by Daniel Harrell
It’s been a long haul for Jesus so far in Mark’s gospel. Hounding crowds who only seem to care that he can fix their sick bodies. Affronted religious leaders who only care that he’s not playing by the rules. Doofus disciples who never seem to get what he’s talking about even when it puts it in the most familiar of terms. No wonder verse 24 of tonight’s passage has Jesus heading for the coast. The man needs a vacation. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t had a day off since that one he took after creating the universe back in Genesis. Jesus books a beach house on the Mediterranean Sea, in the coastal community of Tyre, notable for its being nestled snugly within pagan Gentile territory. Even more notable was that the first century Jewish historian Josephus described Tyre as home to Israel’s bitterest enemies. Vacationing in Tyre would have been like a modern-day Israeli deciding to take a few days off in Gaza. Maybe this is another reason why Mark has Jesus not wanting anyone to know he was there.
Of course trying to keep his location a secret would be like President Obama trying to sneak off for a few days undetected after the Inauguration. It wasn’t going to happen. Jesus was as famous as people got back then. Mark mentioned in chapter 3 how news of Jesus’ knack for healing disease and exorcising demons spread throughout the known world, including Tyre. Not only that, Jesus drew attention from the otherworld too. Mark writes that whenever demons got a gander at Jesus, they’d fall to the ground shrieking, “You are the Son of God!” Jesus ordered them to keep their fangs shut since the last thing you need when you’re trying to get a world religion off the ground is a bunch of demons blowing your cover. But at least the demons recognized Jesus’ true identity. The chosen people of Israel, for whom Jesus specifically came, never could cotton Jesus as Messiah material no matter how many miracles he managed. How do you make a man your Messiah when he keeps making so many blunders? First he acts like he’s God—forgiving sins and working on the Sabbath. But then he eats with the very kind of people God despises――tax collectors and sinners! He touches lepers. He doesn’t fast. He doesn’t wash his hands. He breaks every kind of religious law, but then says that it’s the religious who need to repent. God’s kingdom was supposed to come cast in the mold of the glorious King David. The Messiah would ride in on clouds accompanied by an angelic army. But Jesus never gets his feet off the ground, walking wherever he goes with nothing but a little band of earthy fishermen and such types.
Still, the man could preach. The crowds who heard him expressed amazement at his words. They had such authority. Not only did his words change the heart, but they changed the weather too. Back in chapter 4 when he and his disciples were almost capsized by a storm blowing across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus told the squall to chill and it did. Yet what’s really unbelievable was how his disciples responded to their miraculous rescue. They stood there in the boat, dumb looks on their faces, and asked on another, “Who is this guy that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Hello? It’s not like Jesus hadn’t come out and told them already. In chapter 2, he called himself the “Son of Man,” blatant Messianic code for anybody who’d read the prophet Daniel. And for the few who hadn’t, he tacked on that bit about how the Son of Man had authority to forgive sins and do what he wanted to on the Sabbath, prerogatives that belonged only to the Lord himself. And yet, nobody in Mark (except the demons) call Jesus Lord. That is, not until he crosses over into Gentile territory. Leave it to a Gentile woman, the ultimate outsider, to finally get it right.
It’s no big secret that women were second-class citizens in first century Palestine. Tack on her Gentile credentials and Jesus had every reason (and requirement) to avoid her at all costs. Jewish law forbid contact with Gentiles on account that they were unclean. Even the demons that possessed them were unclean (that’s what verse 25 literally says, “her little daughter had an unclean spirit”). Jesus is just getting settled into his Mediterranean bungalow, when this pushy Gentile lady, passionate as would be any mom for her child, crashes through every social and religious taboo to crash Jesus’ vacation. She begs him to drive the demon out of his daughter. What’s a Messiah to do? Mark doesn’t tell us how the demon manifested itself, but if the account of a demon-possessed boy in chapter nine provides any clue, imagine the daughter foaming at the mouth, suffering seizures and throwing herself into fire or water. Her diagnosis may garner different terminology these days, but whether you call it a demonic or psychotic, the symptoms were unbearable for the daughter and her mother.
It’s a heart-wrenching scene. The distraught mother pleads for help, going so far as to throw herself at Jesus’ feet. To bow at another’s feet was recognized in that culture as a move of profound grief and respect—except that Jesus treats it as a move of bow-wowing. He calls her a dog. OK, he says it via a riddle, but the insinuation was unmistakable. He says to the woman, “You have to let the children be fed first. It’s not right to take their bread and throw it to dogs.” Ouch. What did Jesus mean? Jews would have understood children as another way to say chosen people. The people of Israel were God’s kids, the ones who were named in the will and due to inherit the kingdom. Dogs was an insulting way to say Gentiles. They were unclean and unsaved and unsavory. Good for Jesus for putting this pushy broad in her place.
Still, it is disturbing to have Jesus calling this poor woman names, even if she did disturb his day off. True, he called the Pharisees snakes and viper spawn, but they deserved it in ways that this woman did not. She only wanted help, they wanted Jesus dead. But rules are rules, which is why in Matthew’s rendition of this story, the disciples urge Jesus to kick the woman out of the house. Matthew even describes her as a Canaanite, which these days would be like describing her as a supporter of Hamas. As a faithful Jew, of course Jesus would call her a dog. “Hey,” he shrugged in Matthew, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Which must have made some of the Jews present do a double take: “Who you calling lost sheep?”). You’ll be relieved to know that Jesus didn’t technically call the woman a dog, at least not in the insulting sense. What he called her more like―a poodle. The word in verse 27 literally means little dog and was the Greek term for household pets. Thus the riddle depicts not scraps being tossed into the garbage for street dogs to scavenge, but rather food from the dinner table that children eat first before any leftovers are fed to the pets. OK, it still sounds insulting, but Jesus is only being realistic. He came to feed the children first. The Gentiles would have to keep their paws off the table until afterwards. However, by using a riddle, Jesus does throw the woman a bone. Having kids of her own, she knows how they rarely make it through dinner without something falling, or getting thrown, to the floor for the pets to lick up. She’s cool with being the poodle in this scenario. She’s cool with just getting crumbs. She’s just not cool with having to wait. And as it turns out, she needn’t wait. She cleverly says to Jesus in verse 28, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And Jesus loved it! He replied, “For saying this, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” Now I can imagine some who witnessed this scene going away thinking, “Great, now I have to be witty for Jesus to heal me?” I can also imagine Jews on the scene, including Jesus’ own disciples, being extremely troubled that Jesus helped a Gentile at all. But what’s a Messiah to do? I can’t imagine Jesus ever refusing to help anybody, at least not anybody who asked him in person on earth (an important proviso for we who struggle with unanswered prayers). Jesus never met a disease he didn’t heal or a demon he didn’t cast out. But if it was Jesus’ intention all along to drive the demon from this Gentile woman’s daughter, why does he go through the whole dog show to do it? Why not just get on with the exorcism so that he can get on with vacation?
As with every riddle Jesus told, deeper meanings lay beneath the surface. Children get seats at the table alright, but like most children, they turn their noses at what’s on their plate. It’s all Dawn and I can do to get our 1-year-old Violet to eat a vegetable. We resort to age-old ploys like making airplane noises with her spoon or taking gleeful bites of mushy peas ourselves. Of course even when we manage to get a pea in her mouth, more often than not she spits it out onto the floor, having no idea what’s good for her. No matter that it comes packed with vitamins and minerals, all necessary for strong bones and teeth, it still has no taste that she wants in her mouth. For the children of God, Jesus’ good news of Kingdom come was like a plate full of vegetables. They were hungry for a smorgasbord of sweet vengeance aimed at their Gentile enemies, but Jesus dishes up humble pie, inviting them to love their enemies and do good to them, even if it means suffering at the hands of their enemies to do it. “Take up your cross and follow me?” No way the kids were eating that.
For seven chapters now the children of God have rejected Jesus as the bringer of God’s kingdom, effectively spitting him out of their mouth, which they will continue to do all the way to the cross. But this poodle of a Gentile woman gobbles him up. Sure, Jesus loves that she got his riddle (his own disciples were always having to have all his parables explained to them). But I think what Jesus loved most was that she got who he was. What matters in this story is not that Jesus calls this Gentile woman a dog, but that this Gentile woman calls Jesus Lord. Now it is true that “Lord” sometimes means simply “sir” or “master”―an address of esteem. The New Revised Standard Version even translates it this way. But a cursory glance at Mark’s gospel shows that Lord never appears without reference to God. Up to this point, despite all his preaching and all of his miracles, only the demons got the point. But now of all people, a Gentile woman gets it too, which explains why she was so willing to settle for crumbs. She’ll take whatever she can get as long as she’s getting it from God himself.
She calls him Lord, and Jesus replies, “for saying this, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” It’s the only miracle in Mark Jesus performed at a distance, providing further evidence that Jesus was who the woman believed him to be. The only other place in the gospels where long-distance healing occurs is in Matthew’s account where a Gentile Roman centurion, the worst of Israel’s enemies, asked Jesus to heal his sick servant. Jesus agreed to accompany the centurion home, to the shock of everyone, yet the centurion demurred, telling Jesus to just say the word and his servant would be healed. Now shocked himself, Jesus replied how he’d yet to come across anybody in Israel with so much faith. Dogs believe even when the children won’t.
The Gentile woman is the only one who bows to Jesus and confesses him as Lord here, but the Bible predicts a day when everyone else will join her. The Old Testament prophet Micah paints a picture of many nations flocking to the mountain of Zion, where God “will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore, but rather sit under their own vines and fig trees with no one to make them afraid. We will walk in the name of the Lord forever.” The mention of Zion tempts us to view this future as solely meant for the children of God. But as we heard the apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, famously declare it last Sunday: “Now that faith has come [by which he meant faith in Jesus as Lord]…, you are all children of God. … There is no longer Jew and Gentile, there is no longer slave and free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Now I know it sounds terribly naïve and even exclusive to some for me to paint some pretty picture of all the world at peace just because everybody believes in Jesus (especially given the way that we Christians have yet to figure out how to live at peace with each other). But hey, it ain’t my picture. Turn to the end of the Bible, to the book of Revelation, and Mount Zion is no longer an earthly locale, but situated in heaven upon which the Lamb of God sits, shining the righteousness of the gospel down on every nation, tribe, language and people. Turn a few pages further and the picture has Zion descending from heaven as a bride married to Jesus, making it so that God lives with his redeemed people forever. It’s a picture toward which we are called to work and pray, like we heard the old reverend Joseph Lowery pray it before that vast array of languages and people on the Capitol Mall this past Tuesday: “With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around… when yellow will be mellow… when the red man can get ahead, man; when white will embrace what is right…” and, we might add, “when Hamas will say no mas, when Israel will be real, when the US will use less, and when every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” “May all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.”