January 16, 2021

Overcoming God’s Reluctance?

Last Sunday’s Gospel, Mark 7:24-37, has to contain one of the most puzzling set of stories we have about Jesus. The first tale in particular, the account of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in the region of Tyre, is a doozy.

Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

“Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone. (CEB)

Jesus had just engaged in an intense theological debate about what was “clean” and what was “unclean.” It was so controversial and taxing a situation that he immediately up and left the country. Apparently he went alone. He went where no one would think to look for him — to the Gentile region of Tyre, a place inhabited by people the Jews considered their bitterest enemies. The text makes it clear that he needed to get away: “He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide.”

Do you have room in your understanding for a Messiah who needed a break? Who got tired? Who felt “burned out” by intense relational battles and passionate debates with rivals? Who literally fled town, found a place of refuge, and tried to shut the door so he could get some peace and quiet for a change?

Having just given an eloquent speech about removing the stigma of putting people in “clean” and “unclean” categories, he sought refuge in a place deemed “unclean.” Having made the argument that the problem we face is the common human problem of polluted hearts and not unwashed hands, he goes to hide out among people whose reverence for the law amounted to less than zero. Maybe he thought in a place like that he could escape the kinds of theological wrestling matches that drain one’s life and soul.

One thing is clear: He didn’t go to Tyre on a mission. He apparently didn’t go there to prove his point about people not being unclean just because they didn’t keep the laws of ritual purity or to show that Gentiles were going to be accepted on the same basis as Jews into his Kingdom. At least not yet. It seems he just wanted some R & R. He wasn’t seeking to “reach” the Gentiles there or perform works of healing or signs of the Kingdom.

So, when this determined and persistent woman who had somehow heard about him and what he could do barged in on his solitude and cast herself at his feet, begging for him to heal her demon-possessed daughter, he denied her request, in effect saying, “Sorry, it’s not your turn yet.” And he said it in no uncertain terms, using language that would have characterized the unfriendly relations between Jews and non-Jews. We’re the good guys, you’re the dogs. No soup for you!

Is that possible? Many who read this story think Jesus must surely have been testing her. As one commentator wrote, he must have had a little gleam in his eye, a sly smile on his face when he said, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Surely he was trying to draw out her faith with a teasing, provocative challenge, right?

But wait — hadn’t she already exhibited great faith? Why did Jesus feel the need to respond to her with such harsh, demeaning language?

Is it conceivable that Jesus could get cranky? Can we imagine him irritated by a seeker who won’t take “no” for an answer?

Or perhaps, can we accept Tom Wright’s statement that this story is “a sharp reminder to us that Jesus wasn’t simply called to go around being helpful to everyone”? That Jesus had a mission, that during his lifetime it had a narrow focus — proclaiming the Kingdom to Israel — and that anything which might threaten the success of that mission had to be resisted?

Whatever the reason might have been, this woman outduels him with clear and clever insight. But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It may not be our time, she retorts, but even if it’s not there must be something available to us.

And there was. Her daughter was restored.

Could it be that this woman actually taught Jesus something here? That her quick and unforeseen response caught Jesus off guard, delighted him, and moved him to act? That her faith surprised the Savior?

I will not claim that I “get” this story. Throughout my Christian life I have heard it said that prayer does not involve overcoming God’s reluctance but laying hold of his willingness and readiness to bless us when we ask.

But what if he calls me a “dog” and tries to send me away?

Comments

  1. I think Jesus had a sense of humor that we overlook. He knew the woman had faith and would give him a good response to his jest.

    Jesus does the same thing God in the OT did repeatedly. He responded to sin with the Law, to force the interlocutor to seek God s grace only through faith, without reliance on works. How many times did God tell Moses he would destroy the Israelites, only to have Moses patiently remind God each time of his promises to them. The only worthy thing Jacob ever did was force God to uphold his promises, wrestling him and refusing to let God off the hook. That is faith. It trusts God’s promises, despite our many mistakes.

    • I agree with you on his sense of humor, but fail to see anything funny in this particular exchange.

      Scholars of a critical bent would question whether this ever really happened, and see this and other stories as attempts by early Christians to establish Jesus as accepting gentiles (in a way that he may never have actually done). On the other hand, one wonders why they would have had Jesus make such off-putting remarks, which are as offensive as any of his contests with the Pharisees. Perhaps this reflects an ancient tradition which the editors could not ignore, but only try to spin or contextualize.

  2. The idea of a cranky, irritated savior probably sounds sacrilegious to some. I think that our reactions to this passage tell us something profound about our understanding of “sinlessness” and “perfection” – a professor of mine liked to think of Jesus’ sinlessness as more of an orientation and less in terms of doing this or that.

    Still, this passage is stretching. Thank you for the thoughtful reflection!

  3. This passage has always taken me aback, and therefore I prefer to ignore it! But, knowing that the Gnostics were wrong and that Jesus was 100% a HUMAN BEING, maybe we should be surprised that He doesn’t lose His cool more often! He was physically and emotionally drained, and just wanted to be left the heck alone…..who of us has never felt that way? (An for us introverts, it happens a LOT is we have been surrounded by the” madding crowd”!)

    So, looking for a metophorical chance to sit back in a comfy chair and read a good book…He instead gets a knock on the d…)oor, with someone else who wants something from Him…again.

    I would suggest that His response was not a great message from the Son of God, but instead words from the exhausted human He also was, trying to “get out of this” (not unlike the “Woman, what concern of mine is this? My time has not yet come!” at Cana) Is being cranky a sin??? Apparently not…..

    Still, He does what needs doing, unable or unwilling to ignore a request from one of His children. Sort of reminds me of His parable about the two sons told to do some work…one says “no” and does it anyway, the other says “yes” and refuses to do the work. I see Jesus in a snit saying “I don’t WANNNNAAA heal anyone today….”, but of course showing His infinate Love anyway.

    • That Other Jean says

      I’m in the “This is Jesus being human” camp. Humans get burned out and exhausted and snappy when their down time is disturbed; being the embodiment of Divine Love, Jesus got over it and helped out anyway.

    • Pattie writes, “Is being cranky a sin??? Apparently not…..”

      I like that, Pattie!

  4. Note that it’s not just that one debate that wore Jesus out – a chapter earlier, he had planned to go with the disciples to a “quiet place” where they could rest, and instead ended up hounded by crowds that followed him even when he tried to escape by boat – so he had to walk on water in order to get away from them without a trace, and was so sick of people that when he walked past the disciples in their boat on his way across the lake, he didn’t even want to get into the boat with them.

    So yes, I suspect this is Jesus at his crankiest. But also, to me the closest other Biblical parallel to this story is Jacob wrestling with God – “I will not let you go until you bless me.” In the OT, people argue with God all the time, and God seems to kind of like that sort of tenacity and faith. So it’s not entirely surprising that Jesus would do the same.

  5. Christ was referring to Israel as the children which must be fed which is why there is a notation about the woman being a Greek. Christ immediate mission was to Israel in fulfilling God’s promise to Israel. Christ was not irritated rather because he had an immediate and deliberate mission toward Israel the question as to whether or not she was merely an interloper a genuinely seeking person.

  6. EDITED CORRECTED COMMENT: (please excuse above error, thanks)

    I think this passage of Scripture is much misunderstood.
    I have found a way of looking at this passage that, for me, is more consistent with ‘Who Christ Is’:

    How is it that Christ holds up a mirror for us to see our own prejudices so clearly?

    Can the reader not see that Christ lays out the problem confronting all of us: who are ‘we’ and who are ‘they’: the others, the ‘dogs’, the rejected, the lepers ?
    What is the difference, if any?
    And what is it that may we have in common that He values far above our differences?
    And what is our obligation to help the ‘others’ ?
    Must they always be ‘sent away’ unaided?

    Nothing in this incident was ‘incidental’.

    All was planned by God and set in motion to teach us something, if we will quietly look at it without our ‘prejudices’ and without our ‘self-righteous reactions’ . . .

    The Canaanite woman did not come to Christ by chance:
    she was directed to that place by a faith that she would receive healing for her child.
    In some part of all of us, we know that every mother would go to hell and beyond to get help for their suffering child. This woman came to the Lord Christ.
    And she came to Him confidently.

    Do His Words to her not reflect what many in the crowd thought?

    And therein lies the irony.
    He is wisely, once again, holding up a mirror, using His Words to reflect the crowd’s rejection of this Canaanite woman.
    And in doing so, He teaches, in a way that is unmistakably His:

    DID he send her away unaided, as they might have done?

    No.
    He did not.

    And therein lies the resolution of the irony.

    She, one of the ‘others’, had great faith,
    and so her daughter was given healing by the Lord Christ ‘from that very hour’.

    Nothing in this story is without meaning.

    The story is a lesson that ALL the despised and rejected of this world, who are of strong faith, may confidently come to the Lord Christ for healing, not to be turned away by Him.

    WE are the ones doing the rejection of the ‘others’.

    Not Him.

    • Randy Thompson says

      I agree with you that God apparently brought the woman to Jesus. But there is no evidence that there was a crowd there watching, and if there was, it certainly wasn’t a Jewish crowd, and, even if there was a crowd, it was a syrophoenician crowd and it seems to me highly unlikely that they would reject the woman for being a syrophoenician!

    • I do certainly agree that Jesus was in the habit of holding up mirrors. Consider the story of the rich young ruler – when we read that we “get” it. Jesus isn’t teaching salvation through mendicancy; he is revealing the values of the heart. In the same way, I suspect you may be right that in this encounter Jesus was revealing the prejudicial nature of his culture. But on the other hand, if this account is even remotely historical, consider how the syro-phoenecian woman would feel! It still seems like a harsh response, although the non-verbal communication aspects are absent.

  7. I don’t think I have anything to add here. This passage has always bothered me, while also giving me hope.

    In the one of the “Liturgies” we say in worship in my Community of Faith we speak of Jesus as One “who shared our common lot.” And so I think of this “story” as an example of Jesus’ being fully humanity. Jesus able to fall victim to bigotry just like I too often do. But we and Jesus (in the story) is taught – thru faith – not only to feeling to be more than we thought we are.

    Is that too liberal?

  8. David Cornwell says

    I don’t claim to have the answers here, but the humanity of Jesus clearly comes through. If Jesus was human, then he had all the human emotions, feelings, bodily urges, and needs. He clearly wanted to be alone and was showing some irritation. Other human’s can be irritating! Talking about anything connected with his humanity is not sacrilegious. To do otherwise is to misunderstand the incarnation.

    The question of overcoming God’s reluctance is another intriguing question, but I don’t think it the applicable one here. Looking backward I’m convinced that God sometimes opens doors for us that perhaps go counter to a “better way.” And then some of the lessons we learn are harsh and hard. Sometimes we force doors open that are better off left closed. It’s easy to convince ourselves that something is God’s will or in a master plan for our lives. Be careful here.

  9. Joseph (the original) says

    good thoughts+perspectives. this passage has never stood out as being so ‘different’ as to be a total theological head-scratcher for me, but it does stand out for its supposed harsh/demeaning response to the poor woman sincerely entreating Jesus to heal her daughter. and it does not matter what the daughter suffered from in this instance. any & all human affliction Jesus not only elected to live among, He also addressed the most serious ones in the miracles recorded, even death! so what is with this incident?

    i too think Jesus was physically/emotionally spent & needed some real R&R. this woman came “demanding a sign+miracle” & i can envision Jesus’ response as part knee-jerk, part theological correctness, part simply wishing to remain incognito outside the hyper-religious environment He recently departed from…

    and yet i also believe the response was not delivered in a harsh way. i don’t see Him ‘barking’ at the woman in anger or ridicule, but He was stern & respectful in His initial refusal to do as she requested. the way He responded does seem un-Jesus-like, but what is missing in the text is the human voice inflection & body language. did He sigh as it is recorded in Mark 8:12? i think so, but then He seems to have been surprised by the woman’s response. He responded to a Roman Centurion. He responded to the Samaritan woman at the well. He even responded to the old woman with the issue of blood that received her healing without His knowing it. and He was going to Jairus’ house at that time because of his passionate entreaty to come heal his sick daughter. Jesus was the same Jesus at all these instances & He claimed to be the exact representation of the Father, in whom there is no change or shifting shadow. if Jesus were truly God-in-the-flesh, He could not have been misrepresenting the Father even when exhausted, tempted or brutally tortured. somehow, Jesus reacted as a worn-out man, but always represented the Father rightly…

    so, the consideration of what i term a “Jacob’s Embrace” does fit nicely into this story. after all, it was Jesus that wrestled with Jacob & so it was this woman ‘s refusal to be dimissed until she was blessed that finally moved Him to grant her request. i do think Jesus was always impressed by the faith of those seemingly on the outer fringes of His ministry focus. yet He responded to lepers, widows, friends, gentiles, outcasts, sinners, the unclean, etc.

    thank you Jesus for your compassion shown to the least of us…

  10. I saw this post last night and have mulled it over for a few hours. Sooooooooo…(IMHO)

    The Greek woman already knew who Jesus was-she called Him ‘Son of David’, a messianic title, but He still used the dog example to illustrate His mission at the time. He was also trying to fulfill a promise to His disciples for some much needed rest.

    What I see as so cool about this passage is Jesus told her she had to wait but gave in to her pleadings once she showed everyone present her deep faith and she left knowing Jesus had healed her daughter with more to come for the Gentiles in the future-when it was their time.

    Great example for the disciples, encouragement for us, and a future indication of the Great Commission. I don’t think Jesus was irritated-focused turned to teacher mode-not irritated-that would have caused some offense and the woman would have walked away with an entirely different experience to pass along to whomever she encountered.

  11. Though I have difficulty finding a teaching or moral in this passage, I do think it’s true to life, life as I experience it. I come to Jesus with great hopes and expectations. I believe He’s going to fix everything. I plead for that which is most dear to me. His response at times seems like a rebuke. Great faith comes after that response, not before.

  12. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    I tend to go with Tom Wright’s interpretation on this. My Jewish friends who have read this instantly got it. I think one of the reasons this is so hard is that it goes against our Christian (especially Gentile Christian) sensibilities, and we forget how radical it is that we goyim get to be part of the “Commonwealth of Israel” (as St. Paul sayeth). That always has seemed to me to fit the context best.

    As to his tone in the story, his motivations, etc., we just don’t have enough information to do more than speculate, because the Evangelist doesn’t tell us. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with such speculation, I think we need to be careful not to use that speculation to shape Jesus and the story into what we think it should be, rather than what St. Mark tells us it is. What he does tell us is that Jesus told her ‘no’ because she was a Gentile and he had been sent to the Jews, despite other examples of him ministering to individual Gentiles within the course of his ministry. We also know that in the end he healed her daughter anyway, because he was impressed by her response.

  13. Syrophoenician’s were responsible for some of the most vicious persecutions of Jews that had happened throughout the entire history of Israel. Something that would be embedded within the minds of all Jews (similar to memories of the holocaust). For her to approach Christ would have been viewed as nothing less than a scandal. His reply appears to be sharp, yet He was human, and so perhaps his statement wasn’t crankiness but rather one that was a reflection of the culture He was brought up in. His final response is one that perhaps reflects His pleasure in her faith, while I am guessing He also has a slight smile on his face due to His appreciation for the political brilliance of her statement.

    Mark being Jewish, writing primarily to a Jewish audience, captures this as a way to highlight God’s love transcends all barriers, whether international, political, race, etc. Salvation is available for all.

    My two cents….

    • CaptainPlanet says

      I agree. I think this is one of the stories that demonstrates Jesus personality and that he was a real man living within his culture. He is not a God-robot!

    • I think you bring up an interesting point. How did the author of Mark know this story? How was it shared? In what community was it a popular tale?

    • (Actually it was Matthew who was Jewish, writing to a primarily Jewish audience. Most scholars believe Mark was writing for the Gentile reader.)

    • I did not know that about the syrophonecians. I always wondered if the tone in Jesus’ words here wasn’t something like “surely you know the Jews view you as nothing better than a dog, yet you ask me for help? What could possibly drive you to cross such a cultural barrier? That’s some chutzpah…” and then rewards her when her response is the faith that says, “yes, we don’t deserve anything and we’re not God’s people, but in your mercy, would you do something for me anyway…?”

      I have no way of backing up that assumption, but that bit of info about the Syrophoenecians might make this way of seeing it slightly more likely.

  14. CaptainPlanet says

    I have a point of contention starting with the title of the article. This is not Gods reluctance, it is Jesus demonstrating human frailty. Look at what he was doing leading up to this. He went there to get away from the crowds who had drained him. There were times when he even had to get away from his disciples! He was exhausted, drained from giving. This is the age-old issue of whether this is God in the flesh or Jesus as man. If he is not completely human, he is cheating! If Jesus is not in every way like me, then what he asks of me is impossible.

  15. Randy Thompson says

    Could Jesus have been tired and “cranky”? If he’s a human being, that’s certainly possible. Clearly, he’s going to the area around Tyre for a break. There’s no mention of the disciples being there, either. Who’s he staying with? Who witnesses this? We don’t know. Clearly, he wants peace and quiet.

    Was Jesus being deliberately insulting? That doesn’t make sense to me. He was no stickler for Jewish traditions and had just criticized Jewish purity traditions. The fact that he speaks with someone who is a) a woman, and b) a Gentile suggests that he’s willing to cross some serious (Jewish) borders to interact with her. That he would be insulting doesn’t make sense.

    I’m inclined to think that he was being ironic with the woman. Both of them, presumably, know what “dogs” meant, and knew that Jesus was a Jew and she was a Gentile. Both understood what was going on in this interaction. The tone of Jesus’ words here is everything. I read his words as ironic, even humorous. I also see him using irony here as a way to test her seriousness. Is she looking for a man of God, or is she looking for just another wonder-working magus?

    Using irony, Jesus makes the point that she is not one of God’s people, and that his ministry is to God’s people. He is setting boundaries with her, establishing the purpose of his ministry. Her response reveals that she gets this, recognizes that the Jews are God’s people, of which she is not a part, but she still persistently seeks God’s grace in Jesus.

    It seems clear to me that Jesus had no huge issues with Gentiles. He already cast demons our of the Gadarene demoniac in the Decapolis area, which is a Gentile area, and will go back to the Decapolis in the passage following this one, and will heal another person, again, most likely a Gentile.

    • This is my perspective as well. The very interaction demonstrates the irony in Jesus response. I almost imagine Jesus putting on his best Pharisee impersonation in the encounter.

  16. In almost every commentary I’ve ever consulted about this passage states that the word translated “dogs” is best translated “PUPPIES”. This change significantly alleviates the sharpness of Jesus’ statement to the gentile woman supplicant. To be called indirectly a “puppy” is a far cry from being labeled a “dog” in every culture I’ve encountered in 35 years of international Bible teaching. But strangely I have yet to find an English (or any other language) translation which uses “puppies” here. Why is that?

    • I doubt if either “dog” or “puppy” had a positive connotation in the ancient world. Dogs were scavengers not beloved family pets.

      • Joseph (the original) says

        were dogs considered ‘unclean’ in ancient Israel? not in the sense of being avoided, but more like looked down upon as of little use. not in dietary sense, but in a less than utilitarian way.

        the Romans used dogs for sentry duty & battle. not sure what other cultural issues there were with the Caanites or other enemies the Jews detested…

        i don’t think the idea or concept of family pet was implied in how Jesus responded to the woman. He wasn’t trying to ‘soften’ the use of the term by substituting a cute, cuddly puppy as the reference. if Jews did not hold dogs in high regard, did the Greeks/Syrophoencians? i think is where a good historical background would be helpful as well as cultural nuances. the sterile reading of the text leaves so much out of the story.

        i have found the straight data method used at times by the gospel writers to be a bit like the Dragnet episode of their era: “Just the facts Ma’am, don’t embellish the story any…”

        • Joseph (the original) says

          ***edit***

          s/b Canaanites…sheesh…were is spellcheck when you need it… 😉

        • Kunarion is the diminutive of kunos, and refers to a house pet or lap dog. Yes, the Romans had them. Does it change the meaning of the passage? Well, one could just as easily argue that calling someone a “little dog” is even more condescending than “big dog”, so I’m not sure if it is significant. Either word clearly equates Jews with children (human) and gentiles with animals (less than human).

  17. I wonder if Jesus isn’t subtly addressing religious “offense” here. If you give me some leeway, to paraphrase the exchange…

    Jesus: God isn’t for you.
    Woman: God is for everyone.
    Jesus: You’re right.

    Jesus’ first statement is very offensive. It’s similar to something I’m sure many of us have heard Christians say to others. Heck, I’ve probably said similar to someone else a few times. Basically, “I don’t think you are worthy of God and my church.” Jesus’ statement is so full of “religiosity” and so intentionally offensive that this has to be some sort of lesson on religious offensiveness.

    Curiously, the woman doesn’t seem to get offended at the offensive statement, but rather she CHALLENGES it, and challenges it rather bluntly. “Excuse me, fine sir, but I think God IS for everyone.” Maybe the lesson for us believers is this: when you see religious offensiveness, CHALLENGE it. Don’t pout, don’t get mad, to get offended…challenge it.

    Jesus’ second statement, then, is the main point: “Regardless of what a religious person might say to discourage you, to offend you, don’t believe it. God is for you. He loves you.”

  18. I also like puzzling over the difficult and curious passages of scripture. This is one of them. I like the way you aren’t afraid to contemplate the humanness of Christ. This is one of the few blogs where when once I start reading, it’s feels automatic to continue. Every post is insightful and well written though I don’t read all of them. I understand there are a lot of Lutherans here. I’ve been going to a different church and have been thinking on visiting a Lutheran church in the Atlanta area. It would be great if someone would contact me with some advice. Have to keep rambling on now…

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