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. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 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." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table 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.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astonished beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.".
In 1995, Singer Joan Osborn’s came out with a beautiful song called “One Of Us”. The Lyrics asked:
If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face,
if you were faced with Him in all His glory?
What would you ask if you had just one question?
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus?
Tryin' to make his way home?
We may just find a God that is a lot like Jesus in our Gospel today. God-With-Us – Emmanuel – Jesus – is quite perplexing in our reading today.
We are told that Jesus “set out and went away to the region of Tyre”, enters a house without wanting to be seen, but is nevertheless confronted by an unnamed woman of Syrophoenician origin. “Phoenicia was a region north of Galilee with major cities named Tyre and Sidon. Tyre, was historically a bitter enemy of the Jews and so the region of Type was potentially hostile territory for Jesus.”[i]
We don’t know what house Jesus entered or why or even why he did not want anybody to see him. Knowing he has been traveling and teaching followed by a crowd and at times sought out solitude to simply get away, maybe he needed some time alone. However, news travels fast and a woman hears about him and confronts him at the house. She has a daughter with “an unclean spirit”, which means she suffered from any number of illnesses, and must have heard about the miracles performed by Jesus. She finds him and bows at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter. Unexpectedly, Jesus dismisses her. Rather than holding up her faith in him as something to be applauded and something that will save her and her daughter, he instead tells her, “let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. Metaphorically speaking, children would have referred to the Jews, God’s chosen people, and food may have meant the kingdom of God. So, what Jesus was telling her is that “Nope. Sorry. Can’t help you – Israel first. Get in line.
Jesus response is shocking and disturbing. Not only does he withhold help, but he also demeans her. By comparing healing or feeding her or her daughter to throwing food to the dogs, he effectively removes her humanity and calls her a dog. In much of scripture, Dogs are not seen as cute little household animals but as dirty scavengers, (see Exodus 22:31). In the east, to this day, calling someone a dog is one of the worst insults. Jesus softened his words by using the Greek word ‘kynarion’, which denotes a little puppy rather than a full-grown wild dog, but it is nevertheless an insult hurled at a desperate mother seeking help. And what is especially puzzling is this: Just before coming to the region of Tyre, Jesus told the pharisees and scribes that it is not what is on the outside of the body but what comes out but what comes from within that defiles – so what is this coming out of Jesus? What are these words?
Rather than be offended, the woman counters Jesus’s attack on her by telling him that even dogs eat the children’s crumbs under the table – insisting that grace is for all, not only for those at the table and a crumb of grace is all it takes. And finally Jesus seems to get it and he changes his mind; our unchanging God changes his mind before her very eyes and responds how we expected him to respond in the first place, “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter”.
The entire encounter is so very puzzling and has been interpreted in a variety of ways.
- Some believe that he was tired and worn and responded harshly because he had gone to the house and did not want anybody to know and yet here she was and asked something of him. For a moment he forgot but she reminded him of his mission. However, the Gospel of Mark has other incidents in which Jesus is interrupted as he seeks quiet time. He doesn’t respond with rudeness then nor denies requests.
- Some believe that Jesus was reactive because he was in gentile and hostile territory and upset about how Jews are treated there and upset about the recent murder of his cousin John. His reaction thus comes out of his frustration – and yet, this is so much the opposite of what Jesus is teaching, and would he really blame her for all the other things. It just seems so…well…un-christ-like, one might say.
- And yet others believe that the woman was teaching Jesus. She, as the outsider, was teaching Jesus about the kingdom of God and she was teaching him what he had been preaching. But Jesus had been breaking down barriers wherever he left and preached an inclusive Gospel and sat with sinners wherever he went. Did she really have to teach him?
There seem to be more questions than answers. Maybe there is no one answers. Maybe this story is supposed to rattle us, supposed to be uncomfortable and supposed to make us think and wonder. Maybe we are meant to question our image of God and our place in the realm of God. Or maybe the story is supposed to make us see ourselves and the crumbs of grace that have come our way as well as the ways in which we may have refused these crumbs to others even when we were able to provide them? Maybe we are to learn from both Jesus and the woman, because, in a way, we are both Jesus and the woman.
When this gentle woman comes to Jesus, she does not come because she deserves blessings. Instead, she comes empty handed, humbling herself before him, and asking for the gift that only he can give. She, just like each of us, knows that she may not be an ideal recipient, but she comes nonetheless, and she comes understanding one thing that eludes so many others and often even us: God’s gifts and God’s well of love – or table or cup – can’t be contained but is overflowing. There are enough of blessings, enough grace, enough of God’s love to go around for all and more. And nothing – no gift, no blessing, no food - is too small when it comes from God; the God that can feed 5000 with a few loaves and fishes, can save with merely a crumb. And like the Syrophoenician woman, we too are deeply flawed and fully loved, fallen and redeemed, “simultaneously saint and sinner”[ii], but by crumbs of grace, we are saved.
And like Jesus in our story, we sometimes are reluctant to see the new things God is doing, reluctant to think of new ways of sharing God’s love, and reluctant to see a new way of being. Like Jesus, we sometimes need a reminder of who we are and what we are called to do. Like Jesus we sometimes forget for a moment that the salvation of those at the table is directly tied into that of those who are under the table. We are all in this beautiful and holy and sacred journey called life together.
Wedged in between feeding 5000 people on a hillside in Jewish territory (which happened shortly before this encounter) and then feeding 4000 people in gentile territory (which will happen shortly thereafter), this story marks a transition point. No matter how we interpret the counter, it is clear that it is here that Christ opened his heart and opened the doors of the Kingdom of God wider than ever before and we are asked to do the same.
Ephrata - be opened – are the words Jesus speaks to heal the man who can not hear and who cannot speak clearly – Ephrata – be opened – are the words God wants us to hear as he speaks clearly to us. Open up and be opened – open your ears wide to hearing God calling you beloved, open your mouths wide to proclaim the Good News and to speak God’s love into the lives of all others – Be opened to a new thing God is doing in the world and new things we are called to do. Be opened to hearing God in expected people and places.
What if God was one of us?
God was one of us and God is with us! Be open to hearing God in the world – and let us always put out an extra place setting for any Syrophoenician woman, any children, any people we encounter - so that nobody needs to eat under the table – not even crumbs of grace.
[i] New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, “Syrophoenician Woman”
[ii] Martin Luther said that we are simultaneously righteous (or just) and sinners, meaning we are always both at the same time. See Romans 7 if you would like to study this more in depth or google “Simul justus et peccator”.