Context matters. How something is said and who's around you when it’s said matter. I was reminded of this recently while walking around my neighborhood. I passed a neighbor’s house just as she was walking to her car.
I said hello. And she responded, “Aren't you cute.” Now I could have been flattered. You take a compliment where you can get it. Or I could have said, “You know what they say, after the Supreme Court decision all the good ones are gay and married.”
But I knew the context. I was walking Duchess, my labrador puppy, so of course the comment was all about the dog.
Just as context affects how we understand everyday conversation, it matters to how we hear and understand scripture too.
The Gospel reading may have left you wondering: what in the world was going on? A woman with an ill daughter came to Jesus when he was trying to get some rest; she demanded a miracle. In many ways this is nothing different from many of the countless other healing stories in the Gospels - people often demanded the miraculous of Jesus. Yet this time he turned on her, calling her a dog and saying his miracles were for the children of Israel and not dogs like her.
What do we make of Jesus calling this woman a dog? Two thousand years later it sounds like Jesus just called her a B.
As bad as that sounds, it comes across even worse in a time when immigrants and refugees in America and Europe get denounced as rapists and criminals, as a clear and present danger. Can we hear this story of the mother concerned for her daughter without our mind flashing to refugee children in Europe, to the child who died while his mother sought safety for him?
Jesus comes across like a bully - calling a woman in need a dog while wanting to hoard his healing power for people just like him.
For all of these reasons and more, the tale of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman offends.
Biblical commentators have responded by trying to imagine a context in which this scene makes sense. Two main approaches emerged: some scholars explain away Jesus’ dog comment, suggesting that the Greek word meant “puppy” or “pet.” But I don’t think that explanation works. Who wants to be called a pooch? Especially when all you want is help for your child.
The second approach retells the story as a moment when the woman changed Jesus mind; thus, at first he was an anti-immigrant bigot, but afterwards he came around to see the dignity of outsiders and started to reach out beyond his own kind. I like this approach better; in fact you’ve probably heard such an explanation before here at Plymouth. The idea of Jesus learning and growing appeals, as does the idea of this woman boldly and courageously changing his mind.
But as I’ve continued to study scripture, I’ve realized this doesn’t fit the storyline of Mark. Jesus didn’t need the confrontation with the Syrophoenician woman to start an outreach to the Greeks. Several chapters earlier he’d preached to a crowd which included her neighbors; Mark said, “he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.” And just before the meeting with this woman, he healed a Greek man. In that case the legion of evil spirits went from the man to a herd of pigs. A strange detail signifying how far Jesus had gone from his own, pork-abstaining people. In other words, Jesus was already reaching out beyond his own people and didn’t need someone to change his mind about the worth of Greeks.
Neither of the traditional ways of dealing with Jesus in this passage make sense to me. So what can we make of Jesus’ remarkably rude and boorish behavior?
Asian scholar Poling Sun of Singapore offered a new insight into the context of the story. And context is everything. He read this Gospel text out of his perspective as a post-colonial Christian. This opened his eyes to reading the dynamics of power and privilege in this story in a new way.
Galilee, Jesus’ homeland, was a poor and rural area which belonged to Jerusalem, but which was overshadowed by several Greek cities, including the city of Trye and Sidon. Our story takes place in a part of Galilee where the Syrophoenicians continually tried to take over the land to incorporate it into their city-state’s domain. Trye was a wealthy community; its elite owned estates in Galilee, they traded slaves from the interior around the Mediterranean, building rapacious riches. The poor Jewish farmers raised food for the wealthy Greek city. It’s the pattern we see the world over as a colonial power extracts resources, wealth, even bodies out of subjugated lands. The woman in this story was a person of power and privilege, while Jesus and the people in the house lived as the vulnerable underclass.
The Gospel subtly captures the wealth of this woman at the end of the story. We hear in English that she returned home to find her daughter sitting up in bed. But in Greek the word really meant the kind of bed used by the wealthy. The poor slept on a mattress or even straw in the corner. But the wealthy laid on special beds.
All of this suggests a different context for the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus stood with a poor family, amid parents forced to sell their bread to Tyre instead of feeding their own children. Can you imagine the simmering anger that must have produced? The resentment, the hostility, the spite of raising food but not being able to feed your kids? Certainly people muttered in those poor houses, “Why do we feed those dogs while our children just get crumbs?”
Then Jesus and the poor family he stayed with looked on the horizon to see a wealthy landowner coming close, driving the ancient equivalent of a Black SUV with tinted windows down their dirt road. How many caravans came just the same way, to take away what was desired, bread or children or whatever the Syrophoenicians wanted to satisfy themselves? Stepping out with a disdained look at all the squalor around her that said, “Why do they live like this…?” And then the big show of a request; but really it was another demand, like all the other demands people from Tyre made, “Use your resources to meet my needs.”
In that moment, Jesus felt the injustice of it all. The constant demands by Syrophoenicians to use the resources, the energy, even the bodies of the poor for their own needs. Which is why he said, “I’m not giving the children’s bread to a dog.”
Can we hear the anger in Jesus’ voice? Of course he was angry and his comment communicated it. But can we really hear it?
I ask because so often we try to silence the anger of the oppressed. We take everything and then expect people to smile when it happens to them. Poling Sun gave an example from China. Back in Sept. 2008 a state-owned dairy company sold poisoned milk powder, which sickened hundreds of thousands and killed six infants. A father of one of those children organized a protest to call attention to food safety issues. This landed him in prison and left his wife to scream outside the courtroom, “The government is heartless.” The Chinese government could not bear to hear the pain of a mother and father who lost a son.
Do we do better? Can we hear the pain, the anguish, the heartache of people oppressed and marginalized? The anger of immigrants tricked onto a train in Budapest? The despair of parents whose children graduate from underfunded schools into overpopulated prisons?
In America, our inability to hear involves both those oppressed by poverty and marginalized by race. Just think of all the anxiety we’ve seen in this country over the last eight years around President Obama. He’s never allowed to get angry. Congressmen try to shout him down, say “you lie” and “hell no” but he can’t respond in kind. When Trayvon Martin was killed several years ago, President Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” This simple expression of empathy started a firestorm of criticism. He couldn’t even offer condolences without being accused of race-baiting.
Our own American experience of silencing the pain of people oppressed and marginalized makes me hear Jesus’ naming the dog differently. He would not be silenced. Jesus’ resolute commitment mattered; his anger and pain gave voice to justice.
What makes this story matter to me is the way the Syrophoenician woman responded to Jesus. As a woman of power and privilege in the society of Jesus, she could have said a version of “How dare you!” But this Syrophoenician responded differently - she heard the pain and anger, and repented.
The heart of this woman changed in the raw light of the pain Jesus named. It comes out in her words, “Yes, Master, but the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” First, by honoring Jesus she reverses their social inequality. Next, she acknowledged the pain. And only then did she ask again for help. The Syrophoenician woman was transformed in this story.
A century ago W.E.B. DuBois wrote about the black experience in America. He described a double consciousness, saying, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
DuBois didn’t reflect on the mirror opposite of double-consciousness, but we might well name it double-blindness. In science experiments, a double blind study is one in which both the subjects and those conducting the tests do not know who is receiving what medication or treatment. But I think it also applies to our dominant culture when it comes to issues of race and poverty. We are double-blind: blind to people marginalized in our society and blind to our own role in that marginalization. And it works as well to say we’re blind to the past and blind to the present.
DuBois said it took a dogged strength to hold together ones’ double-consciousness. It also took a dogged courage for the Syrophoenician woman to overcome her own double-blindedness. But through this encounter with Jesus, she came to see the injustice around her and her own role in it.
Can we imagine similar transformations in our own lives about issues of power and privilege, issues of race and economic inequality?
The Syrophoenician woman left Jesus with hope for her daughter, but she wasn’t with her child yet. The woman traveled from Galilee back to Tyre, perhaps a two-day journey in which she held the promise Jesus gave her but didn’t know if it was true.
My image of her is shaped by a line in the Fallout Boy song Uma Thurman, “And I slept in last night's clothes and tomorrow's dreams.”
She journeyed with a new and hard knowledge about herself - yesterday’s clothes - and yet she could hope for a different future for her daughter, herself, and the people in Galilee - tomorrow’s dreams.
Can we practice such dogged courage? Facing the real and deep pains that prejudice and privilege cause? Learn to repent and then travel toward tomorrow’s dreams?
Alleluia and Amen.