THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 22
Crumbs for dogs
In Mark Chapter 7 and verses 24 to 30 we read of an encounter between Jesus and a Greek woman – a Gentile. In that story she comes with a request but Jesus repulses her by saying ‘Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs’. This refers to the practice of dogs cleaning up the scraps that fall from the table or are thrown down on the floor for them.
Scholars have discussed this encounter of Jesus with a Gentile at length for it does present some problems. It was a perfectly correct attitude for him to take – very Jewish. In the eyes of an orthodox Jew the woman would be likened to a dog – a Gentile – someone totally outside true religion and to be shunned.
But people have a problem seeing Jesus adopting an orthodox Jewish viewpoint. Was it, perhaps, an ‘off day’ for him? Or was he simply reiterating the official Jewish line in the face of yet another demand on him? Indeed, some have tried to explain the whole thing away – saying that Jesus was testing her faith to see whether she would persist.
Apparently most experts in biblical matters believe that Jesus did actually repulse her initially, giving in to her request when he saw her persistence. And this is the view I share.
It seems to me accordingly that this story is very important, because it shows several things about Jesus.
Firstly, it shows – what, really, is obvious but we so easily forget it - that he was a Jew, steeped in Jewish thought and beliefs. A fully paid up and accepted Jew. None of his accusers ever wanted to suggest that his being an authentic Jew was in question. They accepted him as one of themselves. And so he was. Jewish in his outlook and ideas and religion.
Secondly, it shows quite clearly that Jesus changed his mind. Initially he decided that he should not get involved with this Greek woman. He had been talking to Jews. At the beginning of Chapter seven we read that the religious elite from Jerusalem had travelled to see and listen to him. He had spoken very roughly to them, calling them hypocrites. Next he would move south to the Sea of Galilee where he would be speaking to crowds – of Jews. But she made him pause with her request, and then made him help her because of her persistence.
When he really looked at her he saw faith. Faith in him. Faith that he really could heal – and heal from a distance. He also saw that she thought that he would perform that healing if she asked him to, even though she was not a Jew. She had expectancy. It is possible that this was a defining moment for him. As a Greek, she certainly knew exactly how out of the ordinary it would be for him, a Jew, to deign to speak with her, much less perform the desired healing. At this moment Christ reaches out in scope beyond the Jews and their little kingdom.
Thirdly, it shows that he used her faith to actually heal. Her daughter was healed – we are specifically told that her child was healed when she went back home. She must have returned to tell Jesus and the disciples of the healing, or they would not have known.
What conclusion do I draw from this incident in the life of Jesus?
I want to use it to suggest two things.
Firstly that Jesus was a Jew among Jews. He was not the Christianized western figure of our imaginations. We may find that difficult to stomach, but it is true. He would seem very alien to our modern way of speaking, thinking etc. That does not detract from him in any way. It simply states a fact that we have to take on board – our image of a Western gentle teacher is just not correct. We don’t know what Jesus looked like, nor his manner. We can deduce certain aspects and attitudes – for example ‘suffer the little children to come to me’ – but the fact is we just do not know how to picture him. Which of course leaves us all free to create our own picture to fill the void. Hence a black Jesus in Africa and an Indian Jesus on that sub-continent. Some in the early church pictured Jesus as Isaiah described him – misshapen, ugly, not of a beautiful countenance. We inevitably make up our own picture of Jesus but we must remember that it is just that – a picture.
The second thing I want to emphasize is even more important, I think. It is that Jesus was a normal man like you and me. He also happened to be divine, but that divinity did not detract or abate his humanity one jot. He was not God pretending to be a man. He was and remained a human being. He was a creature of his day and age. If men of those times thought that the earth was flat, then Jesus would have had the same thought. And it is that realization – that Jesus was truly a man enmeshed in his culture and religion – which we have to hold onto. His divinity did not damage or limit his humanity in any degree. It is essential to say this because only then do we recognize that we have to attempt (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to unravel what elements in his teaching were purely cultural and what was his essential teaching, relevant to us today.
Why do we have to fight so hard to disentangle the purely cultural from the core message?
The reason is that we all have our own ideas about what Jesus really said and meant. Once we become fixed on a particular interpretation we will probably stick with that for the rest of our lives. Theologians, of course, whose job it is to dig and delve, may well change their minds. But the ordinary man in the street, once he gets a picture fixed in his mind, finds it quite hard to change it. And that picture can distort our understanding of what Jesus really said and what he really wants of us.
So it is important that we at least attempt to understand both the Jewishness of Jesus himself and the Jewishness of the writer of the gospel, so that we may distinguish the essential core message.
That is the importance of this incident in Marks Gospel. It shows us clearly that Jesus was fully and completely a man – a man of his time and culture – a man who was also uniquely God, by the Holy Spirit, and as God was reconciling the world to himself. And yet still a man who at first refused and then suddenly saw and responded to a woman from a different and despised race, as someone needing his healing touch.
Crumbs for dogs – the same lesson could be applied to Christians today who, perhaps, fall all too easily into the same mind frame as religious people of two thousand years ago. We too become elitist and culture driven all too often. Every gay person knows exactly what I am talking about, for the current attitudes in the churches about homosexuality can be branded in exactly this way.
Instead of a loving acceptance of all who name Christ as their Lord, we have exclusion and superiority. We have barriers put up and walls built. Then the sniping starts over the tops of the wall – trying to knock the other man off his perch.
So much is this the case that church leaders across the world get agitated when they hear that a person who happens to hold a different view from them is about to be appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury! How very sad that is. What zeal these people have for their doctrinaire beliefs – but it has little or nothing to do with the message of that Jewish teacher two thousand years ago.
Well, that Archbishop has now been appointed. And, thank goodness, he has responded to their childish fears by a wisely worded letter. He has recognized that the majority of them are not yet ready to move forward in their understanding of either the nature of human sexuality or the proper use of the bible. And he has said that he has no ‘personal agendas’. Thank goodness that here we have a deeply Christian and highly intelligent man, who has real beliefs and is willing to voice them whenever asked, and perhaps sometimes when he is not asked! Over the past few decades we have perhaps suffered an excess of caution, of correctness, an almost unhealthy desire for unity of the Anglican Communion worldwide at whatever price? Marginalized groups – such as gay people – have felt very isolated in this period. Now at least there is someone who understands and has an open heart. Now perhaps not only the crumbs but also the bread will be given to the little dogs under the table! Probably later rather than sooner – but it is coming.