(reflection on Mark 7:24-31)
She knows all the reasons she shouldn’t be doing this; she knows the obstacles, she knows she’s stepping over some well-established boundaries. She knows Jesus is trying to fly low under the radar because, after all, he’s in a small house in the quiet part of town. The woman also knows that any religious Jew will see her as unclean and unworthy of attention. But this is a mother whose daughter is in crisis and she’s tried everything else and so she does what mothers do: she does a crazy thing to save her daughter’s life. But her reception is even worse than she feared. She’s called a “dog” by the one man she was hoping could help heal her daughter. She is reminded again that she is the lowest of the low, the wearer of a label that religious Jews reserve for pagan Greeks. And there is no doubt that every other observant Jew in the house, including the disciples, are thinking the very thing Jesus says to her.
This story makes me so uncomfortable! Jesus is rude and using an ethnic slur to put down an outsider—isn’t he the one who’s come to welcome everyone to the table?? And I’m not the only one who wants to make this story better than it is. Some biblical scholars want to pretend that Jesus was “just kidding”, that he maybe gave her a little wink to let her know he was just playing with her. Others suggest, erroneously, that we aren’t translating this word correctly, that Jesus isn’t so much calling her a dog as he is telling her she’s a puppy. A cute little puppy! But the reality is being called a dog was a terrible insult. Being called a dog was a way to dishonor and demean someone, and there’s just no way around the truth of the situation.
So we’re left with our brother Jesus insulting a woman to her face. We’re left with Jesus saying what all the closed-minded bigots in the room were thinking. We’re left with Christ embracing and encouraging our own prejudices and biases. So we’re uncomfortable and even perhaps shaken when Jesus says this—and we need to be! We should be outraged when he responds to her humble request by saying the children deserve to be fed before the dogs.
For observant Jews of the period there is a right and proper order assigned to everything. There are ways things are supposed to be done; there are rituals that need to be done meticulously and thoroughly. And Jesus has already explained that the religious leaders have it all wrong. Religion isn’t supposed to be about building walls to keep some people out. The rules are there to guide us and to help us function better, not to be used as weapons to exclude people.
We have the same struggle today. We decide that some things are worthy of our attention and assistance, and others are not. We make most of these decisions unconsciously perhaps, but we do it all day, every day. We decide what we will support financially and what we won’t. We have so many choices we can’t do it all, so we have to choose. But do we pay attention to the way we choose what to pay attention to??
I’ve been biking a lot lately on the river greenway in the early morning, much like I did a few years back. It’s beautiful and peaceful and quiet and there are always homeless people I encounter in make-shift tents, or huddled in a ball under the bridges. I see them every time I bike. Or do I? Do I see the person, or do I see the label? Do I see a woman named Virginia or do I see a homeless woman without teeth who has smoked a lot of meth? Do I see Mary and her two young sons, or do I see the label of unwed mother?
This has been weighing on me more and more lately because I can see clearly that instead of following my heart and greeting these people with at least a friendly hello and a smile, I generally let my apprehensions, my discomfort and my natural bias make my decision for me. In other words, I pick up the pace and pedal faster so I can forget I saw what I saw. And when I hear my own prejudices expressed in the words of Jesus, I can see how wrong and unloving his words really are! (Yeah, I know…it’s easier to find fault in others than in myself…even finding fault in Jesus!)
The woman in this parable has a response to the hate language, however: “Even the dogs get to eat crumbs off the floor under the children’s table!” And Jesus recognizes the truth she teaches him and tells her to return home, that the demon has already left her daughter. It’s like Jesus has had a lesson from an unexpected source, where he himself gets a reminder of the power and beauty of the Gospel! No Greeks, no Jews, no males or females, no rich or poor, no gay or straight, no liberal or conservative. And then to underscore the point, Jesus goes on to heal a deaf man, also a Gentile—repeating the lesson he has learned from an ordinary mom to teach us that God doesn’t exclude anyone. God is big enough to love us all, no matter what or who or where. The crowds go wild with excitement and can’t imagine how this could get any better, but then the very next parable Mark tells us is the feeding of the 4,000 people with only seven pita breads and some fish. After that powerful sign there are seven baskets of leftovers, proving that with God there is always more than enough to go around. I’m not a fan of leftovers, God knows, but the message here is clear: we can live on God’s leftovers. We can live off the crumbs under the table because the crumbs of grace are life-sustaining and life-changing.
I interact with people from every walk of life on a weekly basis, most of whom are dying. They’re dying from choices they made a long time ago but still control them. They’re not the same people with the same brains and minds they were born with, and they are very, very good at heaping labels on themselves. They can heap terrible labels on themselves without mercy sometimes! I have hope for every one of these people, but I also know that statistically some, if not most, will die anyway. This is a life and death struggle we’re in and we can’t pretend it’s anything but. For some people maybe this would be overwhelming and cause a lack of faith. I’m not that guy. I’ve been to that deep, dark place within myself to confront my own demons and to reclaim my life. I know how hard it is. I know it can be done. And as long as there is one suffering person willing to sit with me, asking me how to save themselves before it’s too late, I’ll be there.
Christ has looked into the deepest, darkest parts of our souls. He knows all the labels we carry: the ones we’ve earned, the ones we heap on ourselves needlessly, the ones we use to judge and sort others. And he loves us anyway, offering us the Bread of Life at every turn.
Despite how we think of ourselves, Jesus has made us worthy to pull up a chair and join him at the table. He’s taken all our labels of unworthiness and shame and fear and he’s thrown them in the trash. And now we have a new label, thanks to the gift of his life and teaching, his death and resurrection. We are the beloved children, and we are not only welcome, we are expected and our arrival is anticipated with excitement! We’re all children of the One God, so we are not to label anyone, not even ourselves. We have to stop building walls that keep others from experiencing the love of God. We have to stop building those walls within ourselves that keep us from experiencing that same love. We are beloved. Any other label just sucks.