When you are hungry enough, you will cross a line.
She crosses the line, keeps on asking. She will not stop. It isn’t bread she is hungry for. “My daughter is possessed! Please heal my child! Please, just say the word. I trust that you can. I believe that you will. Please! What do you need? Do you want me to bring her here so that you can see her for yourself?”
The pangs of a ravenous emptiness crumple her down before this man. (Sometimes, what looks like worship may in fact be hunger.) Tears brim her eyelids in a bittersweet solution of desperation and expectation of being both ticked off at being reduced to this, and apprehensively prepared for the possibility of promise. She does not, will not, relent. Because the object of her worship, her hunger, is her little daughter.
Who does she think she is?
She is an unnamed triple-threat, her adjectives stand in for her name: a Syrophoenician - a native of this prosperous region on the Mediterranean coast whose proud seafaring culture influenced the whole known world for thousands of years. And yet this Gentile region was in constant military competition with the Jewish upper Galilee. Which meant that the boundary line between the two frequently shifts back or forth, blurring the lines between clean and unclean.
A Greek - an unclean Gentile who should not cross the line into Jewish cleanliness.
A woman - one who, no matter which culture, Jewish or Gentile, should never cross a shameful line by barging in on the domain of men.
But her desperation propels her across these dividing lines between the clean and the defiled, violating male space, because her hunger for her daughter’s wholeness is unsatisfied. We know nothing else about her, what remedies she’s tried, whether she has a spouse or how helpful or not they might be.
But we do know that when she hears Jesus is there, she is willing to do this, to beg at the feet of a despised Jew. And that hunger renders her willing to burst any boundaries, trespass any tradition, cross any line.
And then Jesus crossed the line.
He has been crossing different sorts of lines for a while now. Things started strong for him in ministry. Bouncing demonic forces by the single and by the legion. Very sick and very faithful people have been made whole - Jews and Gentiles. He has walked on water and calmed storms, but in doing all this he crossed legal lines. Doing healing work on the Sabbath, claiming that he is the Lord of the Sabbath, forgiving people’s sins like he had the authority to do it.
Preachers and teachers began saying he was possessed! His own family tried to get him checked into the behavioral medicine unit at Galilee General.
Who does he think he is?
The religious powerful wanted him dead four chapters ago. His hometown folk nearly asked this very question when he went back there to teach: “Where did this man get all this?” Who does this guy think he is? He single-handedly redefines the food laws of his religious tradition: “What makes you unclean is not what satisfies your stomach but what comes out of your heart.”
Who does Jesus think he is?
Even his own disciples are getting irked by him. He scares them when he walks on water to them. He has gut-wrenching compassion for a Jewish multitude in the wilderness, leaderless and starving, but his disciples have no faith that he or they or anyone else can help. And when Jesus satisfies their hunger with five little loaves and a ton of “crumbs” left over, their hearts become as hard as a Pharisee’s.
But he just keeps on crossing lines, because that’s who God is. God crosses lines, lines of culture and tradition and power. Because when you are hungry enough, you will cross a line.
And, beautiful people, God is hungry! God is hungry for connection; as the prophet Isaiah says, God is hungry to destroy the shroud of death that is cast over the world (cf. Isaiah 25). God is hungry to wipe away every human tear. God is hungry to save, to “make for all peoples, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.” God is not satisfied to serve leftovers.
No one in this story is more hungry for satisfaction than God is.
Now, here are these two in a house in the borderlands. Which one looks like God to you? A man who embodies God’s hunger to save people and is willing to cross lines whether people understand it or not. And a woman who is clearly receptive, displaying something like faith, hungry to be satisfied with that which only Jesus can give.
It’s a match made in Markan heaven. Because every time Jesus has encountered hunger thus far, God has without question satisfied it through him: the possessed and paralyzed, healed. Women and men, released. Jews and Gentiles, set free.
But not this time! When this woman performs her hunger before him, he rudely crosses a line. “Let the children [the Jewish children] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs [wild Gentile dogs].”
Some interpreters say the pair is engaging in a little wink-wink, jocular word play. I’m sorry, I don’t hear that. What I hear is that he is treating her hunger differently, dismissively.
Why is she different from all the others before her in this gospel? Is it because she is a Gentile? He had no trouble exorcising a legion of demons from a Gentile Gerasene. Is it because she is a woman? The hunger of the woman with the 12-year menses was entirely satisfied. Is it because she is from Tyre? Is it a race thing, or some combination of all these things?
Mark doesn’t say, but what is clear is that Jesus is treating her worse than a Pharisee and a Gentile! And that is crossing a line. What is it coming from the heart that defiles, Jesus, as you taught? Pride? Slander?
Just who does he think he is?
What is wrong here? Is he just exhausted? Is he embarrassed that his own people don’t understand, while this “dog” of a Gentile does?
Nevertheless, she knows who he is! He is a man with a reputation for satisfying hungers of body and spirit. She can choose to answer with indignation, which is what his rudeness deserves. But she is hungry, and that hunger has propelled her across so many lines already. Why stop now?
“Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Even the pets get scraps.
When I approach a text for preaching, I always ask this question first: What is God doing in or behind this text? Because, if anything, I want a sermon to focus on God, on God’s action. And when I say “behind,” what I mean is that God does not appear as a character in every text. But often there’s some other character in the text that stands in for God’s purposes.
I ask you, which character here seems to be standing in for God’s designs and desires? Well, it has to be Jesus, right? I mean, yo, the Trinity! Having said this though, to my thinking, she is the one whose hunger for her child merges with God’s hunger for all of God’s children, to set a great feast, to satisfy the hungry heart.
Who he thinks he is seems to matter less than who she thinks he is. In her impertinence, she invites Jesus to become Jesus again, the crosser of all kinds of lines - lines of tradition and culture, power, gender, and race - to bring good, satisfying news.
She responds to his beastly moment of offensive rejection by inviting him to become fully human and fully divine, for if there is anything that unites the two, it is hunger.
“For saying this word,” says Jesus, “this good word. For expressing your hunger even for the leftovers, go! The demon has left your daughter.”
God doesn’t give scraps; she gets the whole feast.
Jesus is God in this story, too. Both of them stand in for a line-crossing, tradition-testing, boundary-breaking God. She hungers to receive the bread of salvation, and she awakens his hunger to offer it. But, as Hisako Kinukawa says, it is her hunger that makes “clear to Jesus that Jesus should become Jesus” in crossing this racial barrier. God at work through her hunger speaks a word to God’s hunger in him and creates the opportunity for him to “cross [the line] and step over to her side… to act out his mission.” [Hisako Kinukawa, Women and Jesus in Mark: A Japanese Feminist Perspective (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 60.]
When you are hungry enough, you will cross a line. And God often reveals God’s own hunger through the risk-taking boundary-breaking of others - others who are really not like us, others that we call unclean, impure.
Who do we think we are?
Sometimes God speaks through the “pigs” and the “dogs,” calling us to be us, baptized us, line-crossing us.
This woman reveals the God who begs us to be hungry like God is hungry. And Jesus is the God who empowers us to satisfy hunger where we can. Now, not every desperate hunger gets a feast when it is desired. Heck, it seems like many hungers don’t even get scraps. Oh, but friends, I do trust and believe that, in the hungering heart of God, there is a feast on the way.
Jesus throws another feast just one chapter later as he hosts a satisfying meal for 4,000 hungry Gentiles. He gives them the feast, not the scraps.
And just as his disciples still won’t understand, we disciples often still won’t either… until the God desperate for us to listen aggravates us with her relentless asking, with her love that knows no lines.