Jesus went away, far away from home; he went north to the region of Tyre, a city on the Mediterranean in what’s today southern Lebanon. Going there, he crossed the border in more than one sense, leaving behind the familiar Jewish and rural culture of Galilee for a port city infamous for its pagan ways. He went from where almost everybody was “one of us” to where almost everybody was “one of them” – Greek-speaking people who worshiped strange gods, ate strange foods, wore strange clothes, and observed strange customs.
This wasn’t the first time Jesus went away to be alone, but it was the first time he went so far. “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there,” Mark writes, “yet he could not escape notice.” Word about him had travelled faster than he did, and a Gentile from the area, a mother whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately had heard about him. All by herself, she entered the house and bowed down at his feet, begging him to cast the demon out of her child.
It wasn’t proper for a woman to enter a house in order to approach a man who didn’t belong to her family for help. It was unthinkable for a Gentile woman to approach a Jewish man for help for a little girl, let alone a girl possessed by a demon.
She did it anyway. So much was wrong with that little scene, but she ignored every rule to get close to Jesus and beg for her child’s well-being. We may continue to wonder why Jesus crossed the border, but we know in our bones why she did. The walls of custom, language, gender, religion and ethnicity were high between her and the man from Nazareth, insurmountable, some might say, but her love for her child gave her wings. She left the house where her child lay bound by a demon, and she went to the house where Jesus was, a house built with walls of otherness and difference, but also one in which the promise of healing was hiding. She got through to Jesus, bowed down at his feet in a posture of complete surrender, and begged him to free her daughter.
It would be so easy to imagine how he took her by the hand and told her to get up and go home, saying that the demon had left her daughter and that all was well. But he didn’t. Instead he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
If you were to write the script for a Jesus movie, that’s a scene you’d likely want to skip, unless you want to portray Jesus as a ranting radio talkshow host. This line about children and dogs just doesn’t sound like the kind of Jesus you’d want to introduce, does it? It’s like he’s sitting in this little house of exclusive concern for his own people, telling the rest of the world that we’ll just have to live with our demons. The kingdom of God has come near, but nearer to some than to others. “Let the children be fed first,” he said to her, telling her in no uncertain terms that at the table where the bread of life was broken and shared her little girl didn’t qualify as a child.
Galilean peasants were not fond of city folk like this woman. Small farms produced most of the food for the urban populations, but the latter controlled the markets. People in the cities bought up and stored so much of the harvest for themselves each season that the country folk did not have enough, especially in times when supplies went down and prices went up. In the ears of poor Galilean farmers, Jesus told this rich lady to get in line and wait her turn. In God’s reign, the last would be first, and those rich, sophisticated, urban Gentiles who always managed to be first, those dogs would be last.
The little scene is explosive because this encounter in the border region brings to light powerful prejudices that have a real basis in the social, economic, and political relationships between two neighboring peoples. When Jesus refers to the woman and her daughter as dogs, he does not evoke an endearing image of happy puppies who sleep in their owners bed and eat better than half the world’s children; he insults her and her child with a familiar pejorative.
In Jesus’ time and culture, dogs were semi-wild animals that roamed the streets scavenging for food; they were not allowed inside the house. Jesus told the woman that the door was closed for her and her child. The time would come when those outside of the covenant would be welcome inside, but not yet, not now, not her. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But this unnamed mother was already in the house. If you want to call her a dog, call her a bulldog, for she won’t let go.
“In my house, Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
She takes the insult and reflects it back, and now the picture looks very different. In my house, she tells him, dogs don’t wait until the children are finished; dogs and children both eat at the same time. The dogs position themselves strategically around and under the table, their eyes focussed with undivided attention, their tails wagging in joyful expectation of a bit of bread dropped either by accident or by a child’s secret design.
In my house, she tells him, the children eat their fill and the dogs still get to feast on the crumbs. You can send me away, but not until you have tossed me a crumb-sized blessing. I’m not asking for a seat at the table; even a morsel of mercy will suffice to free my daughter from the chains of the demon that is holding her captive. There is no reason why the reign of God should be enclosed by the walls of this house; break the bread, feed the children, and let the dogs have a feast.
Jesus said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
Seven short verses that can make your head spin. Did this woman, with her dogged persistence and her quick wit, driven by her love for her child, did she remind Jesus of the wideness of God’s mercy? Did she convince him that the time to open up the covenant was not sometime but now?
She left the house where he had hoped to remain invisible, and she left it with a blessing she had wrestled from him – or rather with a promise: “You may go, the demon has left your daughter.”
She still had to go from the house of promise to the house where her child was now free. She wouldn’t know with certainty that God’s reign was indeed open to all until she had returned. All she could do was to take Jesus at his word and leave for the long journey home. She had begged with desperate intensity, she had argued with wit and unbending resolve, but now she had to walk with trust. And she did; she stepped across the threshold and went home – with a morsel of a promise that meant more than the world to her.
In this scene of only seven verses, an unnamed Gentile mother dwells at the margins; she bumps up against walls of custom, language, gender, religion and ethnicity, walls that have the power to hide Jesus and the promise of God’s reign, walls that can exclude people from the abundance of God’s mercy.
In this scene she dwells at the margins, but in the gospel of Jesus Christ, this unnamed Gentile mother dwells at the center together with others who show us the meaning and power of faith. The word faith is never mentioned, but her actions embody it beautifully: her dogged determination fuelled by her love, her courage and perseverance in wrestling with the very Son of God, and her trust in the promise that the reign of God was indeed open for all.
She went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. And more than one demon was gone. The equally threatening demon of prejudice, and of relationships destroyed by injustice, had been driven out as well. The miracle of Jesus’ power and a woman’s faith consisted not only in healing a child far away; the miracle also became manifest in the bridging of the divisive distance between nations and cultures, in the overcoming of the realities that separate us by the reality that brings us together. We sing a song about that miracle:
As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
Each proud division ends.
The love that made us, makes us one,
And strangers now are friends.
The miracle continues wherever the power of God in Jesus Christ and the tenacity of our faith come together. The house of prejudice becomes the house of promise, and the house of bondage becomes the house of laughter. May God bless us with faith that won’t let go.