From the moment a pregnant woman’s baby kicks she wonders what baby will look like and who baby will become. She imagines outings, cuddles, the school she will send Junior to and how he or she will fit into the family and community.
The mum in our reading loved her daughter and was desperate for her well being. Her daughter hadn’t turned out as she expected. Despite her efforts she wasn’t able to help her.
Women in the Middle East didn’t go to school. Her mum would be worried about how her daughter would fit into her extended family and community. She would be embarrassed to take her to other people’s homes or let her play with girls of her age. Marriage, (all important for a girl) would be impossible.
The mother would have felt excluded from family and community events. Her husband had probably left her. She could have been blamed for her daughter’s condition. It would have been easier for a father to approach Jesus than this woman.
She would worry about leaving her daughter in the house when she went to get water or food and when going to see Jesus.
Instead of her being able to do the lovely things mothers do with daughters, this girl was controlling every part of her mother’s life. The mother must have cringed at village gossip and even though she didn’t share her daughter’s ailment, would have shared her shame
She had probably listened to the advice of mothers whose children were well behaved and tried their remedies. She may have been prayed for by exorcists and priests of different gods who lived in the vicinity. As a Syro Phoenician, Canaanite Gentile she had probably pleaded with many gods to heal her daughter.
We do not know what symptoms the girl presented with but we are told she had an unclean spirit. Since this passage comes after our reading last week where Jesus said it wasn’t what went into our stomachs that defiled us, but words and actions which came out, we can guess that she spoke and acted in a way which labelled her unclean and stigmatised her family.
She may have been sexually abused. She could have seen and heard things no young girl should hear within the close living quarters of the Middle Eastern home. She may have suffered from Tourettes and constantly blurted out embarrassing things which she could not control. She may have had autism, brain damage or some other condition which meant she was wired differently to other children. She may have been controlled by fear or some other psychiatric illness.
Many of us don’t have the babies we hoped for. Desperate mums care full time for children with awful disabilities. Others mourn because their much loved children have deliberately behaved badly, got themselves into a mess and are out of control. Parents whose children behave violently or swear, shout and are defiant long for a better relationship with their children.
Parents in these positions often feel isolated. They need us to walk alongside them even though getting involved is time consuming and we haven’t got easy answers.
Those of us with children or grandchildren with disabilities pray for a miracle. Isaac are oldest grandson is severely autistic. When walking with him in late evening two weeks ago a gentleman came out of his home because he thought he heard an animal in pain. We know a little of what it means to avoid public places.
Jesus doesn’t always answer in the way we would like him to. We find the response of Jesus to this desperate woman offensive. We sympathise with her and miss how rude she was.
Jesus had travelled a long way to escape the crowds and hostile religious authorities, travelling by land and ship. He was in a region which today is part of Lebanon, at least 40 miles North East of Capernaum where the majority of his ministry took place. He didn’t want anyone to know where he was, presumably so he could have a rest and spend time in prayer.
Jesus was so well known it was difficult to travel anywhere without being recognised and followed. The mother, having discovered where he was, didn’t respect his privacy, or acknowledge that he needed a rest. She infringed upon his space and affronted his dignity.
She shouldn’t have had anything to do with Jesus because she was an unaccompanied woman and men and women in the Middle East weren’t allowed to mix.
Like the woman who was haemorrhaging and the woman who washed Jesus feet with her hair she was breaking the rules and conventions of society and like those women, Jesus was going to commend her for it.
She was a Gentile and Jesus was a Jew. Jews looked down upon Gentiles because they were not considered God’s chosen people. This woman was an outsider of the wrong race, wrong gender and wrong religion.
Against all the conventions and restrictions of her society, she came to Jesus, bowed down at his feet in total submission and became vulnerable. Bowing down was the way of homage and worship to a King. It is also the position of supplication and prayer. She begged Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Since the daughter wasn’t present, maybe she expected Jesus to come with her. Perhaps she didn’t want to disrupt Jesus further by bringing a girl who was unpredictable and unstable.
Instead of compassion, she received a rebuff, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”
Greeks used the term dogs to describe shameful women, much as we use the sexist insult bitch. Jews also used the term as an insult. Three times in the Bible it says, do not take what is holy and give it to the dogs.
Jesus was saying in metaphorical language that healing and salvation was for the Jews. In comparing her to a dog, he wasn’t even giving her the dignity of being human. Because she wasn’t Jewish she wasn’t entitled to either his time or ministry.
Some think that what Jesus was saying was not as harsh as it first sounds. He wasn’t describing the wild dogs of the street but the little pet lap dogs of the house. He took the sting out of the word dogs.
And Jesus didn’t shut the door to this mother receiving her child’s healing. He said, “Let the children be fed first.” In other words, wait your turn. There is room at the table but not yet. Considering Jesus was tired and on holiday, this seems reasonable.
Like mothers who have to fight authorities for the needs of their children throughout the world, the mother answered back and pleaded her case. “Sir or Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table.”
In those days people did not eat with a knife and fork but with their hands wiping their soiled hands on chunks of bread which they threw to the household dogs.
She didn't demand to be treated as one of the children. She was saying, “I'm not asking for a seat at the table. My daughter is suffering. All I need from you is a crumb or two. I know that will do the job. But I'm going to need it right now.”
Jesus loved her response. She is the only person in Mark’s gospel who calls him Lord. In contrast to his friends and family in Nazareth, where he couldn’t do many miracles because of their lack of faith, she would not accept no as an answer. Her faith was real and Jesus answered her prayer
“For saying that, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
She completely trusted Jesus even though her daughter was not with her and she had not seen the miracle.
She exemplified faith. She clung on persistently against great odds. She made Jesus, a Jew, her Lord, trusting he would heal her daughter, even though she wasn’t a Jew.
She believed he was more powerful than sickness, evil and demons, and she had a place at the table. There was bread enough for her daughter to be saved and healed. She prayed, persisted and worshipped.
Jesus has broken down the boundaries that divide races and genders. All are welcome at Christ’s table who come for salvation and healing.