That time when Jesus calls a desperate mom a dog

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Most Christians I know are uncomfortable with Jesus’ response to the mom in Mark 7:24 – 30.  For those who don’t know the story here it is…

Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Gentile woman who lived there came to him, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.”  

But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. “Tell her to go away,” they said. “She is bothering us with all her begging.”

Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.”

But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, “Lord, help me!”

Jesus responded, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”

She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.”

“Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.

I really want to rescue Jesus in this story.  I want to come up with some reason why this is not what it appears to be. Yes, the story ends well. However, it is ugly in the middle and Jesus doesn’t look too good. He calls a desperate mom a dog because of her race and religion. What is Jesus up to here?

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I believe that one responsibility I have when I engage others is to give voice to uncomfortable positions that hold power in our engagement. I do not believe that I need to hold or own the positions I raise in order to raise them. However, they need to be raised or they will undermine what is going on.

For example, once I was in a worship planning meeting.  In my denomination (Mennonite Church USA) ordained ministry is related to giftedness, not gender. Of course, not everyone agrees with this position.  In this meeting, I was aware that two persons did not believe women should preach.  There came a time in our planning when it seemed clear to most that a particular woman needed to be invited to preach. She was gifted and the topic was something a women should speak to.  It was tense but nobody was speaking directly about the underlying issue.  So I said, with a glint of humor and a sprinkle of sarcasm, “You know that women aren’t allowed to preach in the church, right?”

I don’t believe that.  Everyone who knows me knows I don’t believe that.  So why did I say it?  I said it (1)  to give voice to the unspoken position that held power in the room, (2) to make it clear that our decisions were being made in this wider context, and (3) to invite the group to intentionally consider what values, Biblical commitments, past discernments and so on would drive our current decision.

My comment created space for the group to talk about what needed to be talked about. In the end, the entire group decided to invite the woman to speak. Why? Because even though two members had questions, the larger discernments of denomination, conference and congregation, and the Biblical and theological work that undergirded those discernments, called forth that response.

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Is it possible, that Jesus is doing something similar? I believe that Jesus is giving voice to a world-view that held power in their encounter – even though it wasn’t initially spoken.  I don’t believe Jesus bought into this world-view. In reality, I believe Jesus came to subvert that world-view. However, a great many people did hold that world-view, including some of his disciples .  By calling the gentile woman a dog, he was enacting the popular world-view that held power in their encounter. He was a Jewish man, she was gentile woman, her daughter was a female gentile girl, game over.

That wasn’t all he was doing. He was also creating a space where that world-view could be countered by the woman.  After all, just approaching Jesus took nerve and something had to give rise to that nerve.  What was it?  As the gentile women stepped boldly into that space, she revealed what gave rise to her nerve.  She revealed her view of God which stood in stark contrast to the narrow view that held that God’s provision is only for the Israelites. She basically said God is powerful enough to take care of Israel with enough left over to meet her needs as well.  I’m unsure of how aware she was of what she was doing, but in her response she actually tapped into God’s wider shalom vision for the world.  God’s desire was always to bless the nations, not just the Israelites.  She answered well, with a wider view of God than that narrow view held by many in Jesus’ day.

I wasn’t there, but I always imagine a warm smile spreading across Jesus’ face.  Yes!  You get it.  Then I imagine him turning to his disciples, “Did you guys hear that?  Do you understand? Can your eyes see? Can your ears hear? God’s shalom is for all people!”  She gets it.

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In this encounter, Jesus’ response to the women created a space for a number of things to happen. First, he gave voice to a common division rooted in religious/ideological antagonism. Not because he agreed with it, but because it was present in the space between Jesus and the women. Second, he created a new space whereby the woman could offer a counter narrative.  A counter narrative that Jesus also valued. Third, he demonstrated that the narrow view – which was the status quo and believed to represent God’s faithfulness – was being subverted by a deeper understanding of what God has been up to all along – the restoration of all things under the Lordship of Jesus who destroys dividing walls and makes one new humanity!

How do you read Mark 7:24 – 30?

Why church?

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A woman stood up at the microphone in her local church.  She said, “When this church began, we prayed to the Lord and asked God’s direction. And in my opinion, anyway, the Lord has never answered. In the meantime we have continued to gather together. We’ve worshipped together. Cared for one another. Helped one another through the ups and downs. Loved each other, ate together, prayed together, studied the Bible together and did life together.”

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Luke, in Acts, describes the early church:  “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe[e] came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day,attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  – Acts 2:42 – 47

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I was there when that woman stood up at the microphone, declared God’s silence and then described God’s presence through communal practices. I was struck by the beauty of her description of their life together as a church.  I was saddened by the disconnect between the answer she expected from God (and never received – whatever that was) and the clear answer I witnessed in the form of a community of believers. So I wondered about the disconnect. She gave a description which sounded a lot like the way Luke described the first gathering of followers of the Way so many years ago.  Yet, she didn’t understand it as God’s plan and purpose for the church – or as an answer to her prayer at all.

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I can only guess that it has something to do with a lack of numerical growth in the community. They were the same size today as they were when they started almost a decade ago. The only way I could come up with any sense that God’s was absent was by looking through the lens of modern, American, church growth models.  You know, the kind that define success by bigger budgets, more people, new buildings. On my most generous day, I look at seeker-sensitive methods of church growth as contextually appropriate moves to draw baby-boomers back to church. On my most analytical day, I see them as methods that are deeply freighted with assumptions about what success is and how to get there that have paralyzed more churches than they have empowered.

Beliefs, convictions and motivations

Actions are never neutral. They’re freighted with unexamined assumptions about how to get things done. This means actions tell more about our beliefs, convictions and motivations than written confessions and stated beliefs. We will misidentify the appropriate pathway to the extent that we can’t tell these truths about what we have done and why we’ve done it.”  –  John Ralston Saul, The Comeback via Alan Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World. 13.

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Earlier today, I was accused by a friend of valuing the input of men over that of women on Facebook. It was simple thing, really.  I posted something. A female friend posted an insight. I brushed it off and explained myself further. Then a male friend posted an insight. I thanked him for his insight.  From her perspective, she said – basically – the same thing he did. How can you explain the difference in my response to her vs. him?  Her suggestion was that I valued the insights of men over that of women.

My initial impulse was to defend myself. That’s ridiculous ! My response had nothing to do with gender! He made a completely different point!  And so on and so on. Yet, I couldn’t shake the question  – Did I respond to her comment differently because of gender? I had to admit that it was at least possible. That she was seeing something that I couldn’t see. That upon seeing it, I wanted to argue it out of sight.

I apologized, thanked her for the challenge (lofted in love) and committed to further introspection.  I certainly don’t want to be the kind of man that values the insights of men over women simply because of gender.  I don’t want to be the kind of man that is blind to my own sexism (and any other isms I may engage in) and the ways it shows itself in everyday life. I want to examine the unexamined assumptions out of which I act.

If John Ralston Saul is right the only way to find a pathway forward is to try to tell the truth about what I had done and why I did it.  The degree to which I can’t be honest is the degree to which any pathway forward will be inappropriate – his language – or, perhaps, unhelpful – my language.

In the end my friend was provoking me – not to make me angry (that’s what trolls do) – but to help me ask and answer important questions truthfully. She was provoking me to love others better.  I’m grateful.  I’ll let you know how it turns out…