Gospel Mark 7:24-37
24[Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
My College Advisor died not too long ago. I was a religion major and Dr. David Cain was instrumental in my education. More than the bible stories, or faith formation, or prayers I learned in church – he led us to dive into the field of how and why and what people believe in, and how that is lived out or not. Dr. Cain was also my first introduction to faithfully arguing with God. The people who believed and trusted with all their heart, soul, and mind and yet had a bone to pick with exactly how God’s justice and sovereignty were playing out here on earth.
Go ahead. Argue with God he would say. And not just on your own behalf. But for your family. Your friends. Your neighbors and strangers. And your children. Rage if you have to against the unfairness of it all. God can take it. God is big enough to hold that for you. Because the most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open. This Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus with a request and does not keep silent after his response.
Jesus is deep in Gentile territory and finally finds a place to rest, undisturbed from the crowds that have followed him from place to place. But he can’t stay hidden for long, and a woman with a little girl who is troubled and sick finds him. Approaching Jesus with a submissive posture, she begs him to heal her daughter.
We cannot save Jesus from his next words. Some scholars try to translate the meanness out of it, With Jesus calling the woman a little puppy, or talking about lap dogs. No matter how you want to explain it away, Jesus is rude to this woman, and is going to deny her what she requests, or at least delay it. Nevertheless, she persisted. To quote a phrase.
The Syrophoenician woman turns Jesus’ supposed insult right back at him, and claims it for herself. Jesus has been healing and casting out demons the whole time in Mark. He’s never turned anyone away, and suddenly he balks at the idea of addressing this woman’s needs – or rather her child’s needs – before the needs of the children of Israel. Like, there’s a line, lady, and you’re at the end of it. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel – and you are a dog, not a sheep.
But this woman’s point is not about where she stands in the line but about abundance. kid, my dog eats real well. Children are not particular about what food gets in their mouth versus their lap versus the floor. My dog is patient and gentle and knows, she just has to be in the right place at the right time and green beans and shredded cheese and noodles and grains of rice will rain down like manna from heaven.
This woman is so desperate that she could care less if she receives Jesus’ mercy from the table or from the floor, because she believes that Jesus has mercy and power in abundance and it all comes from the same place. And even the crumbs of what Jesus offers would be enough. This is faith. This is trust. How many times do we ask for the top shelf stuff in our prayers. We want the best from God, his full attention, and his overflowing mercy. Do we also understand that even the crumbs would be enough? The bread of life that Jesus brings is too much for the table – Remember the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 and the leftovers noted – twelve baskets full, collected up and saved. This faithful woman points out to Jesus what perhaps his full humanity hadn’t yet reconciled, that while his mission to reconcile the world to God may have begun with the Jews, it certainly wouldn’t end there. I would go so far as to say she teaches Jesus, challenges him, and he learns from her.
She argues with him, out of desperation, as any parents of a sick child would do. But she’s not advocating for herself. She approaches Jesus out of desperation for her beloved child. Her daughter. This is a similarity between the two healing stories juxtaposed together today. The man Jesus heals also has advocates, friends who come to Jesus on his behalf and apparently are persistent as well in their demands. Jesus heals him wordlessly, save one word, that he sighs into, Ephatha. Be opened.
As we prepare to receive the bread of life, let us be also mindful that the table before cannot contain all of God’s mercy and grace. The sacraments are surely the place we are promised to meet it, and invited to partake, but God’s action is not exclusive. In Jesus’ healing of the syrophoenician’s daughter, despite his harsh first take, his mission widens, it opens up to not just the children of Israel, but to all who come to him, desperate and trusting.
It’s rumored Martin Luther’s last words on his deathbed, was something like “We are all beggars. This is true.”
Elisabeth Johnson, ELCA pastor, professor and missionary, writes in her commentary, “For those of us who are used to having a place at the table, perhaps we need to be reminded that none of us has any right or privilege whatsoever to claim with God. We all come as beggars to the table, and it is solely by God’s grace that we are fed. Perhaps we need also to be reminded that God’s table is immeasurably larger than we can imagine. For those who identify more easily with the Syrophoenician woman begging for crumbs, it must be said that Jesus does not leave any of us in a state of beggarliness. He seats us at the table and claims us as God’s beloved children — children from every tribe and language and nation. Even crumbs from the table would be enough for our healing and salvation. But Jesus has given more than enough. He sets an abundant, life-giving feast for all.”
May we be opened as well, open to receive the mercy and grace that flows from the font and from the table. Open to acknowledging that we are also mere beggars, and that desperation and faith are two sides of the same coin. And open to see those around us, hurting and in need, that we might advocate fiercely for their healing too.