Have you ever experienced prejudice? I remember it happened once to me when I was about 25 years old. I went on a camping holiday. It was rough camping. There was no running water, so I didn't shower or shave.
After some days out in the bush I was looking dirty, and I smelled dirty. I stopped in a country town to buy food. I remember standing in the checkout queue at the supermarket. People were staring at me, with disgusted looks on their faces. I was not welcome in their supermarket. I felt their prejudice.
I know now that what I felt is nothing like the prejudice some people experience all of the time. It is affecting the Sudanese community in Melbourne. The last thing I want to do is make light of what they feel. The news has too many stories about how we look down on each other. At the moment too many people look down on asylum seekers and refugees.
Prejudice is in the world all of the time, with many victims and in many places. Today’s gospel reading is about prejudice, which literally means ‘pre-judging.’
Jesus had left his home region in Galilee and entered the region of Tyre and Sidon. Mark says he did not want to be recognised - maybe he wanted to test how widely his reputation had spread and how he was being received; or maybe he just wanted a break from all the attention he was receiving. While he was in this region a Greek woman from Syrian Phoenecia heard about him. She came to beg for healing for her child, for Jesus to drive a demon out of her.
Jesus refused to do the healing, in surprising and shocking language. He said it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. By children he meant the people of Israel - their bread were all the promises of God that he had given to his chosen people. To a Jew dogs were scavengers, not pets. Jesus was comparing the woman and her child to scavenger dogs.
The woman argued her case. She said that even the dogs under the table ate the children’s crumbs. Jesus gave way to her reply and her daughter was healed.
It comes as a surprise and a shock when we hear Jesus calling this woman’s sick little girl a dog. Jesus calling someone a dog! What is going on here?
I have learned that when looking at parts of the bible that are difficult, it is helpful to ask the question, 'What is the good news in this passage?'
There are at least 3 possibilities of good news:
1. Jesus was speaking from the culture and faith that he had inherited. Jews protected their identity as God’s people by having nothing to do with outsiders. It is possible that Jesus did not yet know everything his Father had sent him to do. As far as Jesus knew, the kingdom of God was only for Jews. The woman, by forcefully pleading for her daughter, convinced Jesus to change his mind and heal an outsider. In doing so she changed the course of salvation history.
Think what this means for us: through prayer we may change God's mind about the things we need. He even listens to and answers the prayers of those who barely know him, such as the woman from Syrian Phoenecia.
That possibility of good news, however, does not agree with our usual understanding about Jesus. As God’s Son, we want him to be perfect in every way. We expect him to know everything and do everything perfectly well. So how could the foreign woman teach Jesus about God’s intention for Gentiles? Shouldn’t we expect Jesus to know everything, especially God’s will that salvation is for all?
Yet I like the possibility that Jesus thought like a Jew. It means he was truly human like us, discovering and learning everything about God’s will for him.
One of the earliest Christian creeds says that Jesus had two natures, one human and the other divine - he was and is God and human in one person. Maybe we should say that Jesus was perfect in his divine nature, but in his human nature he was growing in his understanding of what it meant to be the messiah. The Syro-Phoenician woman made him see new possibilities. It is an encouragement to us to pray and know that God listens to our prayer.
2. The second possibility of good news in this gospel is that something else was happening here. It is possible that Jesus knew in his heart that Gentiles are included in God’s salvation as well as the Jews. But he was testing those who were around him. Mark doesn’t tell us who was with him when he took this trip into Tyre and Sidon. Maybe his disciples were with him. They were uneducated country people raised in Jewish culture. When this foreign woman came up to Jesus and asked for healing of her daughter, I can imagine the disciples thinking, ‘Yes, that’s right Jesus, you tell her, this woman is a dog.’ They were very likely thinking their inherited prejudices.
It can be just like that when a group of friends get together today. One person makes an unpleasant comment about someone, or about a group of people, who are different in some way. Then everyone has a go, each one trying to be more unpleasant than the last person. For example, someone says migrants are taking our jobs. That conversation quickly grows in a very negative way about all people who are not like us.
In the gospel story, the good news is that Jesus, the perfect Jew, breaks free from the limits of his culture. He has compassion. He heals the little girl. Imagine if you were a disciple thinking all those negative thoughts about this troublesome woman. Then Jesus showed you how completely wrong you were. Maybe the disciples wanted to build a kingdom that looked just like themselves. Many churches want to do that. But Jesus’ vision of the kingdom is totally and completely inclusive, of every race, gender and sexuality.
3. There is one more possible way to understand this gospel story as good news. Maybe Mark is testing us, and everyone who hears this gospel read to them. Maybe it is for us to learn from Jesus, to have his compassion on the person not like us today. Maybe it is meant to gently correct our temptation to hold prejudices of all kinds about our fellow humans. God loves us so much that he wants us to recognise our own racism, sexism, and other prejudice, and to think and act with the compassion of his Son.
So ultimately the gospel about the woman is a message of grace. Grace sometimes has to convict us first of our negative attitudes, so it can then lift us up and bring glory to God.
While at first it feels like a heavy hand on our conscience, it is also a life-giving hand. We experience this in the waters of baptism. In that water we first must die to sin, and only then are we raised to new life. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. It makes me think of this verse by St Paul:
'All the time we are being changed to look like the Lord, with more and more of His shining-greatness. This change is from the Lord who is the Spirit.' 2 Corinthians 3.18
The work of grace of the Holy Spirit is bringing our attitudes and our hearts to be like those of God the Father, through Jesus the Son. God’s love is inclusive. He reaches out to us; he longs for us to be inclusive in our love; so that we also reach out in love to God’s world.