Among all the other news pouring out of Washington this week you may have forgotten that President Trump is also in trouble for having called a woman a dog. He shouldn’t have done that, but my own first thought about it was to note that it’s the one way in which the president really is like Jesus. In our reading for this morning, Jesus called a woman a dog too and, like President Trump, he didn’t mean it in that good way. Some people have speculated that Jesus meant to imply that the woman was a cute little puppy. I assure you, that is not what the first-century text says. Jesus called her a dog, and by saying she was a little dog it was more like, “You’re a dog, and not even a big dog.” Jesus was acknowledging her as an outsider among outsiders: A gentile, a woman, a woman with no man, and — as if that were’t enough — a woman with a daughter who was possessed by a demon. We like to think of Jesus as a man of compassion, but in this passage it seems like he was a real meanie.
The text doesn’t name the woman, of course, but it does give us quite a lot of information about her. She was a resident of Tyre, gentile of Syrophoenician origin, she had no man, but instead of embracing her low status, she approached Jesus, the man, spoke plainly to him as if she were a man herself, and she talked back to him when he called her a dog. By the time she had finished her tete-a-tete with Jesus, she had gotten what she wanted and her daughter had been healed.
That’s great that her daughter was healed, isn’t it? And the other great news is that Jesus’ vision of his mission began to expand: He started healing gentiles. It is tempting to skip over the part where Jesus calls the woman a dog and concentrate on the fact that the woman, an outsider of outsiders, has been brought into the circle of Jesus. There is enough of the good news for everyone, not just the Jews. It’s all so wonderful. It fits in perfectly with what we all want to say, what we want to hear. It’s just great, isn’t it? Here’s the thing, though, I’m not buying.
I think all of that is true, by the way. I think that there is plenty of healing for each of us individually and for our clearly demon-possessed society too. I believe that the outsiders have been brought inside, and that maybe Jesus had a bad day sometimes and called people names. Hey, when you’re fully human, it happens. But, it’s very jarring, and that means that it needs attention. So, let’s try reading the text in a less literal way.
Our story today is from the Gospel Of Mark. Almost everybody knows that in Greek “gospel” means “good news.” That’s super. But there is a Hebrew word for Gospel and it has another meaning. It means “meat.” So we might say that this story is from the Meat Of Mark. That is, in terms of spiritual food this is not milk, not easy, and so we have to resist the easy or more literal reading.
When we read about the bread, everybody understood that we were not talking about literal bread. Bread was used as a metaphor for spiritual food. In general, food refers to spiritual nourishment. Some food is bread. Jesus, for example, is the bread of life. Some food is milk, easy to swallow. And some food is meat, like this story. It is hard to digest, but this is the food of maturity.
There is a similar issue in the first part of this chapter, Mark 7. Jesus and his disciples were accused of eating bread with unclean hands. This is not about bread or about hands either. The accusation is not that they eating literal bread with dirty hands, but that they are not following the spiritual teachings of their tradition. In modern parlance they aren’t doing things the way they’ve always been done, they aren’t continuing the traditions of the religious establishment. The disciple’s personal hygiene is not a gospel issue!
Most people seem to do OK up to that point, but as soon as we get to these stories about the Syrophoenician woman and the man who couldn’t hear or speak we go all literal and try to pick apart the narrative. We want these people to be like us, and we want Jesus to be our hero. But, that is not how it is in real life. Jesus is not a hero, and we are not Syrophoenician women… You are not a Syrophoenician woman are you? So, something else is going on.
Very commonly, when we are reading the Bible, we are well advised to read relationships as parts of the whole. In other words, the Syrophoenician woman didn’t have a daughter, but there was a part of her own self which was tormented. Her problem was not a demon, per se. You can believe in demons if you want, but I don’t think it’s helpful for this type of reading. Rather, she was confused, probably to the point of being tormented about it. These acts of hers: A woman approaching a man, talking back to Jesus, crashing his party… these are acts of desperation, though she may not even have know what her problem was. That’s why Jesus had to tell her. “You’re a dog,” he said. “That’s what’s wrong with you. You’re a dog.”
Well, what does that mean if we are reading more metaphorically? Very simply dogs eat all kinds of meat. They have absolutely no discrimination. My own little dog will wolf down steak, hamburger, sausage, venison… he doesn’t care. It’s all meat to him and he eats it up. This woman was a pagan, like most everybody else in her town, and she probably had all kinds of gods, took in all kinds of teachings, and treated them all as pretty much equal in value. It was confusing. There was something about that path that tormented her and she came to Jesus seeking some peace, some clarification. “All these gods… It’s driving me crazy!”
Jesus — Maybe still a little unsure of his mission — told her that his teachings were only for “the children,” that is, his own people. But she persisted, insisting that she would be happy to receive just a little bit “under the table,” a lower-level of guidance. For this… and “this” was her acknowledgement that the God of Jesus was the food she wanted and that only a small amount would be enough to clear up her confusion… she was healed. In Hebrew words can mean more than one thing and the word for “daughter” can also mean a vessel for wine, or the spirit. In other words, her spirit was calmed, she had found the spiritual food that would bring her peace.
So, now we are confronted with the the issue of Jesus calling the woman a dog in a new way. He was not being unkind to her, he was diagnosing the problem. And there’s something else, he might be calling us dogs too!
Not all teachings are equal, not all gods are the same. There is no doubt about it, our God is difficult. He does things we don’t understand, Jesus speaks in ways that are confusing. Sometimes it really feels like being possessed by a demon when we have to wrestle with a passage like this one. But, that is the work of eating meat, of taking on Jesus’ teachings with maturity and tenacity.
What are we to do with these so-called “hard sayings” of Jesus? Well the Syrophoenician woman shows us. We go to Jesus. We are not afraid to bust up the party that wants to skip over the hard parts and get to the nice bits. We talk back. We are content with a crumb, because even a crumb is enough.
As we continue through the Bible this year we will encounter more “hard sayings,” there will be a lot of things that we just don’t understand. But, the bravery and humility of the Syrophoenician woman will see us through. Jesus did not give her any specific teaching. There is no secret. But engagement with the real presence of Jesus heals, calms, casts out the tormenting spirits.
Today you may be tormented by some theological question, or maybe by something else. In this world there is plenty to feel tormented about. There is no key that will unlock all the answers for you. Our only hope is in the presence of Jesus and that is a hope that is real. We can all stop looking for answers, that is a pagan god. We can stop being tormented by outside forces. Sit quietly, demand God’s attention, engage, and let the Holy Spirit draw you into the life of Jesus who is our bread. He himself is the teacher and the teaching, the healer and the health, the lover and the love.
There is a reason that we never hear anything else about the Syrophoenician woman. It’s because each path is different. She found her deliverance in Jesus’ presence and you will find yours there too, but you maybe called to one thing while another is called to another. The commonality is that all our belief, our prayer, and our action is the result of having our vision shifted from the many gods that torment to the One God who Is Love.
Linda McMillan is wrestling with the readings in Bangkok, Thailand this week.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Hebrews 5:12… “…You need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food.”
1 Corinthians 3:2… “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for solid food. In fact, you are still not ready.
The Eucharist is regularly referred to as “the spiritual food of your [Jesus’] body and blood.”
Torah is called the “bread of life.”