Mark 7.24-30There is little doubt that Jesus privileges his mission to Israel. Jesus is, after all, the Messiah of Israel, the culmination of the story of Israel for the sake of the world. However, throughout Jesus's ministry we see him bring the Kingdom into the lives of Gentiles, a sign of Jesus's vision of the universal vocation of the Messiah.
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
What grates in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman isn't any of this but the racial epithet "dogs." Did Jesus consider the Gentiles "dogs"?
There have been a variety of responses to this query. Some point to Jesus's use of the diminutive for dogs--"little dogs" or "puppies." That softens things a bit. Which leads to perhaps the most common interpretation, that Jesus was being ironic or playful with the woman to test her and the assumptions of the onlooking disciples.
I'm okay with that interpretation, but I was struck the other day reading a different interpretation in Ched Myers's commentary on Mark Binding the Strong Man.
Myers first points to the social location of the woman. As a Gentile and a woman she's pretty far down on the power structure, the bottom really. Because of this the woman's insistence and pushing on Jesus is socially transgressive. She's not being polite or staying in her place. Even when Jesus tries to put her in her place.
But here's the remarkable thing. This Gentile woman--this outcast of society--is the only person in human history who ever bested Jesus in an argument. Jesus, we know, was a darn good debater and wins every exchange recounted in the gospels. Except one. Jesus loses once.
This fact is highlighted when we note that the woman's request--healing for her daughter--is granted not on the basis of faith but on the basis of her argument. Jesus says, "For such a reply..."
What's going on with all this? Why does Mark show us Jesus losing an argument to a Gentile women when we've seen Jesus best the best theological minds in Israel (from the time he was twelve no less)?
Here's Myers's take: "This drama represents another example of status-equalization. Jesus allows himself to be "shamed" (becoming "least") in order to include this pagan woman in the new community of the kingdom." Myers sees in this a foreshadowing of the "shaming" of Israel when the Gentiles are brought into the Kingdom: "[S]o too Judaism will have to suffer the indignity of redefining its group boundaries (collective honor) in order to realize that gentiles are now welcomed as equals."
Although we could go too far with all this, I find this line of thinking very interesting. Jesus allows the Messiah to be shamed by the "least of these." And not because of their faith, but because of a forthright argument about fairness and equality. The Messiah is convinced and "shamed" by this argument and responds by opening up the Kingdom to all.
No doubt many readers right now are getting Christologically nervous. The idea of Jesus being "shamed" or losing an argument is just too much for their imaginations. For the anxious amongst us, I'm not going to force this interpretation upon you. Take a deep breath. We're in midrash mode here.
And my midrash is this.
If Jesus is willing to be shamed by an argument--not faith!--for simple fairness coming from the margins, is the church willing to undergo a similar shaming for the sake of expanding the Kingdom?