A Gentile dog nips at Jesus’ heels: Lectionary Reflections for Proper 18, Year B

This week’s readings are here.

This is one of my favorite stories in the gospel of Mark because it is so jarring. We are exposed to a side of Jesus we can’t imagine, an aspect of him that doesn’t at all conform to our notions of him as being compassionate and merciful. It’s hard to fit this story into our image of Jesus as the perfect Son of God.

Our discomfort with this text comes from two different details. First of all, Jesus refers to a woman who has come to him seeking help for her child a dog. Can you imagine it? She’s at wit’s end. Her daughter is possessed with a demon. She’s tried everything and now she’s heard about this healer who has come to town. It may be her only opportunity, so she breaks in on his seclusion in someone’s house. He’s annoyed by her. He wants some peace and quiet, some rest and relaxation. He probably wants to sit back, enjoy a good meal and a glass of wine, and this woman comes in asking for help.

He disses her, says basically that her problems are none of his business. His ministry is with Jews, not with Gentile scum (dogs). But he doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. She can give as good as she gets and she reminds him that dogs usually get table scraps.

That’s all it takes. Jesus reconsiders. Her daughter is healed and she goes back home.

For Mark, this is a pivotal story, a turning point. It is the first time Jesus ministers to and among Gentiles, and it seems that by besting him in wordplay, the Syro-Phoenician woman convinces him that Gentiles are worthy of his care and compassion. And that makes us uncomfortable too, because it implies she knows better than Jesus what he should be about.

So this story is uncomfortable, jarring, presenting a Jesus who is rude and has limited vision. But I think that it has much to teach us about our own assumptions and limited vision. How often are we blind to the need that stares in our face? How often do we ignore the opportunities for mission that confront us? How often have we been forced to respond to people’s needs, not because we perceived that need but because they got in our face? How often have Gentile dogs been nipping at our heels, forcing us to change direction?

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