This passage is painful to read. It hurts in much the same way it does to read a newspaper article about a person of color being mistakenly shot by a police officer or someone attacked because of they wore clothing identifying themselves as members of a particular religious faith. Do you know what I mean? When you read those stories, one can feel a palpable sense of pain at a visceral level. For me, Mark 7:24-37 has that same effect.
Mark touches on any number of issues relevant to Jesus’ time and our own. There’s a glaring #MeToo moment driving the action in the passage. A woman from a different ethnic and linguistic group, bound by poverty, and a mother to a disabled child encounters misogyny of the first order; all from the Son of God, Jesus Christ. There is racism in this passage. Ideas of race run through this entire story. How do we know this? This encounter takes us beyond the Mason-Dixon Line dividing Judea and Galilee. When Mark says, “Jesus left that place and went to the region of Tyre,” he crossed an international, cultural, linguistic, economic, and social border. He went to another country. Jesus went somewhere so close to home yet on the other the side an imagined line where everything was different. The food, the smells, the history, and the traditions derived from places unfamiliar to Jesus’ own Galilean heritage. Jesus came from the dominant culture to the east (or as we would say, to the north). Perhaps, this is why he wanted to go somewhere where he was the odd man out. Those around him looked different, spoke another language, and didn’t know much of the man from Galilee hiding in their midst.
Mark highlights their differences because he wants his readers to notice these distinctions. He is telling us that Jesus is aware of these characteristics. He’s asking, “Is there anything wrong with being a Syro-Phoenician, Greek-speaking, Brown-skinned woman?” No, there is not. It’s only a problem when someone with those characteristics crosses paths with a misogynist Rabbi from Galilee. Jesus’ makes her identity a problem. That’s why reading this passage hurts. You can say he’s having a bad day. You can say he’s angry or only wants to be left alone. In the end, the sad truth is that Jesus looks like a misogynist and a racist. We should stop trying to explain Jesus’ conduct.
Jesus is awful to the woman from Tyre. I wish she had a name. We know Jesus’ name, Mark’s name, and she’s identified by her ethnic group. Tell me there’s not racism in the Bible. The Bible is one of the best books at merging misogyny and racism into one action. What does she do? She approaches him (ostensibly on his vacation) and asks him to remove a demon from her daughter.
This didn’t sit well with Jesus. After all, he’d left the United States of Galilee to get some time away from healings and needy people. The Son of God needs a break. You’ve got to be kidding me. When you’re the Son of God, that’s not an excuse I’m willing to accept. The creator of the universe never gets to say no to a mother with a demon; even on vacation.
Jesus calls her a dog. I also have no patience for Jesus calling anybody, let alone a woman, a dog. He said, “the children have to be fed first (meaning the children of Israel)”. She, being a foreigner, wasn’t a child of Israel, therefore a dog. Did he forget that he’s in her country? So let’s add rude to misogynist and racist. He is calling her a dog in her own country. Jesus is the foreigner in this situation. That’s like the President going to Mexico City to raise money for the wall.
The woman is quick-witted. She’s also nicer than most people would be in this situation. “Lord,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “Good Answer!” Jesus says. Was this some kind of trivia game? It reminds me of a Bond villain trying to outsmart Sean Connery. We hear sassy. I hope she was mad.
Somehow this jolted Jesus back to a sense of compassion. Jesus performed one of his trademark long-distance healings. Mark tells us that she returned to her home to find her daughter well and the demon was gone. So what do we do now? Is this merely a weird story where Jesus comes off looking bad and we forget it ever happened?
What is this really about? There is a good side and an offensive side to Jesus. It’s essential for us to acknowledge both exist. We don’t need to justify our worse impulses and awful behavior by pointing to the horrible things Jesus did in the passage. This behavior is not worth exemplifying and sanctifying. Even if we end up getting to the right place, the road we took to get there did too much damage. To be compassionate and share God’s grace, we don’t have put people down or be misogynist racists. We could do the right thing even if Jesus didn’t in this instance. Mark tells us in no uncertain terms: Jesus got it wrong. Let us learn from his mistakes.
Richard Lowell Bryant