Based on James 2.1-17 & Mark 7.24-30
There are various explanations out there that try and soften the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenecian woman. And it’s no wonder: at first glance it simply seems that Jesus is simply being appallingly rude, and changes his mind on a whim when the woman comes up with a cleverer response than he was expecting. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting an explanation as to why Jesus doesn’t exactly look very Christ-like in this story.
With my slightly ropey Greek, I can see where people are coming from when they home in on the word ‘dogs’ – they may well be right when they say that the word doesn’t mean ‘nasty wild dogs’ but more like ‘pet puppies’. Well, that may cut down on the offensiveness of Jesus’ words, but it’s still pretty patronising, so I’m not sure it helps much, on the face of it at least.
Then there are those who say that Jesus knew right away that there was more to this woman than met the eye, that he always intended to heal her daughter, and his words were only ever intended to provoke her into an insight of faith – he was giving her a chance to prove herself. Again, fair enough, but it still sounds a bit mean.
When I try and understand this story, I find it helps me to think about why it’s been included in the gospel, and why the gospel writer told it in this particular way. If we assume that every word of the gospels is there for a reason, then we can ask ourselves why these particular verses are here, and what we can learn from them.
If this is where we start from, we can start to speculate a bit more, especially if we focus not so much on what Jesus says, but on what the woman says: ‘Even the dogs feed on the scraps that fall from the children’s plates’. There’s so much in that sentence!
Why are there leftover scraps? Are the children not eating their food carefully enough? Are they leaving the bits they don’t like, perhaps? Are the children perhaps not very good at eating a healthy balanced diet, and are only eating the parts that appeal to them? Whether she knows it or not, the woman is critiquing those of the chosen people (largely the religious leaders and teachers of the law) that Jesus himself spends much of his time critiquing. The woman’s words are very much in line with so much of what Jesus has to say about the Jewish leaders’ rejection of his words. It’s as if the woman and her daughter, and her clever retort, are an enactment of Jesus’ own words in so many of his parables. The children have been given a feast of stories and miracles and love and they’ve dropped half of it on the floor, uncaring of the one who made them the meal.
Meanwhile, there seems to be plenty left for the dogs to eat, and perhaps the dogs are in the same room, sitting alongside the family, part of the household. Eating together, eating the same food, sharing a meal – these are powerful symbols of unity and fellowship. The gospels are full of parables of banquets, stories of Jesus and his friends sitting down to eat together, and our own celebration of the Eucharist is a memorial and re-enactment of the last supper itself. When we share food, we share something far more significant. We affirm that we are indeed of the same household, the same family, and what family does not include the pets as part of that fellowship?
Perhaps what this story offers is yet more evidence that it’s the definition of the household that’s being extended. So many times Jesus reminds the crowds and the leaders, who believe they’ve been born into the right to a special relationship with God, that he can raise up children of Abraham from the very stones under their feet – there is no birthright, no short cut, being part of the household of God brings responsibilities and demands an ongoing loving relationship, not just an accident of birth.
This is a truth that the crowds don’t find it easy to understand. And which the religious leaders find offensive and threatening. And it’s a truth that the story of the Syro-Phoenecian woman lives out. The household is being redefined, expanded; walls are being torn down between those of different races and backgrounds, because the gospel that Jesus brings turns out to be not only for the chosen people but for all the people.
Perhaps the woman herself is telling Jesus, “I get it – I get that you’re here for us as well as for them – your own chosen people, God’s children, may not understand that, but the dogs are listening and understanding.”
Or perhaps it is the gospel writer himself who puts those powerful words into her mouth to show that he gets it. Look at this, he says. Look at this person, a woman, and a foreigner, a gentile, at that. And she’s got a difficult child. She’s about as much an outsider as we’re likely to come across, and she’s there in the story to show you all that the thing about the gospel being for everyone, not just for the chosen people really is true. She’s the evidence. She and her daughter.
Time and time again the gospel writers give the best bits to the outsiders. Think about the woman at the well in John chapter 4, with her string of ex-husbands and her boyfriend, and who evangelises a whole city. Think about the centurion right at the end of Mark’s gospel who is the one to look at Jesus on the cross and acclaim him as the Son of God. Think about the centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant, and makes the astounding declaration of faith, ‘only say the word and he will be healed’.
The gospels embody this message: that Jesus is for everyone, not just for the chosen people. They embody that message in stories, in parables, in healing miracles, in offhand comments, in questions, in arguments, in cameo roles and walk-on parts for strangers. And they show time and time again the wealth of teaching and love and healing offered by God, poured out by God onto his people, being rejected and dismissed by the very people who should have lapped it up.
The dogs would have had rich pickings even with the leftovers. And we know what Jesus’ attitude is towards leftovers from the story of the feeding of the 5000: not only is there lots to spare, but also none of it gets wasted.
In all these ways, the gospels subtly build up a picture of God’s generosity, and the way that the household of God grew and encompassed more and more people. It’s a generosity that even today we sometimes find hard to live out in our own lives. Human beings build walls, we judge, we segregate, even if we don’t mean to. We find those who are different from us difficult. It may or may not be consoling to find that in today’s epistle, James is writing to a church who clearly need the subtle message of the gospel spelling out for them just as we sometimes do.
Mercy is better than judgement, James writes. It’s what you do that matters more than what you say. Love your neighbour as yourself, even if your neighbour is different from you and somehow challenging or difficult. Treat everyone equally and don’t get dragged into the world’s hierarchical view that some people are more significant than others.
Yes, James tells us plainly what Jesus demonstrated and hinted. The question is not whether we grasp it from the gospel reading or the epistle reading, but whether we accept it, and feast on it, making its wisdom part of our lives, and letting it fuel our words and actions. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we’re children or dogs. There’s plenty of food on offer, for any and all that choose to be part of the household when God tells us that the feast is ready.