Children first

Cassandra Nelson works for Mercy Corps, a non-profit dedicated to alleviating suffering, poverty and oppression in many places around the world. Cassandra has spent the past couple of weeks working in the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border.

The camp was opened about a month ago for Syrians fleeing the violence in their country, and over 20,000 men, women and children have moved into the camp already. The pace of new arrivals has more than doubled, with more than 14,000 arriving in the last days of August.Humanitarian aid organizations and UN agencies have been working around the clock to accommodate the sudden increase in new arrivals of refugees, but it is hard to keep up.

“We need more of everything,” said the camp manager. You know the basic things he’s worrying about, things like tents, blankets, clean water, and medical supplies. What may surprise you, is that he’s also pushing for more playgrounds.

Cassandra has spoken with many mothers at the camp, and most report that their children have terrible nightmares and are not behaving normally – either they are being very aggressive and misbehaving, or they are silent and afraid, running and hiding at any loud noise.[1]

Tens of thousands have fled Syria and the demons that are on the lose there, seeking refuge across the border. But the demons of oppression and violence don’t just stay behind. The children are bound by painful and frightening experiences, and they need safe places, playgrounds, and wise counselors to heal and flourish.

I thought about those Syrian children and their mothers when I read again the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.

Mark only tells us that Jesus went away to the region of Tyre. Not a word about why he went so far from rural Galilee, both geographically and culturally. Did he have to leave the country just to get a little peace and quiet? That would explain why he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Whose house did he enter and how did the woman find out and get in? We don’t know; it’s almost as if Mark stripped away all unnecessary details so we focus all our attention on Jesus and the woman.

He does tell us that her little daughter was tormented by an unclean spirit. But then he just lets us sit for a moment with this explosive tension: a gentile woman and a Jewish man in a house across the border, an almost unthinkable clash of gender, culture, language, and religion. She throws herself at his feet, begging him to cast out the demon that has bound her daughter.

We don’t know why Jesus crossed the border, but we know why she crossed every boundary of custom and propriety; we know what having a sick child can do to a parent. Having a sick child makes you desperate.[2]

It makes you say horrible things to the receptionist who won’t give you an appointment until Wednesday next week. It makes you very rude to doctors who will spend hours running test after test and then tell you in less than two minutes that the nurse will call you tomorrow. It makes you scream at the insurance representative who tells you that your plan does not cover the treatments your child needs. It makes you stay up all night doing research on the web, finding out where the best clinics are, the best doctors, the best therapists, the most promising programs.

And after you’ve exhausted all options, would you consider a trip to Mexico or India or anywhere else on God’s green earth? Of course you would. You will do anything it takes to make your child well. You will knock on any door and cross any border for your child’s wellbeing.That’s where this mother is – in the place at Jesus’ feet where l love, determination, and hope have given all and await an answer.

“Let the children be fed first,” he says, and who wouldn’t agree that the little ones, the vulnerable ones, the ones who have so much life ahead of them, who wouldn’t agree that they need to be fed first, with love and good food, with education and health care and safe places and playgrounds and the best we can give them.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It may take you a moment to realize that he just told her No, and not just that, he insulted her by calling her and her child dogs.

We love our dogs. We love ‘em a lot. The other day, cartoonist David Sipress allowed us to overhear two doggies chatting on a Brooklyn sidewalk.[3] Each is on a leish. Each has just dropped a you-know-what on the concrete. Each has a most attentive owner with a little baggy picking up what the puppy just dropped. Says one pooch to the other, “I don’t know about you, but it always makes me feel kinda special.”

We love our dogs, and for many of us they are simply canine members of the household.

Every year, the American Pet Products Association conducts a National Pet Owners Survey. If you want a copy of the full report, it’ll cost you $2,995. The information is costly, because pets are big business.

The current estimate of basic annual expenses for dog owners in the U.S. include

$655 Vet Visits
$324 Food and Treats
$274 Kennel Boarding
$95 Vitamins
$78 Travel
$73 Grooming
$43 Toys

That adds up to over $1,540 a year for the basics for each of the 78.2 million dogs in 46.3 million U.S. households.[4]

This was very different in the world in which Jesus grew up. In Jewish communities dogs weren’t pets, but semi-wild animals that roamed the streets scavenging for food, and they were not allowed in the house. They had to stay outside.

Jesus tells the woman that her place is outside and that the door is closed. In saying “Let the children be fed first,” he implies that the time is not right. God’s salvation will come to the gentiles, in time, but not yet, not her, not now. His mission is to the house of Israel first, and for the time being the Gentiles will have to live with their demons. The day will come when those outside will be welcome inside, but not yet, not her, not now.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

He tells her that the door is closed, but she is already in the house. And if you want to call her a dog, call her a bulldog, for she won’t let go. She is courageous, persistent, and quick-witted.

“In my house, Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In my house, dogs don’t wait until the children are finished; dogs and children both eat at the same time. The doggies wag their tails in joyful expectation of every bit of bread dropped either by accident or by a child’s secret cunning.

In my house, the children eat their fill and the dogs still get to feast on the crumbs. What I’m asking of you isn’t taking away anything from the children. Have you paid attention to your own miracle? Five loaves, and 5,000 ate till they were full and wanted no more, and the pieces filled twelve baskets. Your table can’t hold the abundance you bring, it overflows with blessing.

I’m not asking for a seat at the table, but let the doggies have a feast. My little daughter is bound by a demon, and I know that what she needs is yours to give. Crumbs will do.

This is the only story in all the gospels where Jesus is bested in an argument, which is remarkable. The fact that he’s being bested by a woman is perhaps no longer remarkable in some quarters, but it surely was for generations. And the fact that she’s a gentile puts the cherry on it.

Like Jacob who wrestled with God through the night, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” she didn’t let go.[5] She left the house with a blessing she had wrestled from him; “You may go,” he said, “the demon has left your daughter.”

The word faith is never mentioned, but everything about this anonymous, gentile mother speaks of it: her tenacity fuelled by love, her courage and perseverance, and her insistence that mercy is not a limited resource. When she went home, she found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. The house of bondage had become the house of laughter. That is the promise of God for all of life.

Almost immediately following this story, there is another bread story.[6] At first glance it looks like an awkward repetition of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus breaks bread with thousands, seven loaves for 4000 people. All of them eat and are filled; and they take up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Plenty of crumbs, don’t you think?

This gentile mother’s fierce love ties the two bread miracles together. Because of her we can see that there are not two stories but one; there are two courses of the one meal. Of this bread, there is more than enough for all of us, and the door is open. No need to keep anybody outside or under the table. Every child of God has a seat at the table.

Za’atari is a Syrian refugee camp in northern Jordan, about six miles from the Syrian border. Many sons and daughters there are tormented by the demons of terror and bound by the demons of war. But there are also groups there with beautiful names like Mercy Corps or Week of Compassion. They are there to break the bread of mercy that turns a refugee camp into a community with safe places and playgrounds. The house of bondage becomes the house of laughter.

[1] See and

[2] With thanks to Anna Carter Florence, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. 19, No. 5, August-September 2008, p. 30

[3] New Yorker 2012, see

[4] All data from

[5] Genesis 32:22ff.

[6] Mark 6:30-44 is the feeding of the five thousand; Mark 8:1-10 is the feeding of the four thousand