From there he 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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He 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.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
This is one of those texts that can be troublesome. It’s one where I go, ‘did Jesus really say that – did he really compare a woman to a dog, she was only asking him to help her daughter, did I hear that correctly?’
Well the answer is yes that is what Jesus said. I have heard different ways to explain this passage in a way that doesn’t upset our sensibilities or make us squirm. Things like, ‘Oh, don’t worry Jesus didn’t mean it, he was just testing her’ or ‘he was referring to a well-known joke at the time!’. Could it be that Jesus just got it wrong?
However we try to justify it, this is what Jesus said, he compared a Gentile woman to a dog while favouring Jews. I could comment on the faith of the woman, even though the word is not used in this context; we could learn something from her persistence, her expectant trust and possibly even her submission.
But for me, along with the passage that follows about the healing of the deaf man, this is a story about mission – mission to those near and far – to foreigners and those closer to home. There are no limitations on Jesus’ mission and there are no limitations on our mission – only those we place on ourselves. God’s gracious love is universal – we should not, we must not limit it.
But talking of grace – how often when we lose an argument do we respond as graciously as Jesus? Even when we know the other side, the other person is right, we carry on trying to justify our own position. At a time when we seem to have forgotten how to debate, how to argue well, there is much we can learn from this little story.
When we struggle with what you said and did and find the thought of doing your work uncomfortable, even terrifying; help us to place our trust in you.
And give us the grace to recognise and acknowledge when we are wrong, and others are right. Amen
The Rev’d Branwen Rees, East Wales Regional Minister