I want to know how to reconcile the Jesus that ate with the poor, healed the
sick, held women in high esteem and understood that people are more important
than rules and traditions with this character who hides himself away, who calls
the mother of a sick child a dog--a vile racial insult, telling her that she, and
by implication her daughter, are outside the race and religion of people he was
sent to and that his resources must be expended for the Jews first.
I've heard lots of suggestions which frankly don't satisfy. "Jesus wasn't really
serious ... if we could have seen the look on his face we would have known he was
joking"... "He was testing her faith, or that of the disciples"... Or that calling
her a cur, a dog wasn't really racist or demeaning. (Yea, right...)
Jesus' actions, by the way, might have been typical and expected of any other
observant Jew of the era. Jewish men didn't talk to women in public, and didn't
talk to women of other races--perhaps ever. Even taking that into
consideration, the trouble I have with all of these explanations is the same
trouble I have with the story in the first place. Just as the view of Jesus
doesn't fit into Jesus ministry that we know, these explanations try to bend the
scene away from the text or what we know of first century customs. So, whatever
else, I'm left with more questions than answers in this scene.
The woman herself may not have found anything out of the ordinary in Jesus'
treatment of her. She may have expected, and come ready for Jesus' response. She
wasn't a Jew before the encounter, or as far as we know, didn't follow Jesus
after the encounter. But her child--her precious daughter--was dangerously
ill. "Possessed by demons" could have described a host of symptoms that local
healers had given up on. She was willing to break with tradition and step
outside the racial and social order. She begged Jesus to help her daughter. I
can imagine her elbowing her way in, engaging Jesus with her plea, taking up the
imagery he used to drive home her need.
She engaged him, they formed a relationship of a sort. And the rest, as they say,
is Gospel. Jesus' ministry and healing once again broke the bounds of racial and
religious prejudice. Jesus' persistence in loving and healing God's children--no
matter what the racial or religious background - called healing down for this
God's love is not just for the Jews, cannot be kept within the boundaries of
Israel, the first century Jesus movement or even within Christianity. The love
and healing power of Christ cannot be held behind closed doors, or kept locked up
for only "true believers", no matter how hard we might try. God's grace and love
is for all of God's children. Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman bantered
about the crumbs under the table, but Jesus' healing was not "left over" love or
grace--none of God's love is second-class love. We all--Christian, Jew, Muslim,
Hindu, Pagan, are recipients of God's first class love. How can we as followers
show any less for All the children of God?
Fred Craddock, my favorite Tennessee bible scholar, homiletician and pastor of
the Cherry Log Christian Church in the mountains of North Georgia in tells the
story of a missionary sent to preach the gospel in India near the end of World
War II. After many months the time came for a furlough back home.
society wired him the money to book passage on a steamer. So, this young
missionary journeyed to the port city. It was December of that year. Port
cities are always full of interesting and fascinating sights and sounds, but in
this particular place, he discovered that a boat load of Jews had just been
allowed to land temporarily. These were the days when European Jews were sailing
all over the world literally looking for a place to live. Many countries
wouldn't even let them come to port--most countries wouldn't let them stay for
more than a few days. These particular Jews, anxious to be off the crowded
conditions of their ship, were staying wherever they could find, in attics and
warehouses and basements all over the port.
On Christmas morning, the young
missionary sought out an attic where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in
and said, "Merry Christmas."
The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, "We're Jews."
"I know that," said the missionary," What would you like for Christmas?"
In utter amazement the Jews said again, "We're Jews."
And again the missionary responded, "I know that. What would you like for Christmas?"
Convinced that he was either crazy or possibly genuine, an elder answered,
"Pastries. Melt in your mouth pastries. Good pastries, like the ones we used to
have in Germany."
So the missionary went out. He searched high and low, and
bought out every fine bakery he could find of their best pastries. He bought as
many fine pastries as he could for all the Jews he could find staying in the
port. He used all the money his mission society had sent for his return passage
Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his
passage back to the States.
As you might expect, his superiors wired back. "What
in the world did you do with the money we already sent?" they inquired. This,
or course, was long before the day of email. Transoceanic telephone was
impractical. Wires took some delivery time and some reply time. The young
missionary sent his reply.
"I bought Christmas pastries for Jewish immigrants
here in the port city."
He waited for the reply. His superiors wired back, "What
in the world possessed you to buy Christmas pastries for Jews? They're not
Christians. They don't even believe in Jesus."
He wired back: "Yes, but I do."
Not the crumbs from under the table, but God's first class love. That's the
example we have from Jesus.