Jesus got up, left that place, and went to the region of Tyre. When he took up residence in a house, he didn’t want anyone to know, but it wasn’t possible for him to remain hidden. On the contrary: news of him at once reached a woman who had a young daughter with an unclean spirit. She came and threw herself down at his feet. She was Greek, a Syrophoenician by race; and she asked him to cast the demon out of her daughter. ‘Let the children eat what they want first,’ Jesus replied. ‘It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ ‘Well, Master,’ she said, ‘even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs that the children drop.’ ‘Well said!’ replied Jesus. ‘Off you go; the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, and found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
He went to the door of the restaurant and looked in. Then he came back to the car, shaking his head. ‘It’s not our sort of place,’ he said. The other occupants of the car understood. They drove on to another part of town, to try their luck elsewhere.
When you heard that story, what did you think? That the phrase ‘not our sort’ meant ‘they’re up-market, nose-in-the-air, money-to-burn sort of people – they would think they’re too good for the likes of us’? Or did you think he meant ‘they’re a scruffy, uncouth lot, too loud and rude and rough – they would think we’re too “posh” (and we would agree!)’?
Or did you think, perhaps, that it meant, ‘most of the people in there are black, and we of course are white’ – or perhaps the other way round?
One way or another, almost all human beings find that they’re comfortable with certain types of people, people (usually) pretty much like themselves: similar background, culture, habits and so on. This is natural and normal. The question is, what should we do when we’re at a boundary? How should we behave towards people who are significantly different from us?
Ancient Judaism presents a special case of this problem. The Jews were very conscious of their status as God’s chosen people. Years – centuries, actually – of being hated, persecuted, overrun, sneered at and generally ill-treated by the rest of the world had hardened their sense of God’s choice into a solid wall, an invisible steel fence around their national identity. Foreigners were off limits. You could, perhaps, do business with them, but you shouldn’t eat with them. Stricter Jews wouldn’t even go into non-Jewish houses.
And the strangest thing about this present story is that, to begin with at least, it looks as though Jesus is sharing this viewpoint (call it a ‘prejudice’ if you like, but prejudices are attitudes you haven’t thought about, and they certainly thought this one out very carefully). ‘It’s not right’, he said to the non-Jewish woman, ‘to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ Dogs! Yes: that’s a word Jews regularly used to refer to non-Jews. And dogs in the ancient world, we must remember, were not family pets. They were rough, often rabid, scavengers. Our equivalent might be ‘rats’. (The ‘dogs under the table’ in the woman’s reply are animals that have come in off the street.)So what was going on? Why on earth did Jesus seem to share this (to us) unpleasant viewpoint?
The answer, unusually for a gospel question, is provided by St Paul. In summing up the argument of his greatest letter, he declares that God’s plan in sending the Messiah was a plan conceived in two quite distinct stages. First, the Messiah had to come to God’s ancient people, Israel. They had to hear the message of the kingdom. But then, as the ancient prophets and Psalms had often declared, once God had fulfilled his promises to Israel in sending their king, then – and only then! – the non-Jewish nations would be brought in. This is how he puts it: ‘The Messiah became a servant of the circumcised people in order to demonstrate the truthfulness of God – that is, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, and to bring the nations to praise God for his mercy’ (Romans 15.8 – 9). First the Jews, then the Gentiles. Even Paul, who celebrated his own calling as ‘apostle to the Gentiles’, knew very well that he was part of Phase Two of the plan, not Phase One.
And Jesus was conscious, here and elsewhere, that his urgent task was to implement Phase One. So when he found himself in non-Jewish territory – perhaps he had gone there deliberately to let the fuss over purity (verses 1–23) quieten down a bit – he did his best to stay hidden. He hadn’t come to tell the nations that Israel’s God was their king. That would be someone else’s job. He had come to tell God’s people that God was establishing his long-awaited kingdom through his own work. In any case, until he had completed that work (which for him would not be done until he was ‘enthroned’ on the cross), the way would not be open for the nations to come in. That’s the point Paul makes in Galatians 3.10 –14 and Ephesians 2.11–21.
So it isn’t the case – as some people have rather absurdly suggested – that Jesus was here simply repeating standard Jewish prejudices and that this Gentile woman shook him out of them with her clever repartee. On the contrary. She affirms the special status of the Jewish people, and accepts that any blessing that will come to non-Jews will be a spill-over from what the one true God is doing for them. And, as with the centurion who showed great faith (Matthew 8.1–13), Jesus is happy to respond. God’s plan is going ahead in proper order: but, just as Jesus himself was the central bit of God’s future arriving in the present, so the healing of this child was a bit of God’s future – the time when the Gentiles would come in – arriving in the present.
That, of course, is what we long for and pray for day by day: that the joy, the justice, the love, the rescuing and restoring power of God’s ultimate future would come into our lives ahead of time, right now, today. We learn, in our weakness and continuing frailty, that we can’t have it all right away. We still await God’s full new creation. But, like the woman, we should pester God to give us, in the present, as much as is possible of that future right now. Lent is a good time to rediscover the habit of persistence in prayer, of not taking an apparent ‘no’ for a final answer.
Draw us deeper, gracious Lord, into your purposes and your plans, so that we may learn to pray energetically for the good things you have in store for us.