We’re looking today at one of the more surprising incidents that is recorded in the gospels. It is in fact quite shocking to us in our very politically correct society.
Jesus calls a Gentile a dog.
Some of the commentators try to take the edge off it by saying that Jesus means cute, fluffy little dog. Others say that he said it with a twinkle in his eye. But those explanations don’t wash.
He says, in reply to the woman’s request that he cast the unclean spirit from her daughter, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs’.
How would you react if Jesus called you a dog?
How would you react if people of your race were described as dogs by another people?
It is an absolutely outrageous thing to say: that people who are not like you are dogs
Unless of course, in one exceptional case, it is true.
We have here a woman who is desperate. Her daughter is beyond help.
She is not sick. Mark knows the difference between sickness and possession by demons. She is possessed by an ‘unclean’ spirit. That is the actual word that Mark uses, and it immediately makes us think of what Jesus has just said in the previous verses (
Mark 7:1-23), when he has declared all food clean, and when he has told us that it is what comes out of our heart that makes us unclean.
In our society we struggle with the idea of possession or unclean spirits. But we lose the language of demons to our peril. There are things which grip us, which are completely beyond our control or the control of others. Tablets (British Museum exhibit: homo-tableticus), injections, psychotherapy, counselling, self-awareness, technology, education is not going to cure us or save us. There are things that are beyond all human resources.
Of course we do need to be aware of dangers of the language of demon possession. I remember in London in the street hearing one of our grandmothers (who was remarkably like Precious in Come fly with me - without the hypocritical bit) berating her grandson, and telling him he had the devil in him. I stepped in and said he didn’t have the devil in him. What he did have was a completely absent father, a mother who was unable to cope and a granny who was being stretched in every direction at the same time.
And of course we cannot forget the awful case of Victoria Climbie. She was tortured to death because her aunt believed she was possessed.
But because the language of demons is abused, or because it is sensationalised in popular films, that does not mean that it is a language we should not use.
The signing of people with the cross in our baptism service goes back to the very earliest of times when, before people were baptised, prayers and anointing was offered for deliverance: that those dark forces which had held them up to that time might be broken.
The desert fathers spoke of their struggles with demons in the desert.
For many of our brothers and sisters in countries which are more spiritually open than ours, demon and demon possession is an everyday part of life, and I have to say that in inner city London I came across stuff that I could use no other language for apart from the language of evil spirits and demons.
And this woman looks at her daughter, who is obviously in the control of something that is much bigger than her, and that is destroying her, and she is desperate.
She is so desperate that she breaks all the taboos.
She is a woman and she comes to a man
She breaks the taboo about not invading personal space. Having said that, I suspect that the taboo of personal space is a much greater taboo in our society than in Jesus’ society.
But the greatest taboo that this woman breaks is that she, a Gentile, comes and asks help from a Jewish rabbi.
And Jesus answers her by saying that the good things of God (the bread) are for his people. And that she is a dog.
But amazingly this woman is not put off.
Her answer, ‘Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’, is not a witty reply. It is one of the most remarkable declarations of faith in the New Testament.
1. She is saying, ‘I recognise divine choice’.
I recognise that I am a dog, and that the Jewish people are the chosen people. I recognise that the God who called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the true and living God. I recognise the authority of the Jewish scriptures. And I recognise you as the special one who those scriptures told us was coming.
I wonder if those of us who are Gentile by birth would have had the grace to make such an answer. To recognise that the Jews are the chosen people of God is to recognise that those of us who are not Jews, were not the chosen people of God. We were not God’s people. We were cut off from the promises of God. We were outside the covenant of God. We were, as far as they were concerned, dogs.
2. She is saying, ‘I recognise divine providence’.
She actually understood the Old Testament far better than many of the Jews of Jesus’ time.
There were times when they thought that because God had chosen them, that because the other nations were as dogs to them, they were the superior race. And that, as we have seen in history, can lead to some very nasty things. The Hutus thought they were superior to the Tutsis (and vice-versa); the peoples of this island thought that they were superior to the peoples of the colonies; the Nazis thought they were racially superior to Jews.
But actually God did not choose the Jewish people to be his people because they were a superior people. He did not choose them to be his rulers in the world instead of the Gentiles. He chose the Jewish people for the sake of the Gentiles.
When God, right at the beginning of the Jewish nation, calls Abraham, he promises to bless him with descendants and land. But then he says, ‘And through you all people will be blessed’. And Isaiah picks up on this vision and speaks of how a restored Israel will bring blessing to all nations and all peoples.
So this lady comes to Jesus. She sees him as the representative of the Jewish people, and she asks for nothing less than the fulfilment of those Old Testament prophecies. She asks that the blessing that will come from the Jews will fall on the Gentiles. She asks that the good things on the table for the Jews, will be so abundant that they will fall off the table and bring blessing to the Gentiles.
3. All she asks for are the crumbs that fall of the table of God - that will be enough for her
I like that. If the crumbs of God can do the impossible; what will it be like to sit at that table with him in the Kingdom? What blessing, what abundance, what comfort, what ultimate healing, what life, what joy!
And for those who, like this woman, have cried out for a sick child but have not seen them healed, it is not because you have not been desperate enough or because you have lacked faith. Instead you are called to walk the very dark and hard road, but to still put your trust in the ultimate goodness of God: to realise - if I dare say this - that you were asking for crumbs when what he really wants to give is a banquet.
Jesus is astonished at her faith. The healing of her daughter is not a reward for a witty answer. It is the answer of a God who longs to pour out his blessing on his own people first, but also on the Gentiles.
In fact this is a key point in the story that Mark tells.
Mark 6 we have had the feeding of the 5000 in a solidly Jewish area, with 12 baskets of leftovers (with 12 being a very Jewish number: think of the 12 tribes)
Jesus then retreats (hint!) and prays (in Mark, when we are told that Jesus prays, we know that something is about to happen) and crosses the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile area.
He has a dispute with the Pharisees about what is clean and unclean. He declares all food clean, and he goes on to say that what makes a person unclean is the stuff that is in their heart.
And then this Gentile woman comes and begs him to heal her daughter
It is possible that as Jesus saw this woman he knew that this was the moment when his ministry was to go global. This was the point when Israel’s mission to the Gentiles really began
And if we read what follows from this: Jesus, now in solidly Gentile territory, heals a deaf and dumb man
And then, before he crosses back into solid Jewish territory, we get a repeat of the feeding of the 5000. Only this time it is in Gentile territory; he feeds 4000 people and there are 7 baskets of leftovers (with 7 being the universal number). Jesus who has fed the Jews, now feeds the Gentiles. And in between is the Syro-Phoenician woman who asks for crumbs.
And the woman’s faith does not finish there. She takes Jesus at his word; she goes home and she finds her daughter healed and lying on her bed.
We echo the words of that woman in our communion service. We say, “We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under your table; yet you are the same Lord and your nature is always to have mercy; grant us therefore gracious Lord so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
Every time we say that, we acknowledge what this woman acknowledges: that we are dependent exclusively on mercy.
It is not because we are somebody; it not because of our race (on that basis, we are dogs); it is not because of any good deeds that we have done; it is not because we are ‘nice’ people (God preserve us from being ‘nice’ people. We are forgiven, welcomed, healed, cleansed, adopted as children of God, given the Holy Spirit, promised an inheritance in the Kingdom of God - because of the love and mercy of God.
This, of course, is the basis for racial harmony. It is really not on for one race of dogs to accuse another race of being dogs. The problem is not in the calling of the name. The problem is in the not recognising that the hat you want them to wear fits you just as well.
We were not God’s people. We were dogs. We were cut off from the promises and the gifts and the ways of God. But God in his mercy comes to us. He comes to our territory. He is staying here. His stay is secret - but as always in Mark - the secret is an open secret. He is there to be found by anyone who chooses to seek him. And as we call out to him - maybe for crumbs - we begin to realise that he longs to give us far far more. He longs to lift us up, and to sit us at the table with him, so that we eat and drink not as dogs beneath the table, but as full sons and daughters of the living God at the table of God.
And maybe we are driven to him by desperation or by despair or by curiosity - it doesn’t matter. Because he is not in the business of giving crumbs to dogs. He is in the business of transforming dogs into children of God.