Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Of dogs and leftovers

            There was a woman of Syrian Phoenicia who lived with her little daughter in the area of Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean seacoast (northwest of Galilee). She was a Gentile, which the Jewish population of Galilee considered to be of the canine persuasion, and of course, she was a woman, which was probably worse than a dirty dog. Both Jews and Gentiles were known to praise God that they hadn’t been created a woman or a beast. Today, there's a commonly-used insult for a female dog: a bitch.
            But what others thought of her didn’t daunt this woman. She was self-sufficient. Without a family to depend upon, she made a living for herself and her daughter. As a woman of Greek thinking, she was known for her intelligence, her quick answers, and she could be counted upon for lively, colorful conversation with her friends and business associates. She was even a kind mistress to family pets.
            But one thing she could not handle: her small daughter was mentally ill, or, as the people of that day believed, the girl was possessed by an evil spirit.The girl would fly into violent rages, scream obscenities, and hurt herself and others.
            News reports from travelers told the woman of a traveling Jewish teacher who had healed thousands of sick people across Judea and Galilee, that many people had touched just the fringe of his garment, and were healed. He had the power to cast out evil spirits. He had made a meal for five thousand men and their families, from just a few loaves of bread. People had considered taking him by force to make him their king in place of the evil Herod dynasty (who were Idumeans, not Jews). They followed Jesus incessantly, hoping for miracles of free food, or spectacular feats of magic.
            He told them several times not to work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life; that the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. It was said he’d been born in Beit Lehem, the House of Bread.  He declared that he was the Bread of Life. (John 6:25-59) But they weren’t interested in theology. They could think only of their stomachs.
            This teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, was on his way to Tyre to get some rest at the seaside. The Canaanite woman heard about it immediately, and set out to find him. She followed him “along the highway until she got on the disciples’ nerves and they begged Jesus to get rid of her. However, Jesus’ attitude was very different; he saw her as an individual and dealt with her in the way that she needed. He did not send her away but rather talked with her.” *
            She threw herself at his feet, and begged,
“Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.”
            Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
            He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
            The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
            He replied, “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  (Matthew 15:22-28; Mark 7:24-30 NIV)

            The woman was not offended. She knew something of the Jews’ thinking, and she knew that Jesus was a descendant of King David. She understood that Jews considered her a foreigner, an outcast. She had seen wild, mangy curs fighting over scraps thrown to them. Well, she didn’t consider herself that  kind of animal, and knew that Jesus didn't, either!
            So she agreed with Jesus, to stay in conversation with him. “Yes, Lord,” she persisted, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs  that fall from their masters’ table.” She was thinking of the kind of beloved pet to whom masters did not toss scraps, but rather fed them leftover tidbits from the table. Children will often very willingly sacrifice their green beans or beets to a hungry, accepting dog below!
            She recognized that Jesus was not talking about discarding his influence, his power, or attention on a “mere” Gentile woman. He was assuredly not calling her a bitch. He used the word for little dog, or lap dog. He was talking about his ministry. “I am the bread of life,” he had said, and his own people did not understand. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a man eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
            The woman had heard this story told, and she understood what bread Jesus was talking about in figurative terms.
            “She could understand that Jesus’ first responsibility was to Israel and that she therefore had no claim to him, but she wanted only a crumb and recognized that it was in his power to give it. Her reply showed intelligence and insight. Jesus rejoiced at her faith and granted her request.” *
            Then Jesus told here that she should go home, because the demon had left her daughter, who was now sleeping soundly and in health.
            The story of the Syro-phoenician woman of Tyre is “sandwiched” (so to speak) between the stories of the feeding of the five thousand, which represented Jesus’ ministry to the children of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the feeding of the four thousand, which represented his ministry to the Gentiles (the seven nations driven from Canaan by the conquering Israelites). Incredibly, in Mark 8:14, we can see that the disciples had forgotten to bring bread on their journey, even for themselves. After seeing thousands of people fed, after seeing Jesus walk on the water, and seeing and hearing his woman with her fast, clever reply about crumbs.
            Jesus has invited people, Jews and Gentiles, to become part of him—to partake of the bread of life, and be hungry no more.
            The woman went home satisfied and full, even with her crumbs. The teacher had spoken to her in what seemed to be esoteric terms, but she had interpreted his lesson correctly. And best of all, her beloved little daughter was free from illness. She could get on with her life, knowing that she would never be hungry again, having partaken, to the full, of the Bread of Life.

This article, by Christy K. Robinson, was published as "The Crumbs of Life" in ASM Bulletin, January 1990 


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