“First let the children eat all they want,” Jesus told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Mark 7:27-28
We stopped in at Modeste and Annonciata’s apartment almost twice a week in those first few months after their arrival in the US. I don’t think they really knew why we were there, nor did we. But they must have had a hunch. On one occasion we were sitting in their living room, playing with their kids and through a muddied mix of broken English and French we put together that they were giving us permission to use photographs we’d taken of their family and the stories they’d shared with us so we could share with others. They tried to explain that in Africa they’d had other friends from Belgium and Italy who were in some ministerial capacity who had also used their stories to leverage money and other resources to help refugees like them. This wasn’t their first rodeo. They knew the rules and their role in it. It was a kind of social contract: they provide the face, we get the funding. I remember walking away from there being disturbed by what they’d said. My wife, Emily and I certainly didn’t intend for our relationship with them to be so decidedly one-directional, but maybe we couldn’t escape that dynamic and neither could they. Or maybe we were lying to ourselves and they called us out on it.
I’ve been fascinated by the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7— impressed not only by the humility of the woman, but also that of Jesus. The roles seemed to be clear. Jesus knew his mission—to bring the lost children of Israel back into proper relationship with Yahweh. After some particularly charged and frustrating encounters with said lost children, Jesus took a brief sabbatical and booked an AirBnB in a sleepy, fishing village outside of Cabo. Jesus shows surprising restraint, creating what we might call “healthy boundaries” taking an escape from the daily grind of ministry.
But even there–slunk down in a hammock, half-asleep in the shade of a palapa–he couldn’t avoid someone needing something from him. A woman’s daughter had a demon and begged Jesus to drive it out of her. If ever Jesus had an opportunity to tap out and say, “I’d really love to help, but I need a break and quite honestly, you don’t fit my clientele profile” this was it. The woman was three times the outsider —a Greek, Syrophoenician woman. According to popular public opinion, her nationality, her religion, and her gender meant she wasn’t worth Jesus time. She was a loser.
When the woman made her plea, Jesus repeated the popular insult that he’d heard said about her kind time and time again—it’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. The children of Israel had enough problems of their own. Removing the demon for someone outside those boundaries would be a classic case of mission creep.
One of the reasons that Jesus is so likable in his interactions is that he always seems to come up with the most enviably, clever lines to best his challengers. “The law says we should stone this woman. What do you say?”
“Me? I say let any of you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Awwww snap!
“Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar?”
“Show me a coin. Who’s image is this? Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s”. Burn!
Like a rap battle master, Jesus always seemed to best his questioners. But when Jesus laid out the popular insult like a fat beat, the woman picked it up and in brilliant improvisation transformed the insult into insight. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The woman could have walked away at the insult, holding onto her pride even at the expense of her daughter. I probably would have. But instead she appealed to grace and mercy. She insisted that even if she was treated like a dog, her life and that of her daughter mattered. It was a 1st-century mic drop moment. This time, it was Jesus who was bested. The woman prompted Jesus to remember his mission revealing the distorted logic of Israel in an incisive turn of phrase. Jesus responded by granting her wish.
The roles seemed so obvious— Healer and the one begging for healing. The boundaries that Jesus made make sense because human needs seem so overwhelming. The logic of taking care of one’s own feels right because it is so primal. Even our fearful, mistrustful narratives about immigrants, refugees, and anyone “other” seem to be grounded in some nugget of truth. But Jesus was willing to submit all of this to a Greek, Syrophoenician woman and allow her reality to reshape his.
A few months ago, Modeste and Annonciata and the kids knocked on our door and we sat around the table eating fried rice and talking to their oldest daughter about life away from home at college next year. It was an amazing time sitting around as true equals, so proud of how far they’d come in 9 years. We bantered like we always do—Modeste refused a glass of water because it wasn’t bottled, we complained about employment law differences in Missouri and Kansas and we do it because that’s how we’ve been doing it for as long as we’ve known each other and maybe after that much time we’ve figured out that those old roles don’t fit anymore. Yes, we helped them get cars, got them daycare, worked through complaints with social workers, and celebrated First Communions with them. But our relationship has never been unidirectional. Their reality has radically reshaped ours begging us to reconsider popular, derogatory narratives of refugees, of Catholics, of people who benefit from government assistance. Before, it made so much sense to take care of people who were like us until we encountered the humanity of people like Modeste and Annonciata. Somehow the boundaries just didn’t make any sense anymore because it was no longer tenable to leave anyone out.
I’d like to believe that I’ve already learned these lessons—that I’m past them already. So many of our cultural narratives are just like those of Israel— create boundaries, take care of our own, insult others not like me. I don’t think my temptation is to act in such ways as much as to believe I’m above it. God continues to bring people and situations into my life to reveal to me that I still play insiders and outsiders. Yet if Jesus submitted himself to a woman who was a religious and national outsider and allowed her experience of the world to reshape his reality, remembering his mission to bring redemption to everyone, who am I to believe I’ll ever be beyond it?
Want to learn more about joining others in Christian Community Development? Come to Dordt College next week Thursday, October 27-Saturday, October 30 for the CONNECT: Christian Community Development Iowa Regional Conference. Hear plenary sessions by John Perkins, Mark Prosser, Kurt Rietema, and Joel Van Dyke or attend workshops on immigration, cross-cultural collaboration, missional hospitality and more. Learn more and register here.