There’s a huge discomfort that arises in me when I hear Jesus call the unnamed Gentile woman a “dog.” So let’s go through the story closely and see what we have to learn from this strange passage.
In chapter 7 up to this point, Jesus has been haggling with a group of Pharisees about what constitutes “clean” and “unclean.” To our ears those categories don’t mean much—we tend to hear “washed” or “unwashed,” and ask, “What does that have to do with the life of faith?” But in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, those categories had the connotation of “sinless” (clean) or “sinful” (unclean). They were ways of understanding what the boundaries were in Jewish life.
Jesus resists these categories—these boundaries—and attempts to re-define them. We heard him say last week, “It is not what goes into a person that makes her unclean, it is what comes out of the human heart.”
Now in this morning’s reading, the Gospel writer Mark will show us in two healing stories just what this erasure of boundaries means.
Jesus is wearied by his argument with the Pharisees and seeks to get out of town and get some rest. He goes so far as to go into territory that is almost exclusively non-Jewish. Tyre and Sidon were coastal towns northwest of Galilee in what we now call Lebanon, and there is evidence that there was open hostility to Jews in this region. Jesus clearly wants to get away!
He has tried to get away before and it hasn’t worked, and it doesn’t work here either. If he thought he was an unknown quantity in this foreign territory, he was wrong.
A woman seeks him out. And not just any woman. All kinds of boundaries get crossed here. She is a woman seeking to talk to a man, someone unknown to him approaching him after barging into his residence. The Greek word used implies she has some status. She is a “lady,” probably well above Jesus’ peasant status. Boundary two crossed. She is a Gentile. Boundary three crossed. By any definition of Jewish law at the time, she is “unclean.”
She asks for healing for her daughter. Jesus replies, “It is not right to take food from the children and throw it to dogs.”
Full stop. Did he just say that? Did he just compare that woman and her sick daughter to dogs? For those of us who think of Jesus as perfect or as sinless, this is more than a little jarring.
The woman may have remained as a beggar at Jesus’ feet, but she rises up into her full self and resists. “Yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall to the floor.” And Jesus changes his mind, “Go, you will find your daughter well.”
What’s going on here? My mentor Verna Dozier used to say that if you are unsure what a passage means, you should ask yourself, “Why did the early Christian community want to pass on this story?” It’s an important question because each Gospel writer obviously picks and chooses which story to tell and how to tell them. For instance, Matthew also tells this story (15:21-28) but tries to add some clarity. Jesus is not alone with the woman in Matthew’s telling. His disciples are present. He also changes Jesus’ declaration at the end, from a very neutral and almost begrudging, “For saying that you may go—the demon has left your daughter” to a wildly positive, “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
The Gospel writer Luke decides not to even touch the story. He doesn’t include it.
So why is this story here, especially if it seems to put Jesus in a bad light? I think it is this. The communities for which Mark and Matthew are writing are struggling with these boundary issues. Both are probably majority Jewish still and the inclusion of Gentiles is a divisive issue. The old habit of dividing up the world into “clean” and “unclean” is hard to get over. It was deeply ingrained in the Jewish soul.
Mark and Matthew want to show that even Jesus struggled with this. It is a hard business this erasing boundaries.
And so it is, even for us who think we’ve got this inclusiveness thing down pretty well. And compared to the church of the past we have come a mighty long way.
But our instincts—well, we can find them in a very different place. It is easy to slip into the old saying that many people assume is in the Bible but it is not: “Charity begins at home.” Or, “Family comes first.”
But Jesus had to learn himself and we have to continue to learn that for his followers there are no hierarchies of need. Of course, I must love and care for my family. But also, of course, I must care for the stranger, or even the just plain strange. And that is why this is so hard because in the Jesus movement there is only one family, which means the next stranger I meet is as much my sister or brother as is my sister or brother. We should not pretend that does not cut across the grain, that it is in anyway easy. Because it does cut across the grain and it is not easy.
But it is our high calling, our exquisite purpose, the great and joyous gift we have to give to the world. There are no outsiders. There is no one who because of who they are or what they do forfeits their dignity, which is God-given not human-given. And this is the best news there can be, even if at times it seems impossible. And if you don’t think we need, and the world around us needs, this good news then you are not paying attention.
The church shows so many signs of becoming irrelevant and slowly dying. But we need to reach deep down for some Holy Spirit, gospel strength because if we do not live the message that God has wiped out every boundary, every division marker, that disagreements do not make us enemies, and if it does we are in need of some good old-fashioned conversion to the ways of God.
So that story is there to challenge us—as Jesus himself was challenged—to drop all the boundaries and follow Jesus in learning to love our neighbors—every son or daughter of God—as ourselves.