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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (NRSV)
Jesus seeks anonymity. Tyre, he supposes, is far enough. A roof and solitude – not too much to expect. So human he simply seeks space.
Yet, Jesus’ teaching and fame crossed borders. Even here his presence is ‘immediately’ reported. Jesus finds before him not an empty home but a bowed head and a plea.
Our writer describes the person who disturbed Jesus with these words: ‘Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophonecian origin.’ Any encounter will have to bridge gender and race.
They say true character emerges under pressure. There is plenty of character here – and pressure. A tormented mother; a sick daughter; an unimaginable opportunity. If she is lucky she has one shot.
If not she has none.
So as she tells her story she begs. Freedom for her daughter outweighs any thought of dignity. She has thrown herself at the mercy of one of whom she has only heard stories. They need to be true.
Jesus’ response seems rude and abrupt. He sounds exhausted, irritable, snappy: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Unsurprisingly, commentators have debated the term ‘dogs’. In its original language the term hints at a ‘small’ dog or a pet. It does not lessen the insult: a Jew naming a weeping Gentile and her suffering daughter ‘pets’? An emphasis on the moral gap between feeding children and their animals? No wonder commentators struggle.
To her eternal credit our unnamed mother responds to Jesus’ words as though they are parable. She absorbs the insult and respectfully replies to his riddle: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It emphasises the littleness of her request: Just a crumb?
Throughout the gospel there are not many – including those closest to him – who answer so well. In a single sentence she both trusts and challenges. She is matching Jesus in the parable game.
I guess that is why I suspect her answer surprises Jesus (an interesting theological thought!). It is unexpected, courageous, sharp. It follows Jesus’ logic but continues to push for intervention.
It leaves me wondering if this is just what Jesus wants.
Eventually Jesus gets his peace – but not until he gives the promise of a healed child. For this faith-filled woman it is enough.