I can’t believe this is what Jesus said! Here is a woman in distress, who needs healing for her daughter, who is apparently demon-possessed. (Aren’t you in sympathy with her already?) Jesus helps people like this throughout Mark’s Gospel – Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus, ten lepers, a centurion’s daughter. He heals a man with a withered hand, on the Sabbath no less. This should be a simple miracle in a long line of stories adding to Jesus’s luster. Instead, Jesus says he has to feed the children first, and he doesn’t throw the children’s bread to the dogs. Really Jesus? You are going to leave her on the outside of your circle of care? Let’s be clear-this is an insult. There is not one single positive reference to dogs in the whole Bible. Dogs, in scripture, are scavenger animals you really don’t want around. Essentially Jesus is saying, don’t come to me scavenging.
Is there anything a critical look at the text can tell us to turn this story around? What are we missing? Who is this woman? She is a Syrophoenician woman. There is no such identity in comparative ancient literature. She has a hyphenated identity, which makes her belonging anywhere a challenge. Think of comedian Trevor Noah’s autobiography, “Born a Crime.” In South Africa, racial “mixing” was a crime, so he can’t be seen in his father’s white neighborhood, and he was also suspect in the black townships. You don’t get the best of both worlds; more likely you don’t easily belong anywhere.
Second, this is a woman, approaching a group of men, asking for a favor. It was customary for a male relative to make this appeal. Remember the story of the woman with a hemorrhage? She does not call out to Jesus, but silently touches the hem of his robe, hoping to be unnoticed. Women don’t just approach men. It’s likely this woman has no male relatives to intervene. She is a single mother of mixed race, likely at the margins of society.
Even though this is an ancient story told in a patriarchal culture, it still feels contemporary. It’s not simply poor women, or women of certain ethnicities, or single moms that face bias and discrimination. Women who are lawyers or run for the highest offices are facing uphill battles every day to be treated as equals. In the September issue of The Atlantic, a woman who is a 30-year veteran attorney described what repeatedly happens to her in the courtroom. Opposing male lawyers file a “no crying” motion against her with the judge. She has never once cried in court, and yet this motion has been filed against her 24 times. Every time the judge dismisses the motion, but the seed has been planted:
The idea that she will unfairly deploy her feminine wiles to get what she wants has been planted in the judge’s mind. Though (she)has long since learned to expect the motions, every time one crosses her desk she feels sick to her stomach. “I cannot tell you how much it demeans me,” she said. “Because I am a woman, I have to act like it doesn’t bother me, but I tell you that it does. The arrow lands every time.”
Once she confronted an opposing attorney, whom she knew well, and asked him why he did that, pointing out that it is sexist and disrespectful. You can guess what he said. “Hey, why are you getting so emotional.” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/09/female-lawyers-sexism-courtroom/565778/
Last Sunday the New York Times published a major story on women being harassed on the campaign trail. Kim Weaver was running against Congressman Steve King in Iowa. (This is not the author of horror novels, but rather a man who could be a character in Steven King’s “The Shining.” He is the one who talked about Mexicans with calves like cantaloupes carrying drugs across the border. As the story describes:
Someone crept onto her property overnight and put up a “for sale” sign. The neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer published an article (no longer available) titled, as Ms. Weaver recalled it, “Meet the Whore Who’s Running Against Steve King,” increasing what was already an onslaught of threats. An acquaintance in the German government even called to warn her about a threatening conversation on an extremist message board, and to ask if she had personal security. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/24/us/politics/women-harassment-elections.html
Eventually she dropped out of the campaign, and of course, Steve King said she made up all the threats. As another candidate said,
“I felt unsafe throughout the entire campaign. It almost seemed like psychological warfare, like they were trying to psych me out. It kept me on edge all the time, because I just didn’t know where I could go, anywhere in the city, without feeling like I was being followed.”
When people say they are tired of political correctness, I have to restrain myself. I want to shout, are you tired of harassment and intimidation? Are you tired of people being arrested for being black? Does it bother you that a woman has to be fearful to just go for a run?
This is our contemporary stage backdrop for seeing the Gospel lesson. What is Jesus trying to do? Isn’t this Syrophoenician woman exactly the kind of person at the margins whom Jesus defends? We understand most people of his day would not give this woman compassion. We make allowances for historical figures who were courageous in breaking barriers in one area, while having blind spots. Jefferson wrote the foundational document about equality, but the Constitution did not give women or blacks the right to vote, and he held slaves. MLK spoke out on civil right for black Americans, on economic inequality, and the Vietnam War, but not so much about women’s rights. We allow that great people have blind spots. But Jesus is…well, Jesus the Christ. He is supposed to be totally woke on everything. He was more inclusive of women and Gentiles than most, so why not this woman?
To deal with this, we have to talk about a sacred cow. Historically, theology has defined Jesus as the perfect human being, the sinless one who never made a mistake, was always compassionate and is the perfect model for human devotion. So, if we allow one simple moment of bias, or lack of compassion, the whole theological structure collapses like a house of cards. Is this the theology we want to defend, that if Jesus committed even one sin, if for a moment, he is not a messiah worth following? Does the Bible defend this position? (I’m going to answer that question next week, so watch this space!)
How does this situation resolve? Jesus throws out an insult, and the Syrophoenician woman responds, “Sir,[b]even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The phrase “dogs under the table” is evocative to me. Her subtle message is “I’m here in the household, you just don’t see me because I’m under the table. What you see as crumbs, I grab and live off them.”
29 Then Jesus said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Has Jesus just acknowledged that she has won a theological debate? If so, it is the only place in the Gospels where this occurs. In most Gospel stories Jesus is the one who is saying “Let those who have no sin caste the first stone,” to the crowd around the woman caught in adultery. Jesus is the one who tells his disciples about the widow’s might, who gave the only pennies she had in the offering. He is the one who says God cares for the sparrows, and numbers the hairs on your head. He had wide circles of compassion, but here this woman has to say, “Jesus, I belong in the circle too, I belong in the beloved community, or it is not the beloved community.”
It is so powerful that this story is in the Gospel. If Jesus can overlook someone and write them off, even insult them, how much more do we need to be humble? When we think we don’t have biases, that’s where the trouble lies. If someone tells us that we have just said something that could be seen as racist, or sexist, of heteronormative, our first response might be to resist. What a minute, that is not what I said. I’m not racist, in fact I spent a whole Saturday at anti-racism training. I’m not sexist, I work with women, I have a woman boss, I’m a feminist. Or I’m a woman so how can I be sexist?
Bias and prejudice are in the air we breathe. We breathe in all kinds of stuff without noticing, like pollen, germs, pollution…you name it. It accumulates without us recognizing it. To say that we are free from bias, is to deceive ourselves. Rather than feel guilty when we make a mistake, what if we could be curious and learn something. Give yourself a break, and don’t sink into shame and defensiveness, just say, tell me more. How do you see it? Help me understand what this means to you? Isn’t this what Jesus is modeling for us.
Here’s another way to look at it. As we deal with our many and wonderful human differences of race, class, gender and sexuality, what if we treated it like learning a language? If you make a mistake in learning, it doesn’t help to kick yourself and get defensive. You have to practice to get better. Most people will give you credit if you are trying. So, stay humble and keep speaking and listening and asking questions.