Don't You Tell Me No
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Mark 7:24-37
I’m just going to be blunt: It’s horrible what Jesus said to the Syrophoenician woman. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Basically he’s saying, “I’m here for my people first. You’re not one of us, and you don’t deserve my healing. Get to the back of the line.”
Biblical scholars have performed many, many analytical gymnastics to redeem this little passage. To redeem Jesus, frankly.
“Calling someone a dog wasn’t really that bad of an insult in those days,” some people have said.
“Jesus had been traveling all over the land, healing and teaching, and now he’s trying to rest, so he was just really grumpy when this woman approached him,” is another argument.
Another, which comes from our more liberation oriented scholars, is: “The Gentiles in that area were wealthier and had been oppressing Jews, so Jesus didn’t really want to go out of his way to heal one of them.”
But I think we need to call a spade a spade. Jesus called a mother and her daughter—who the story goes out of its way to identify as someone ethnically different from him—dogs. Whether he was tired or grumpy or righteously indignant, he said something very hurtful. Because calling someone a dog, now or 2,000 years ago, is hurtful. He was ready to reject this woman and her daughter simply because they were Gentiles and not Jews.
We don’t like our savior acting like this, do we? It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel right, does it? How can Emmanuel, God embodied here on earth, do such a thing? There must be a good reason, right?
But I don’t think it’s helpful to make excuses for Jesus. I don’t think it’s helpful to make excuses for anyone who’s hurting someone else, even if they’re a savior, hero, leader, or generally beloved person. I don’t think it’s helpful to let anyone get away with hurting someone else.
We want to make Jesus this flawless being beyond the limitations of crude human-ness, but I actually think we do a disservice to him and to this gospel story when we do. I think we rob them of their real power—which is the power to change one’s mind, the power to choose a more loving way.
Because I think it’s pretty powerful to see this man who is God’s own child stumble over his limited perspective. It’s powerful to know that Jesus is also human. That he shares not only our flesh, but also our human limitation, our human insecurity. It’s kind of liberating, isn’t it? Even Jesus, our savior, our teacher, struggled with narrow-mindedness. Even Jesus made mistakes sometimes. We’re not alone. We’re human, just like Jesus.
But when he did struggle, when the Syrophoenician woman called him out, you know what Jesus didn’t do? He didn’t double down on his hurtful behavior. He didn’t argue why he was right and she was wrong. He didn’t use his authority to send her away. No, he allowed himself to be humbled, to open his mind, to change his mind. He let himself recognize a more excellent way, a more loving, way.
And listen, while Jesus is indisputably the hero of our greater story, he isn’t the hero of this particular story. Doing something hurtful then correcting your behavior might make you a better person, a more loving person, but it doesn’t make you a hero. It just gets you back to baseline decency, baseline faithfulness.
The hero of this story is the woman who did everything she possibly could to get that demon out of her daughter.
In that time, it was shameful for a woman to approach a man of authority. But she didn’t care.
And Jesus was an outsider in the eyes of her community, Jewish. She wasn’t supposed to be going to him for help. But she didn’t care. She came to him and bowed down at his feet.
(From Jan Richardson’s Stubborn Blessing)
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
This woman knew Jesus’s power. She knew he was the only one who could help. Maybe she looked desperate and pitiful to the disciples who saw her approach him. She didn’t care. Just like Jacob wrestling with God, she was there to demand her blessing.
Because this woman had no doubt that her family, her people, were inherently and utterly worthy of life and life abundant.
I am saying
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Unclench your hand,
Let the scraps fall
for the life
of my child,
the life of
The Syrophoenician woman was a prophet, calling Jesus to his higher, more faithful self, to God’s love somehow stifled in his veins. She wasn’t rude. She simply spoke Jesus’s words back to him. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” We all need healing, she says, no matter who we are. And it costs you nothing to give it.
She changes Jesus’s mind. And when he heals her daughter, he demonstrates that her relentlessness, her demanding her blessing, is what faith can look like.
I want you to remember that.
I want you to remember that when you hear parents demanding what they need for their children, what they are inherently worthy of: healthcare, food, a decent education, protection from being shot in their school or by police.
I want you to remember that when you hear the cries of people who are without electricity in Louisiana right now during the hottest, most humid time of the year.
I want you to remember that when you hear the pleas of refugees from Afghanistan, of immigrants from Central America, trying to escape brutality and violence.
I want you to remember that, despite our culture’s ideas about who is deserving, about who should get to sit at the table for the main course and who is supposed to wait under the table for crumbs, we are all inherently worthy of life and life abundant.
I want you to remember that when someone is in front of you, demanding that you see their humanity, their inherent worthiness.
And I want you to remember that when you stand in front of someone who refuses to see your humanity, your inherent worthiness.
I want you to remember the Syrophoenician woman, prophet to Jesus himself. The woman who said, Don’t you tell me no.