlessness I stake my life on, whose death and resurrection brings me life; Jesus, whose love I proclaim week after week and believe to my very core – this Jesus completely rebuffs a hurting woman and calls her a dog. And I don’t get it.
I read many commentaries this week trying to find a way to soft-peddle this text, to make it ‘okay’. And trust me, there are as many theories as there are commentaries. But the truth is that even through the many attempts to explain away what Jesus was doing – testing her faith, testing the disciples’ faith, joking around – without actually being there, in the room with them, we have no way of knowing why he responded so harshly and so seemingly out of character. We can come up with as many theories as we like, but at the end of the day we are left with a story of a hurting woman and our Lord and Saviour who rebuffs her before healing her daughter.
So what do we do with this? How do we read a story such as this and walk away with our faith strengthened?
Well, this may be an uncomfortable text, but nonetheless the more I reflected on it this week, the more grateful I was to have a chance to grapple with it, because I think some of the feelings of the Syrophoenician woman may not be all that unfamiliar to us.
After all, who of us hasn’t been in the position of wondering “God, what are you doing?” The Psalms are full of cries to a God who seems silent. The prophets rant against the fact that the bad guys so often seem to come out ahead. Job confronts the problem of pain head-on and is given no response except that he is a man and God is God. And in our world today, we are surrounded by situations that may cause us to wonder where is God and what is he up to. The cries of WHY echo throughout our world, wherever pain and suffering and evil have disrupted the joy of living. I’ve been reading a little book called “Lament for a Son”, by a man named Nicholas Wolterstorff whose son died in a mountain-climbing accident at the age of 23, and his bewilderment of why God would allow such a thing rings through the pages.
I’m sure you have your own questions of bewilderment for God: why … [fill in the blank]? I have one particular instance in mind in my own life; a particular conversation that seemed perfectly God-given and God-ordained at the time, but led me down a path of heartache. Why did that conversation take place that day? I don’t understand what God was doing, even years after the fact.
Why did Jesus rebuff the Syrophoenician woman that day? The truth is that we don’t know, and we are left with the question ‘why’ sitting heavy on our hearts. But in the end, there’s another question that is more urgent, and it is this:
Can we trust him anyway?
The popular book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” tells the story of children who discover a magical land called Narnia, full of talking animals. Narnia was created and is ruled by a lion named Aslan, who in the books is an analogy for Christ. On one of their first visits in this country, the children are hearing about Aslan for the first time from some beavers.
Here’s a snippet:
“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan. “I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe?”
…”Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “… Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
He’s not safe, but he’s good. His character can be trusted to the very core.
It’s a wonderful exercise to go through the gospels mapping out the character of Jesus, because what comes clear is that he is a very courageous person, with very little regard for what people expect of him, the social norms of the day, or even his own safety. But we can see that he’s also compassionate and merciful, and that even when his actions don’t seem to make sense to those around him, and that even the humblest beggar and the most sinful men and women know that they will find a place of love with him.
And so it is with this Syrophoenician woman. Something in Jesus’ response to her, or something about his reputation that preceded him, or something about her own desperation, led her not to give up at his words to her, but instead to push back. She knew that not only was Jesus capable of healing her daughter, but that he could be trusted. And so she gives one of the most remarkable responses to Jesus in the entire gospel.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
We have so much to learn about responding to God from this woman. First, notice her acceptance of his word to her: she acknowledges that “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to the Jews first” (Rom 1:16) – that the Jews are the children of God, and that Jesus’ mission is to them first. He’s not telling a lie here, but pointing out a self-evident fact, one that is echoed by Paul in the New Testament: the Jews are the chosen people of God, and the Gentiles have been brought into the family. The Gentile woman acknowledges that this is the case.
And then notice her humility. There is no way to translate or interpret Jesus calling this woman a dog as either polite or sweet – it is a word that puts her in her Gentile place. And she accepts it, and goes with it to push the point. “Yes, I may be a dog, but even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs.” The humility, the willingness to humble herself completely on behalf of her daughter, is astounding.
And finally notice her boldness and deep faith. This woman knows that there is enough food for everyone, and that all it would take is a crumb to heal her daughter. That, my friends, is profound faith.
And Jesus marvels at her words, and relents, and heals her daughter. This story does end with healing: with the healing of the Syrophoenician’s daughter. He doesn’t turn away – he hears her plea, and responds.
There are often no answers to the hard things in our lives – at least, not the kind of answers we want so badly. But we are given answers of a different sort. We are given the character of God: the assurance that God is good, and that God loves us. We are given stunning proof of this love and solidarity on the cross, where he met the world at the very point of our sorrow and shame, and gathered it in to himself, and allowed his own suffering to transform it. We are given his physical resurrection as proof that God can conquer and is conquering all that is wrong with the world, and we are given the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of Jesus’ return and the final redemption of all things.
Toward the end of the book “Lament for a Son”, Wolterstorff writes this of God:
“You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself. We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God…”
It is the strangest, most wonderful, most unpredictable answer to all of the “why’s” that we can throw at God. We may not know what or why Jesus is doing things in our lives at any given moment. But we can and do trust that he is good, and that he loves us.
So back to the Syrophoenician woman. Was Jesus using this moment with the Gentile woman to teach his disciples a hard lesson about racism, or the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God? Was he showing his humanity and simply irritated that his peace and quiet had been disturbed? Was he testing the faith of the woman? Or did he say his comment with a smile, knowing that she would take it the right way?
We can’t know the answers to these questions. But what we can know is that Jesus is, and was, and always will be good. That no matter how confusing he seems to be acting, no matter what the questions that long for answers within us: we can know that God is love. That God is good. And that we have a most marvelous, most beautiful, most wonderful, and most definitely trustworthy Saviour.
Lord, sometimes we don’t understand your actions. We don’t know why you do what you do, why you allow what you do. But we trust that you are good, and that you love us, and we ask that you would deepen our faith through these moments of confusion and hurt, that we would come to know you better and love you more deeply. In your Son’s precious Name we pray. Amen.