… a woman came to him whose little girl was possessed by an evil spirit. (Mark 7: 25 NLT)
I have a confession to make: I love the Syro-Phoenician woman! I love her tenacity as well as her trust in Jesus’ ability, and eventual willingness, to answer her prayer.
Here we have a mother in distress. Her daughter is very sick, a sickness so severe that the child appeared to be possessed by demonic forces.
She had heard about Jesus, and now she came and fell at his feet. -verse 25
Whether it was by her clothing or a possible accent, Jesus knew she was a Gentile. What follows is a curious “give-and-take” with this desperate woman. To her plea for a cure for her daughter, Jesus responds,
“First I should help my own family, the Jews. It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.” -verse 27
At first, this does not sound like the Jesus of stained-glass windows and Sunday hymns. It does not sound at all God-like. It sounds like a rather harsh put-down directed at a person in need (not too many of us would appreciate being called a “dog”). Some scholars believe that the translation “dogs” is more rightly rendered “little dogs,” a bit less harsh, but still no glowing affirmation.
What is happening here? Did Jesus see some people as good and upright, based on their nationality or religion while others were merely dogs? Not really. What we have here is the humanity of Jesus coming through, a humanity containing all the likes and preferences of our own. As a Jew, well aware of biblical prophesy, and his mission given to him by his Father, Jesus understood his job as being messiah and savior of the Jews first.
But need and pain know no religion or nationality. The woman in the story was quick to respond with a sharpness keenly honed by a loved one’s suffering,
She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even the dogs under the table are given crumbs from the children’s plates.” -verse 28
I can imagine Jesus looking at this poor soul at his feet, gazing into her pleading eyes, and upon hearing her response, a smile crossing his lips,
“Good answer”, he said. “And because you have answered so well, I have healed your daughter.” -verse 29
Human beings have preferences in many things: food, books, movies, etc. Some preferences are of little consequence, others bring harm, even death:
- one race prefers their own to any other, even to the point of violence,
- one religion belittles and torments another,
- one nation wages war against another,
- one political party smears the opposition party.
And, of course, one sexual orientation, because it is the majority, belittles its gay sisters and brothers, often (to their way of thinking) with God’s approval. Because of this, many of us find it very difficult to believe that God does care about us, that God is willing to listen to our prayers, that God even loves us. Like the Syro-Phoenician woman, as a minority, we often do not feel worthy of God’s time. But she did not let cultural pressure win. Deep down she must have felt that this Jesus she had heard about would be willing to look beyond her being non-Jewish, and would help her. She hoped Jesus would be moved, if not by her nationality, then by her humanity.
Being a Gentile was no sin. Neither is being gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender. And Jesus knows this, since he created us. Nothing keeps Jesus from loving us and reaching out to us in our need, nothing except ourselves. If we buy into negativity that is spoken about us, we will never have the courage of the Syro-Phoenician woman to break out in faith and approach Jesus, the Creator, Savior, Brother and Lover of us all, with trust.
This Gentile woman held on to her trust in Jesus and was rewarded. The same is true for us. Jesus has proven his love for us, beginning with our own creation, with the blessing of our sexuality, with his death and resurrection, the list goes on and on. He has proven himself more than worthy of our trust.
So when the misguided and mean-spirited try to crucify us on a cross of bigotry and ignorance, let us, instead, remember this humble sister of ours, and Jesus, whose only preference is to embrace us with his compassion and love.
Tom Yeshua is the pen name of Thomas E.L. Cloutier OFS, a transitional deacon who taught theology for 30 years at Nashua (N.H.) Catholic Regional Junior High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., and a master’s in divinity and theology from St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass.