That time Jesus called a foreign woman a dog OR A theology of interruption | 6 September 2015

Text: Mark 7:24-30

Within the last decade the story of the Syrophoenician woman has gone from being one of my least favorite gospel stories to one of my favorites.  Least favorite, because, well, what do you do with the fact that Jesus uses an ethnic slur to refer to a foreign woman – to her face.  She’s a mother with an ailing daughter doing what any good parent would do in her situation – advocating for her child.  Jesus’ initial response is to refer to her, her daughter, her people, as dogs.  This is Jesus, the compassionate.  Jesus, the all-inclusive.  Jesus, who certainly had a bumper sticker on his robe which said “God bless the whole world, no exceptions.”    Our “Love your neighbor” Jesus.  Our “Love your enemy” Jesus.  Our Jesus calls a foreign woman a dog.

Surely there’s been some kind of mistake.  Surely he didn’t mean it in the way it might come across.   Maybe the English translator was dyslexic and wrote ‘dog’ when Jesus had really said ‘god’.  Unlikely.

There are a couple different ways of interpreting this story which keep Jesus’ record clean.  One is noting that the word used here for dog actually means little dog, a unique form of the word in the New Testament.  Yes, referring to someone as a dog isn’t nice, but Jesus softens the tone by calling her a puppy.  Puppies are fun and friendly, right?

It’s an interesting observation, but it’s a stretch.  Dogs in the first century were not the kind of cute and faithful pets we like to keep around these days.  Dogs roamed the streets.  Dogs were scavengers and fought fiercely for scraps of food around villages.  In another situation Jesus mentions dogs in a parable to illustrate just how poor and lowly is the man Lazarus who sits outside the gate of a rich man.  Lazarus was in such a wretched condition that “even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”  Cute.  To call a person a dog was an insult, and the unclean life of dogs made that a common term to refer to those who did not observe the Torah, Gentiles.

A better option – again, to keep Jesus’ record clean – is to understand his words as having the same intention as a zen master who slaps a student with a stick or a hand, causing them to achieve enlightenment.  Zen master Jesus knows that his people refer to her people as dogs.  His words to her, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” are intended as a zen slap. They awaken her higher self, causing her to refuse to back down to insults, claiming her and her daughter’s right to healing.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus, in control of the conversation the whole time, sees that she has passed the test, and grants her daughter healing.

This interpretation of Jesus’ words would make them similar to lines a trained therapist might use to challenge a person to overcome the limitations others have put on them, by mirroring those words back to them.  “Well, like your mother says, you’re just too stupid to figure this out.”  The patient hears the words and suddenly realizes how foolish she’s been to believe them.  She has a breakthrough.  The technique from the therapist is effective.

This is a possible reading of this story, and if you absolutely need Jesus to be the master of every conversation he’s a part of, I suggest going with this reading over the puppy one.  But that’s not the reason I’ve fallen in love with this story.  The reason I and, I’m observing, a growing number of folks have become so intrigued with this story is not because of the potential breakthrough that occurs within the Syrophoenician woman, but because of the potential breakthrough that occurs within Jesus.  This would be the only story we have in all the gospels when Jesus loses an argument.  Or, if that’s too strong, what if this is a time when Jesus opened himself up to the Spirit of God coming at him through another person, challenging his own perceptions, expanding his own understanding.  I love this story because it reveals a painfully recognizable human side of the one who referred to himself so often as “The Human One.”

The story does begin on a very human note.  Jesus is trying to get away, far, far away.  Away from the contentious scribes and Pharisees we met last week, away from the misunderstanding disciples, away from the region where he had been ministering, away from Jewish territory altogether, up north along the Mediterranean to the city of Tyre.

This story opens in verse 24 by saying, “From there, (Jesus) set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”  He went away to Tyre, not as a missionary, but as a retreatant.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Shut the doors, close the window blinds, turn off the cell phone, and give that repressed introvert a party of solitude and silence.  It’s one of the very few times we see Jesus alone after his initial 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism.  Maybe Jesus intends to reflect on all that’s happened since then.  Maybe he hopes to get a game plan for what’s next.  Maybe he just wants to sleep.

There’s one more part to verse 24.  “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice.”  Groan.  This Gentile, this woman, this Syrophoenician woman hears that this Jewish miracle worker is in town and she tracks him down, entering uninvited, bowing at his feet, begging him, begging him, to heal her daughter.  It’s a bold, even desperate move.  This is a story of a failed personal retreat.  This is a story of interruption.  How will our Jesus respond?

According to Mark, Jesus responds like this: “Let the children be fed first, for it not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”  It’s metaphorical language, but the meaning would have been quite clear.  The children Jesus speaks of are the children of Israel, the bread he speaks of are the blessings of God, and dogs are this woman and her people.  In other words – No, you’re out of luck.  I’m here for my people, and you’re not a part of my people.

So there it is.  How does one come back to that?

She uses the framework of Jesus’ metaphor – supposing there are children and dogs and bread.  Even if that’s the case, “Sir, even the little dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  I may be a dog, but I’m God’s dog.  If it is indeed Jesus who has a change of heart, then this is a double interruption.  First, the woman interrupts a planned getaway.  Second, she interrupts Jesus’ notion of his own calling and mission.

I don’t know how you feel about interruptions, but if you’re a Meyer’s-Briggs J like me you have to learn to accept them as a part of life.  You P’s may be slightly late for meetings but you’re way better at going with the flow when it comes to interruptions.

More recently I’ve begun to wonder if interruptions are one of if not the main way the Divine speaks to us.

An example: I’m trying my hardest to not get sucked into following the presidential race, yet, but a month ago an event caught my attention, having everything to do with interruption.  Bernie Sanders was scheduled to speak in Seattle marking the anniversary of Social Security and Medicare.  Before he could speak, two women from the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted the event on behalf of another anniversary, one year after the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Fergusson, Missouri.  The women were eventually given the microphone, speaking passionately about why Black Lives Matter, and it ended up that Bernie Sanders did not have time to speak before needing to move on to his next engagement.

I have no intention of equating Bernie Sanders with Jesus in this analogy, but I am intrigued with some of the connections between the two African American women and the Syrophoenician  woman:  Interrupters, not concerned with politeness or niceties, speaking not just on behalf of themselves but on behalf of their family, their people, unwilling to take no for an answer, urging people who by and large looked very different from them – the mostly white folks of Seattle – that black children deserve the dignity, respect, and rights that people of social privilege have.  Some have countered the “Black lives matter” mantra with the more universal sounding “All lives matter,” but this misses the point entirely.   To say “All lives matter” too easily dilutes the intentionally disruptive and much more pointed confession that “Black lives matter.”

Interruption is difficult, disorienting, and can be downright chaotic.  But, in looking through the biblical story, it seems that just about every hinge of the narrative turns on a major interruption.  Abraham and Sara have their comfortable life in the city states of Mesopotamia interrupted as God tells them to get up and go to an unknown territory.  Their great grandson Joseph, who grew up in that place of Canaan where they ended up, had his life massively disrupted when his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt.  The brothers and family later suffered a famine and eventually join Joseph in the refuge of Egypt only to have their ancestors be enslaved by the Pharaoh.  Generations later these Hebrews interrupt the burden of slavery by crying out to Yahweh under their oppression, and the entire order of Pharaoh is interrupted with plagues and deliverance of the Hebrews.  Once the people are back in Canaan their story is one interruption after another as God calls Gideon, and Ruth, and Samuel, and David, and those highly disruptive prophets.  Even the great and devastating interruption of their exile into Babylon becomes an occasion for new life and may be the main reason we even have the Bible in the first place, as the people form their identity less around land and kingship and temple and more around these texts they are editing and compiling.

This is before we even get to the New Testament interruptions of Gabriel to Mary, and the ministry of Jesus, and the Spirit at Pentecost, and Paul on his way to Damascus, and these small church communities in the middle of the Roman Empire.  The Bible is chock full of the theology of interruption, and each interruption becomes a way for the Divine voice to break in to human lives and subvert the status quo.

This is also an evolutionary principle.  Species tend to evolve until they reach a balance with their environment and fill a particular niche.  As long as that niche exists a species can then remain virtually unchanged for millions of year.  But if the status quo is interrupted – a volcano, a meteor, tectonic shifting – it can become a time of incredibly rapid evolutionary change.

At the very least all of this asks us to consider that interruptions, however disorienting and frightening, can provide a unique opportunity to grow and learn in ways that may not be available otherwise.

Just a bit before he met the Syrophoenician woman Jesus had fed 5,000 with bread, a few fish.  If you follow the geography in Mark and get tuned in to his knack for the symbolic, this event took place in Jewish territory, the 5,000 and the five loaves recalling that very core of Jewish life, the 5 books of the Torah.  After his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Mark records another massive feeding, this time seeming to be in Gentile territory, with 4,000 and seven loaves, these  numbers coinciding with creation and all humanity – the seven days of creation, the four elements of the ancient world, four corners of the earth, four directions.

And there are other signs in Mark to suggest that this interruption by the Syrophoenician woman who says that the good news of daily bread is also for her, serves as a hinge for Jesus by opening up his ministry to include not just his own people, but even the dogs.

You will meet the Syrophoenician woman sooner or late.  She will find you.  And when she does, your first reaction will very likely not be one embrace.  Maybe just the opposite.  But if you listen to the interruption, if you let it speak its truth, it might have something new to say, and it might end up being the very voice of God.

Thanks to Yvonne Z for sharing this image.