I sometimes listen to the Lutherans from Luther Seminary discuss the lectionary passages in their podcast called, “Sermon Brainwave.” This week they were unanimous in saying that there’s simply no rescuing Jesus from calling this Syrophoenician woman a dog. You can’t save him! You can’t say it’s a translation issue, or he didn’t really mean it, or he used the word for “puppy” and was saying it affectionately. None of that is going to work. The point here is that this gentile woman, out of desperate concern for her daughter, had something to offer Jesus about the limitless boundaries of his own ministry, and to Jesus’ credit he listened.
She comes for her daughter’s healing and Jesus tells her that it’s not been offered to the unclean, for that is exactly what dog’s and gentiles are. “Call me a dog if you must, but even dogs eat the scraps that fall from the children’s table.” Her response, the suggest, then opens his eyes to the radical reach and extravagant welcome of the kingdom his very presence ushers in. In fact, to then show the change of heart Mark tells us that Jesus changes his plans and reroutes. He heads north even though his plans are to the south and along the way he stops in a small oasis of Gentile towns surrounded by Semitic territory where he heals yet another gentile.
In other words, this woman’s faith, or cunning, or love for her daughter, or combination of it all flipped a switch in Jesus and opened his ministry beyond his expectations. David Lose, another Lutheran and one of my preaching heroes, agrees. Hey says, “Maybe it was all too easy to fall into the typical dichotomies of in and out, saved and damned, worthy and unworthy, Jew and Gentile. Maybe, that is, he really has come for the Israelites and then he stumbles upon this woman – or maybe God even put her in Jesus way – to test him, to stretch him, to extend his imagination to believe that God’s kingdom includes all people – Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles – everyone.”
To read the “dog passage” and not address it feels wrong, like you just can’t do that. Yet, though I admire the honesty in what my Lutheran friends have suggested, I disagree with them. I don’t think Jesus was ever mistaken about the boundaries of God’s love. I think that his awareness of its expansive reach is exactly what brought him those 20-40 miles away from Galilee and into Syrian land. I also think that like us all the original readers of Mark’s gospel may have struggled with the extent of God’s grace. And even more than that, I think the disciples did as well. The Apostle Paul, who lived at the same time as those disciples, sets the context pretty well when in one of his letters he says, “Listen, I’m going to tell you a mystery, and this mystery has been hidden in God throughout the ages, revealed now only in Christ. Do you want to know what this great mystery is? Lean in and I’ll tell you.” Now, you’d think he’d have something to say about The Big Bang or Chaos Theory or how it is that I could be so good and so horrible in the same round of golf, but instead he says this, “the Gentiles are included too.” That’s the big mystery! To us it’s no surprise, but to them – to those first disciples – chaos theory probably would have made more sense.
So, I don’t think this passage is about what Jesus has to learn. I think it’s about what the disciples had to learn and what the early church had to learn and what the present church is still learning. It makes sense too in the flow of Mark’s narrative. Last week Jesus schools the pharisees right there in front of the disciples. The pharisees are concerned with the limits of grace. You can’t get it, they say, if you’re not washing your hands – if you are breaking the rules and acting unclean. Jesus calls them hypocrites and tells them that it’s what comes out of you that makes you unclean – presumably a truth that applies no matter your culture or country, right?
Today’s passage follows as a warning to the disciples because they too haven’t grasped the mystery. The gentile woman comes to them and Jesus gives her the party line. He says to her exactly what they would still expect him to say. And, as he says it those faithful disciples get to experience the cruelty of their own perspective. They get to see grace denied to a desperate human for no other reason than the limitations of their own tradition. Just like the pharisees they too have much to learn about the reach of God’s embrace.
Be opened. Oh if only we might be!
Speak to a heart that’s closed in on itself:
‘Be opened and the truth will set you free’,
Speak to a world imprisoned in its wealth:
‘Be opened! Learn to learn from poverty’,
Speak to a church that closes and excludes,
And makes rejection its own litany:
‘Be opened, opened to the multitudes
For whom I died but whom you have dismissed
Be opened, opened, opened,’ how you sigh
And still we do not hear you. We have missed
Both cry and crisis, we make no reply.
Take us aside, for we are deaf and dumb
Spit on us Lord and touch each tongue-tied tongue.