“Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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 7:26-27)
That interchange has to be one of the most unChrist like things attributed to Jesus in any of the Gospels. The only similar verse which is even worse is in the Sermon on the Mount and lacks the context of Mark’s narrative. There Jesus just states “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” (Matthew 7:6)
In Mark’s narrative the dialogue is with a Gentile. And it would seem the distinction Jesus is making is that the Jews are God’s children and others are not. In all honesty I have not researched what biblical scholars have to say about how to interpret this text. One possibility that comes to my mind is that maybe Jesus was just having a bad day and didn’t want to be bothered by this woman’s request. If Jesus is fully human he certainly must have had times where just needed a break.
In fact Mark tells us in verse 24: “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Any pastor can identify with the need to go off the grid once in awhile to recharge. One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my ministry from one of my mentors was to always take a day off each week and get out of town so people won’t bother you. That was way before cell phones or even pagers made it harder to get away, and it is even more difficult and tempting to check for texts and emails 24/7 today.
We didn’t call it self-care back then, but that’s what it is. Jesus is usually pretty good at going off by himself to pray when he needs to, or at least he tries. Mark is the most intriguing of the Gospels in that regard with all the references to the Messianic secret. The verses for September 5th’s lesson are bookended by two such references with the second coming in verse 36: “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.”
Jesus’ desire for some solitude is denied him twice in this short passage. The conclusion to verse 24’s statement that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there says, “Yet he could not escape notice.” So maybe he was just frustrated. He figured that getting out of the country would offer a respite from the clamoring masses, but even in Tyre he couldn’t catch a break.
Throughout all the preceding chapters of Mark crowds are continually flooding Jesus with their needs to be healed. And in chapter 6 the feeding of the multitude story begins with Jesus expressing concern for his disciple’s self-care. They were so busy they didn’t have time to eat! I don’t know about you, but if I’m too busy to eat I get hangry pretty quick. So Jesus suggests they go off “to a quiet place” for some R & R. But the crowds got there first, and Jesus “had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
That sounds more like the Jesus we want when we call him for help. So how do we reconcile that compassionate Jesus with the one one who calls Gentiles dogs in chapter 7? Other than my speculation above I am not sure, but I am intrigued with how quickly Jesus changes his tune when the woman responds to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
I think it’s an interesting coincidence that this narrative pivots on this comment about dogs when national dog day was this week. I enjoyed seeing everyone’s pictures of their fur babies on Facebook, but more than that I see a connection between this story from Mark with reading I’ve been doing recently about mysticism and the cosmic Christ.
In verses 29 and 30 we find Jesus’ response to the woman’s argument that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs. “Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” What is there about the woman’s comment that made Jesus completely reverse himself? Could it be Jesus recognized the truth in her statement that all of creation is intrinsically connected as part of God’s creation?
Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion for Aug. 27 contains this quote from the Celtic theologian Pelagius: “Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. . . . Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” (The Letters of Pelagius: Celtic Soul Friend, ed. Robert Van de Weyer, p. 71)
Rohr comments: “Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourself to mean loving not only our human neighbor but all the life forms that surround us. ‘So when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree,’ he wrote, ‘we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.’”
And Rohr concludes that devotion with these words from Thomas Berry, a modern mystic: “In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity. Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe. Every being enters into communion with other beings. This capacity for relatedness, for presence to other beings, for spontaneity in action, is a capacity possessed by every mode of being throughout the entire universe.” (Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Bell Tower: 1999), 3.)
Maybe Jesus recognized that cosmic spirit in the Syrophoenician woman’s compassion for the canine part of creation and that universal nature of her faith inspired him to extend his own cosmic healing power to her daughter.