I ascribe to what academics call a “high Christology.” I believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity. I believe that he was fully human and fully divine, and as a result that Jesus was without sin the entire course of his life. In this regard I am a hopelessly orthodox, and to some, hopelessly naïve Christian.
That said, in my reading of Scripture, there is one story that seriously challenges this high Christology: the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus enters Gentile territory and purportedly doesn’t want anyone to know about it. Nonetheless, he is entreated by a Gentile woman whose daughter is afflicted by an unclean spirit. Jesus, apparently annoyed, tells her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Let’s not rush ahead to the woman’s clever retort and Jesus’ reaction to it just yet, and let his words sink in: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jews, by the way, did not keep dogs as pets, so he is using particularly harsh language. Dogs weren’t even allowed in the house, so why was this Gentile woman barging into the house? The message, taken at face value, couldn’t be clearer: You don’t belong here. Go away. What I have is not for the likes of you.
Those of us who share my high Christology will be tempted to explain that Jesus was merely testing her faith, that he did not actually think she was one of “the dogs.” After all, the Gospel writers Matthew and Mark would hardly have retained this story if it had put Jesus in that bad of a light, right?
But I think it would be a mistake for us simply to gloss over Jesus’ use of this racially and ethnically loaded language, particularly for those of us living in the age of Ferguson and Charleston, of Black Lives Matter, because language is important. Perhaps Jesus was only making a point using strong language that from anyone else would clearly be sinful. But the fact is, he does use it. What are we to make of it?
Every commentator I consulted wrestled with the conundrum: Either Jesus meant what he said when he said it, and initially intended to send the woman away without granting her request, or he was testing her faith. If he meant what he said, then she taught him a lesson and in granting her request he tacitly admits he was wrong. If, on the other hand, he was merely testing her, he was being a bit cruel perhaps, but she passed the test, so all’s well that ends well.
But I think there’s a third way of looking at this troubling exchange, and to get there, we have to take a step back and look at what has happened in Mark’s gospel up to this point. Just last week we heard how Jesus had challenged the hidebound traditions of the Pharisees with regard to ritual purity. In story after story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is intentionally crossing borders and knocking down barriers that have been erected by others to enforce an “us-them” mentality.
If Jesus’ pattern in Mark up to this point is clearly one of knocking down the barriers of access to God that we’ve erected, why would he himself put up a barrier when he crosses over into Gentile territory? Why cross into Gentile territory if you’re unwilling to encounter Gentiles? Jesus is not stupid. He knows what he is doing. He knows that when you go into a Gentile town, you are going to meet Gentiles.
So here’s my theory. I think just maybe Jesus realizes he has come to the limit of the borders he can cross, and of the barriers he can knock down on his own initiative, and he now needs to help others knock them down. So I don’t believe Jesus is testing the woman’s faith—he already knows her faith—but deliberately provoking her to help him knock down that remaining wall of separation between Jew and Gentile.
As one commentator pointed out, Jesus’ words about taking the children’s bread and throwing it to the dogs would not have seemed at all offensive to his disciples. No, the disciples were more likely to be offended by Jesus’ granting of the woman’s request than of his apparent insult. It’s his listening to her and healing her daughter that is the offensive part of this story to Jesus’ disciples, and that, I believe, is what made it such a memorable encounter for them.
Indeed, in Matthew’s telling of this story, the disciples beg Jesus, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” So they would have been happy to see him seemingly taking their advice. But just when they thought Jesus was beginning to show some sense and draw some limits, he demonstrates through his response to her that the distinction between Jews and Gentiles never mattered to him in the first place. In this sense, he is not testing the woman’s faith, but his disciples’.
Further, Jesus shows us that he can even use the language of the sinful attitudes of people toward each other to turn those attitudes on their heads. Like a good teacher, he sets the Syrophoenician woman up for a win, and at the same time teaches his disciples a lesson they will never forget.
And that’s where the Syrophoenician woman herself comes into the story. Because whether she realizes in the moment that she’s being set up for this amazing teachable moment or not, she rises to the occasion, as Jesus knows she will. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” This is perhaps the best come-back line in the entire Bible. This come-back line is so good that it inspired Thomas Cranmer to include, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table” in the Prayer of Humble Access, which we pray at every Mass just before receiving communion. Somewhat paradoxically therefore, in the light of Mark chapter seven, this protestation of our unworthiness is actually a humble way of standing up for ourselves in Jesus’ presence! Ironic, isn’t it?
Standing up for ourselves is the whole point of this story in the view of Brian K. Blount, President and Professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Writing for The African American Lectionary commentary, he asks: “Why is this such an important story in Mark’s Gospel? Mark wants us to holler for transformation the way that woman hollered for the transformation of her daughter’s life situation, even when all the signals say, you ought to shut up, give up and go home. If that woman could stand up to Jesus, I think Jesus was telling us, we ought to be able to stand up to anybody else or anything else on this planet.”
In other words, Jesus isn’t “testing” her. He’s empowering her. And for us, he is demonstrating that the most racist, sexist, and ethnically demeaning language one can think of is powerless over us if we don’t give it power over us. Jesus plays along with what the disciples want him to say so that the woman can teach them that this is no way to talk to a lady.
So, yes, my high Christology lets Jesus off the hook. He’s no misogynist or racist or bigot. I just can’t believe he would fall into the trap of thinking, acting, and speaking as his contemporaries would have done, because everywhere else, Mark’s gospel portrays him as doing just the opposite. I think in this passage he is simply playing along to make a point, and that this is not a demonstration of a temporary lapse in Jesus’ compassion for those who are afflicted, but rather one more demonstration of how Jesus uses his context to bring about healing and reconciliation.
In our own day, I think this passage teaches us that we should not fear being persistent either with God or with each other. We must not let barriers and borders stand in our way when they are unhealthy and keeping us from being healed and reconciled, especially when the healing and reconciliation is not primarily for ourselves, but for our daughters and sons, that is, for others. In this paradoxical exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, we see at work an invitation to “holler for transformation,” and to know that when we do holler for it, Jesus will holler right back with the healing word we need.