It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
These are the words Jesus speaks to the Syrophoenician woman in the gospel appointed for Sunday. This doesn’t sound much like our Jesus, does it? This isn’t gentle shepherd Jesus, or sweet little baby Jesus, or the Jesus who teaches us to love our neighbors and even to love our enemies. These words certainly don’t sound very loving to me! This Jesus doesn’t sound much like the Jesus of righteous anger, either, the Jesus who runs the moneychangers out of the temple. And it isn’t civil disobedience Jesus, who kept silent when he was arrested and accused. Who is this Jesus?
In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus had a run-in with the Pharisees about ritual cleanliness. Of course, they found Jesus’ teaching incomprehensible and absurd, and the gathered crowd didn’t understand him either. After the public incident, even the disciples asked more questions of Jesus, and he had to explain himself again. This isn’t the only time in the gospel story that we see Jesus teach publicly and then explain himself to his closest friends. But we know that this can get tiresome after a while. Anyone who has ever had a three-year-old child — in that great age of inquisitiveness where every word of the parent is questioned Why? — knows that explaining yourself again and again gets old quickly.
So in this pair of stories from Mark, Jesus once again tries to withdraw from the public eye. He needs some time to himself, though he brings his dear friends with him. In fact, Jesus withdraws so far that he leads the disciples to the unclean towns of Tyre and Sidon, all the way to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, all the way out of Judea and into towns of pagans and gentiles. But Jesus doesn’t get a break, even here. His name is known, even here, among people of different faiths. His story has spread, even here. And one desperate woman, whose daughter has been very ill, hears that Jesus has come to her town. At this news, she rushes to find Jesus, and she bows at his feet, and she begs him to help her little girl.
This is when Jesus speaks his astonishing words:
Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Every time I hear this story, my jaw drops, and I’m torn between wanting to shake Jesus by the shoulders and wanting to slap him across the face. With these words, Jesus has called this desperate woman — who yet gives him honor and respect — a dog! What’s more, he’s basically refused her: I won’t heal your daughter, because she’s not a Jew. I’ve wondered before whether Jesus actually spoke these words, or whether someone else in the crowd said this. Last year, when we got this story in the lectionary, my reflection took me to a retelling of the story, in which Peter is the one who said this insulting, degrading thing.
I’ve heard many interpret this story as Jesus testing the faith of the Syrophoenician woman before he heals her daughter, but this interpretation just doesn’t feel right to me. Jesus has tested the faith of others before this woman, but that has been in the context of new disciples, not of a healing. From all the healing stories in the gospels, about Jesus loving those in the crowds around him or taking pity on the people, I just can’t comprehend him refusing healing to anyone.
Instead, I have the sense that in this story, Jesus is tired and frustrated. Nobody is getting his message — not even his closest friends understand him! — and every time he’s tried to withdraw from the crowds to pray and find refreshment, he has been confronted with someone who has great need. Every time, he’s had to heal yet one more person or feed a few thousand or keep teaching despite his need for rest. He has just walked dozens of miles to find some peace, and what happens when he gets into this pagan town where nobody should know him? One more person begging him for healing.
I suspect Jesus just got frustrated and snapped at her. Dammit, woman, can’t you see I’m tired? I just walked from Galilee to find peace, and you accost me the moment I set foot in this place? Can’t you just wait one damned day so we can rest? But this isn’t what he says; instead, Jesus finds the most insulting words he can: Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Luckily for him, the Syrophoenician woman can spar ably with Jesus, because she throws his words right back at him:
Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.
And in this moment, I think Jesus realizes what he’s done. He is, after all, fully human just as he is fully divine, and so he’s subject to the same things we are: sore feet, blisters, weariness, indigestion, frustration, smelly armpits, sympathy, anger, sunburn. Despite our pictures of Good Shepherd Jesus and Sweet Little Baby Jesus, this is a man who is fully capable of being tired and grumpy and cranky — just like I am at the end of a long trip. But Jesus knows that more is expected of him, so when this woman reminds him that he’s being a bit of a jerk here, he agrees with her and heals her daughter.
I find this a story of great hope. I know I get cranky when I’m tired, and sometimes I snap at my husband or my children. I get grumpy when I’m seeking rest and refreshment, and another task comes up that I have to deal with. But look! Even Jesus gets cranky sometimes! Even Jesus snaps at people who interfere with his plans! Even Jesus is capable of saying mean things to others! Jesus was the son of God, fully divine, and even he acted like, well, a real person. But Jesus still chose to do the right thing, the loving thing, even though he was tired and grumpy and just wanted to rest. This is an example I can follow. He wasn’t perfect. He didn’t have infinite patience. Even if he had to be reminded, Jesus managed to choose the path of love.
I don’t know about you, but I find this human Jesus to be much more inspiring than a perfect Jesus. We can try to emulate someone who is perfect, but we know we will always fall short. Of course, we know we don’t possess the divinity of Jesus, but we know from these stories that Jesus possessed the humanity of all of us. I can follow in the footsteps of this human Jesus. I can hope to make the choices of love. I can know that Jesus understands what it feels like to be tired, to be cranky, to want everyone to go away and let me rest. And I know that, through his death and resurrection, Jesus forgives me for those times when I act in unloving or harmful ways.
What a great gift we received from God, when God sent us the human Jesus!