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." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
We've all heard or said the familiar phrase, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Maybe we've also heard, "Winners never quit and quitters never win." These sayings underscore the belief that effort ultimately brings about results, that persistence pays off. At least this is the notion of reason. But Hebrews 11:1 reads, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen." This same chapter lists practitioners of faith and the outcomes of their faithfulness. Verse 13 of that chapter reminds us that some of these persons died not realizing their dreams but saw and greeted them from a distance--their hopes would not quit.
What happens when Jesus does not sound like the Jesus you heard about? What happens when Jesus, the good news, the Gospel incarnate, responds with not-so-good answers to our questions? We know that Jesus cursed a fig tree. That was a plant. And in this text, this is a person. We know he not so nicely cleared the temple of money changers and their tables. Jesus had some moments, it seems, that challenge us to hear and see him in other ways.
But what's going on in this text? Jesus is in new territory and new circumstances. Outside his itinerary but not outside of his attention. A non-Israelite mother begging for her demon-possessed daughter to be healed approaches him. Is there something wrong with wanting healing for your child? Is there something unusual here? Didn't Jesus say, "Ask and you will be given; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened"?
Why is the asking and the seeking of this Syrophoenician woman for her child knocked by Jesus? Why does he tell her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs"? She didn't ask for food. She asked that her demon-possessed daughter be healed. What happens when you stand before the source of your need, and the need is refused seemingly by the source? In some way this pericope of the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus stands as a source of a need refused by the source, the Word become flesh itself.
It is a troubling text for me. First, Jesus goes off the itinerary to a place entering a house where he did not want to be known. Next, he is approached by this Syrophoenician woman who happens to be out of bounds in his saving plan. Then Jesus responds to her request in a way that seems off the map of his being. She wants healing for her demon-possessed daughter, but Jesus' reaction and response seems to indicate that she has a pre-existent problem of canine proportions.
Now we do know that this is Mark and the agenda for keeping the Messianic secret a secret. We also know that Mark leaves out the details. But, I believe, more importantly, this is an example of what happens when hope won't quit. Hope in this text is a verb with legs. My grandfather would always say that hope and help mean the same thing. It is this mother's hope that won't quit. It's echoed in the voice of an uninvited Esther that says, "If I perish, I perish." This kind of hope is uttered by Job when all was lost when he said, "I know my Redeemer lives." We do know this woman was a Gentile--a non-Israelite, not necessarily a priority in Jesus' larger scheme of things. Perhaps she's tried everything, and even now her effort seems not unpunished. Yet in a place where Jesus goes incognito, he is recognized for who he is and what he can do by this woman. We only have the imaginations given to us by the screens of Hollywood as to the symptoms of her daughter, and this text can indeed turn one's head around and around. Yet some of us have children for whom we've gone to Jesus and the answer seems not yet even on the way.
But what we do get--no pun intended--is this woman's dogged persistence after being turned down and seemingly put down. This is what happens when hope won't quit. It is also in the turn-downs and put-downs that we are well aware of the social turn-downs and put-downs of history. Could Jesus' remarks be an echoing critique of her culture? His mission, after all, was to Jews first. He had earlier said nothing outside a person could defile but only that which came from within could defile. Could his remarks be a setup for a reversal of cultural biases, to let her and us know that what the culture imposed on her had defiled her solely because of her race but not Jesus'? This is what happens when hope won't quit. This woman knew Jesus had the healing, and she had the hope.
One writer suggests that Jesus was being sarcastic and also salvific. In other words, Jesus was not in agreement with her through the dog reference but, rather, not in agreement with the narrow and biased culture that judged on externals rather than internals, a culture that regarded hue rather than hope. Her reply seems to suggest that she feels Jesus on this. "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." She's not exactly crawling but will accept crumbs.
I believe this is an anyway-you-bless-me moment. This is what happens when hope won't quit. Her actions seem to say, "I'll be what you said, just heal my child. I know my place may be under the table, but maybe, just maybe, you will prepare a table for her in the presence of our enemies. Perhaps this is the only time when under the table is honorable.
Where are you in this text?
I believe this text shows us that hope will put up with a put-down.
Faith lives on the substance of hope and the evidence of the not seen.
Howard Thurman, a man of deep insight and powerful penetrating words, once said, "To be victimized by error but to continue making choices of integrity is to grow in grace." In other words, to know that the possibility of error is always with us while making the best choices we can is to realize the growing space of grace given by God. That's grace. Like the waves of the ocean that never quit even though the shores seem not to care, this is what happens when faith won't quit. When and if faith and hope does quit--it quickly then becomes its own enemy--reason. I believe that hope cannot help itself when standing before the presence of God. I believe that the effort is the result of being in the presence of God. That way it's all right for Moses to stutter and be a basket case. It's quite all right for Esther to admit who she is in King Xerxe's palace. Such is life--everything may not happen our way, but this text tells us not only that hope will put up with a put-down but that the Lord will make a way somehow. Because life is its own "unguarantee." Hope will put up with a put-down. Could it be that this text whispers at us the stubborn particularities residing deep in the core of the culture? I want to suggest that regardless of the contrived barriers of culture, regardless of the politically sculpted phrases of inclusion that sound welcoming, only Jesus makes the difference in this text and in our context. The culture does not change, but Jesus changes this woman's outlook on culture. The mother would not quit, and the Son of God would not quit either.
Jesus defers and diffuses the differences we make.
She believed what she heard about him and received what he knew about her. What a word for the church today! I believe this woman asked Jesus because he could supply the need even though it seemed outside of racial reach. Her under-the-table-faith statement caused Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus answers, "For saying that you may go; the demon has left your daughter."
Hope won't quit. Hope does not know how Jesus will do it but knows that Jesus can do it.
Gracious, merciful and eternal God, we thank you that your Son broke the barriers on the culture to reach out and heal someone outside the itinerary but not outside of your interest or your sight or your mercy or your grace. O God, help us to see as the church of your Son Jesus Christ in this world we're living in today, to see that you are bigger than our barriers, that you are taller than our fences, and that you're deeper than our denominations. We thank you, O God, for the mercy of Christ that looks beyond all conceived needs. Amen.