The dog under the table

Week of Sunday September 6 2009
Gospel: Mark 7:24-37

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.' 28But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.' 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go-the demon has left your daughter.' 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha', that is, ‘Be opened.' 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.'

I love Mark. The man was a genius. I especially love this reading in Mark. Jesus goes off to Gentile territory for a break, and acts like an Ugly Australian toward the locals; except that he is changed.

Calling Gentiles "dogs" was a form of Jewish abuse. We call it racism. A friend of Israeli descent occasionally calls me "goy" or "gentile", trying to get a bite from the minister! Even in (mostly) jest, the power attached to such name calling is obvious. It takes little imagination to feel the force present when Jews had the majority, and when the word "dog" was used.

I've read commentaries over the years which suggest that Jesus was being playful; the word for dog is said to be diminutive; i.e. "puppy." Others suggest Jesus was testing just the woman's faith. Or, perhaps he was just using a figure of speech, and we read racism into it. The need to explain away the insult, is the proof of the insult.

There are levels of racism. They grade into each other.

Some people are hard core racist. No matter what is said or done, no matter what charity is afforded them by a black man, all blacks are, and always will be, inferior. This kind of hard core racism is a bigotry and prejudice akin to any other hard core prejudice; try telling a group from genteel eastern suburbs Adelaide, that you live in Elizabeth. Some in the group will "write you down" forever. Such hard core devaluing of people, based on race, geography, clothing or gender etc, is a sin.

There is also an "I'm not racist, but..." kind of racism. Here sit people of goodwill, who are perhaps lacking in self-awareness. They are aware of the evil inherent in racist attitudes, and have abandoned them. But are not quite ready to abandon certain pre-judgments about another group. A benevolent paternalism is often present in churches. In other cases, particular failings are identified with a racial group, as though the perceived correlation between the two was actually caused by, or inherent in, that group. Some of us in Adelaide, ascribe violence to African culture itself, instead of the trauma African refugees have experienced. In making this judgment we seem completely unaware of the fragility of our own civility, such as it is, and conveniently ignore the hugely prevalent white violence.

There is also an unconscious racism of ignorance and circumstance. Brought up by my parents to respect all people, I had little trouble relating to Asian students, when I came to the city to attend university. My sisters and I grew up as Australia was forging new social and economic ties with Asian countries. It was a controversial time; "White Australia" was still in the air. My father, a World War Two veteran, had taken trouble to tell us of his experience of Japanese soldiers. He made clear distinctions between ordinary Japanese, and those who subscribed to the expansionist ideologies of the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," or who actively supported the evil of the prison camps.

To my great surprise, however, I found myself hugely suspicious of Greek and Italian students! The neighbouring regional city of my childhood, had many immigrant families from the Mediterranean, including excellent market gardeners. Although we only ever went there to shop, I had somehow, completely unawares, imbibed the local prejudices. I had no idea of this. I would have decried such attitudes. Then I actually met Greek and Italian people, and found I had a lot of unlearning to do, before I could relate freely.

This racism of ignorance and circumstance is probably a hangover of earlier, and very healthy, caution of those from "outside the tribe." On the lonely outback roads of Australia, when we came upon cars apparently broken down, we would approach very carefully, ready for instant flight, the doors locked, scanning the surroundings for evidence of ambush. It is hardly surprising that such "guilty until proven innocent" caution is deep within us. It can be the difference between life and death.

Mark says a lot to the issue of racism and "difference." In Chapter 6, we seen the Feeding of the Five Thousand, used by Mark to tell us Jesus has come for all the Jewish people of God. In Chapter 8, the same story is reshaped, to tell us Jesus has come for all the Gentile people of God. Jesus is for everyone. 

We can read Chapter 7 as the preparation for Chapter 8. Jewish people are being told, essentially, "Here is your Messiah. Now you will need to prepare yourself to find he is other people's Messiah, too." The lesson is then to be applied to all interpersonal and race relationships.

The chapter begins, in last week's reading, with a complete repudiation of the food and purity laws. Bill Loader summarized the radical nature of this in his commentary last week.

Mark is being much more radical here than meets the eye. People would have found the idea that we dispense with parts of scripture highly controversial. Mark makes Jesus sound so ‘modern' and ‘liberal' in his approach'. Fancy ridiculing divine commandment! Clearly Mark did not think Jesus was anything like a fundamentalist. These were not divine commandments. Mark portrays Jesus differentiating critically within scripture and making assessments based on core concerns.

Neither Matthew nor Luke was particularly happy with what Mark wrote. Matthew revises it thoroughly to reduce it to just a dispute about Jewish scruples and not about scripture. Luke leaves it out altogether. It was not that they were being capricious. For they know of other teachings of Jesus which indicates that Jesus steadfastly rejected the suggestion that his teaching went against biblical law. Not a jot or stroke is to be called into question (Matt 5:17-18; Luke 16:17).

This week's reading continues the "softening up" process for Chapter 8. Jesus leaves Jewish territory to go to Tyre. He goes against social expectations three times. He heals a Gentile. He heals a female. He heals a child. Not only this; the woman was Syrophoenician. This has overtones of "Canaanite." An equivalent story might be told by someone from the Southern USA: "Jesus went to Boston. A Boston woman, a Yankee, came to him." Old enmities are being recalled to emphasise the nature of the coming clash. For background see John Petty.

Jesus responds with a probably stock Jewish reply. It was the inherited racism of his day and culture. He calls the woman a "dog" and says God's blessing is not for her. We cannot know if he was even aware he held such an attitude. Had he ever spoken with a Gentile woman?

The woman calls him to account. She challenges his whole attitude. "But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.'" (28) This is an extraordinarily powerful response.

The woman does not call him to account by quoting Law, or Logic. She does not, as we might, call him a racist. She takes his little story; ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.' and uses it against him. She embellishes the story. She teases out his own humanity when she talks about the dogs under the table, and the crumbs and the children. He is exposed to a contradiction between his own compassionate self, and the attitude of his story.

There is an incidental lesson here. Story, and the meeting of people, is perhaps the strongest antidote to our inherent racisms. Story and people, are far more powerful than logic and ethics at this point. They operate at something of the same visceral level as our race based fears and prejudices.

Faced with her reply, Jesus immediately repents. I use that word purposely. He turns, changes, immediately taking on board the implication of what she has said. And heals the child.

For those who worry about Jesus tempted as we are but without sin (Hebrews 4:15), it is in this action that Jesus' sinlessness shines. Learning something of himself, something new, he immediately puts it into action. He is no hard core racist. He is not reluctant to abandon his preconceived notions. Called to account by God, he responds immediately. Will we respond this well?

Reading John Petty's commentary I was alerted to something else.

Note also that Jesus doesn't say anything about the woman's faith being the trigger for the exorcism.

This was a common comment of Jesus when he healed people.

Rather, it is her argument that he applauds--"because of this word, go" (dia touton ton logon upage). Thus, it may fairly be said that the only time in scripture that Jesus loses an argument, he loses it to a foreign woman identified with three enemies of his people. This is a stunning development.

I agree with John here. Mark is underlining the authority of the woman's argument. He who wins arguments, who "does all things well," (37) praises the reasoning of a woman. How could one emphasise the message more strongly?

The story which follows is the final act of Chapter 7. We are the person who is deaf. We have been taken aside by Jesus. ‘Ephphatha', that is, ‘Be opened.' (34) We are to hear what has just been said to us. When we see the feeding in Chapter 8, we are to hear, as in understand, and "speak plainly." Now we are ready to hear what will be said in Chapter 8. Jesus is for everyone.

We should note that Jesus comes back to his own people. He returned from Tyre. It is his own people who are to be healed to hear. Petty (op cit) notes how Jesus "travels widely" in Gentile territory. "Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis." This was a circuitous route. Gentiles are no longer people to be avoided.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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