All parents have learned that, although we love our children equally, we don’t treat them the same in every circumstance. Because each child is unique, attentive parents learn how to tailor their responses, based on the special character and personality of the child. This is a reflection of the way God works with every human being created in God’s own image. We are given different gifts, callings and life journeys, all of which may give rise to doubts & questions. (See Peter’s consternation in John 21:20-22: “What about him?”) Upon what basis does God determine how grace and love will be braided into our lives? Ultimately, these are mysteries that must be entrusted to God’s wisdom.
As we watch the Lord Jesus make his way among the crowds, we quickly learn that there is no set pattern for his engagement with lost & broken people—no rituals, mantras or formulae that must be followed in every case. Rather, what we witness is the creative love of Jesus issuing forth in novel and surprising responses to individual suffering. In every encounter, the person in front of Jesus knew he or she had been seen, known, loved and treated with breathtaking originality.
The two instances of healing in this lectionary passage are examples of the Lord’s sensitivity to individual contexts and needs. In verses 24-30, we have the encounter with the Greek woman in Syrian Phoenicia, who is desperately seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. In other settings, we have seen Jesus respond with special compassion to foreigners. But, in this story, there’s no glossing over the Lord’s reluctance to engage with the pleading woman. (Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus “did not answer her at all.” Matt. 15:23) On the surface, the impression we receive is that Jesus, desiring privacy in this place far from Palestine, just doesn’t want to be bothered by this rude Canaanite woman. The disciples urged Jesus: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
If we’re surprised by Jesus’ apparent indifference to the woman bowing at his feet, our surprise turns to shock when he finally addresses the woman with these words: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The statement expresses chauvinism, racism and religious arrogance—evils to which we know Jesus is adamantly opposed. He is calling the people outside God’s covenants with Israel “dogs.” Why does he say such a thing?
I’ve read the commentaries and exegeses of this passage. I have to say the explanations are not entirely satisfying. Yes, in the end, the “little daughter” is delivered from her torment. But that doesn’t relieve the unease created by Jesus’ initial treatment of the mother. If he wants to make a point about his primary calling to the lost sheep of Israel, there are less offensive ways to do so. This story stands in sharp contrast to the consistency of Jesus’ compassion throughout the Gospel accounts, or so it seems.
This is one of those biblical stories where we wish we had more information, more description, more context. Is Jesus deliberately employing the “children & dogs” language as a way of exposing the lies of hatred and bigotry? Is Mark using the woman’s brilliant response, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” to reinforce the message about the ceremonial law in 7:1-23? Do Gentile readers in Mark’s original audience receive this story as wonderful news that they, like the Syro-Phoenician woman, are included in the redemptive grace of God?
If what I wrote at the beginning of this essay is true, we can be confident that our anxieties about the story are not shared by the woman herself. When she returned home to find her daughter free and whole, she felt included—not excluded, honored—not insulted, and loved—not hated.
The journey from Tyre, through Sidon, around the Sea of Galilee, to the Decapolis, would have taken several days on foot. Mark doesn’t relate any events that occurred during the trip. Instead, he describes another healing miracle that highlights the work of Jesus among Gentiles. The man is deaf and has a speech impediment, no doubt stemming from his inability to hear. The crowd brings him to Jesus and begs him to lay his hand on him. In Tyre, he had resisted the pleas of a begging mother; in the Decapolis, he responds without hesitation.
This is a healing story recorded only by Mark. And the method of laying his hands on the man is, so far as we know, a one-of-a-kind innovation, based on the particular circumstances that confronted Jesus in the moment. We know the Lord can heal at a distance, with just a word or a thought (as he did in Tyre). But there are times when divine power is combined with human touch to effect transformation on multiple levels. On this occasion, Jesus leads the man away from the crowd. The people had asked him to lay his hand on the man, but Jesus goes so far as to “put his fingers into” the man’s ears. It is intimate and invasive in the most loving way.
The touch of the fingers is followed by the application of Jesus’ own saliva to the tongue of the man. Is this necessary for healing? No. But deep personal aspects of the man’s life elicited this unusual healing action from Jesus. (In chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus again uses his own spittle in the healing of a man’s blindness.) I’ve yet to hear a worship song that praises the Lord for the healing power of his saliva! But the crowd was full of praise that day when the deaf man heard the voice of Jesus commanding his ears to “Be opened!” “They were astounded beyond measure,” Mark tells us.
Two miracles of healing—both among Gentiles, both with unusual and mysterious features that demonstrate the Lord’s sovereignty, creativity and responsiveness to the details of every unique human situation.