Today I want to continue the theme of looking at passages in the Gospels where we find Jesus doing or saying something and are left asking the question “Huh?” These are passages that we often skip over or misinterpret when sometimes a quick study of the culture can shed a bit of light and turn what appears to be a confusing passage into an amazing lesson that is not that complex.
I believe this is the case for the passage I want to examine today. Mark 15:21-28 deals with the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
This is a passage I struggled with for a while. Why is Jesus calling this woman a dog? Why after that does she continue the conversation? Why does Jesus change his mind and then heal the girl? There are lots of questions about this short passage.
However I have come to understand that this is not really that complicated a passage if we look at it through first century eyes. Jesus was not being rude when he did not interact with the woman, but simply observing the cultural practice that Jewish men did not interact with gentile women. When we read the story without the cultural understanding we begin to misunderstand this passage at this point.
By the time we get to Jesus’ comment “it is not right to take the children’s food and toss it to the dogs” we have most likely have let our culture interpret this passage for us and are focusing on the wrong things. Our reaction is probably something like this. “Jesus was really rude when he ignored this woman and made things worse when he called her a dog.” And we ask ourselves “Huh? This doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t seem like the Jesus I know.”
However, a common expression of the day went something like this. “You don’t give children’s food to dogs or dog’s food to children.” It was a colloquial expression, much like we use kick the bucket today. It simply meant you do what is appropriate in the situation. Here Jesus has just said “I came for the lost sheep of Israel” and the woman is a gentile. He is simply saying, that what I have is not for you, but for the Jews.
This is why the woman is not offended, but continues to plead with him “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. She doesn’t give up, she pushes back, she shows some of what the Jews would call chutzpa. The result, Jesus says “Woman, you have great faith!” and heals her daughter.
We often get so caught up in the words of Jesus that we fail to hear what he is saying.
The emphasis in this passage is that this gentile woman shows the chutzpa to engage with Jesus, and not only to engage, but to keep on until he heals her daughter. This is the same type of chutzpa Abram showed in Gen 15:1-3 when he pushed God for children. We also see this is the type of chutzpa Jesus tell his followers to have when they pray in Luke 11:1-13 when he gives them the Lord’s prayer and the parable of the persistent friend. Once again we see it in Luke 18:1-8 when he tells them the parable of the persistent widow.
This passage in reality is not a complicated one if we place it in the cultural context where it occurred. If we look at the meaning it had for those present and then try to apply the principles to our life and times rather than trying to understand it in the context of 2009 America first.
When was the last time you showd chutzpa in your interactions with Jesus? If you haven’t in a while, why? Could it be because of a misunderstanding of how God wants us to come to him? Jesus seems pretty clear how he expects us to pray.
What other passages in the Gospels make you go “Huh?”