I love this story.
Jesus is so clever and so much always the teacher. In one story after another in Mark, Jesus is surprising his observers - who are primarily his disciples. He is showing them how the Kingdom of God is upon them and he is showing them how the Kingdom is breaking open and revealing something very unsuspected and radical. They will misunderstand over and over again, until the Roman Centurian, "seeing how he dies," recognizes who he is.
Jesus is on a journey outside of Jewish territory. I don't sense that Mark tells us this story to show us Jesus taking a vacation. I suspect Jesus "withdraws" to this area in order to have this special encounter with the non-Jewish world. And, when this woman comes to the house where he is staying Jesus has this dialogue with her. If the story had been about her making a request and Jesus' granting it, we would not notice its power. This story is a powerful teaching for Jesus' disciples, for the early Church, for the ages and for us today. Let's use our imaginations a bit to "re-tell" the story in a way that reveals it's deeper significance for us.
A woman of Cannanite decent, living in this region along the coast of the Mediterranean, near Tyre and Sidon, had heard about Jesus. Since she spoke Greek and Jesus spoke Aramaic, an interpreter translated her urgent plea to Jesus. "My daughter is in terrible trouble," she began. "Nobody seems to be able to help her. She is so disturbed and troubled. It's as though some evil spirits have control of her. Please, Sir. I hear that you have tremendous powers from God to heal people. Please heal my daughter."
Jesus is deeply moved by the woman. His heart is beating with joy as he imagines the liberation that is about to come in this woman's life and in her daughter. And, he even begins to let himself remember with some excitement all the passages in scripture that built up to this moment - this encounter with "the nations." But, he slowed himself down and took a breath. He also knew that this meeting must be remembered by his disciples as, years later, they would bring the Good News to this region and to the rest of the world.
Watching his disciples carefully, and drawing them in by the shocking fact that he even spoke with her at all, Jesus said, "Woman, I know you are in a difficult position, but I have to think of my mission which is first to the people of Israel. And, the people of Israel regard you as outsiders, enemies. We would traditionally say that the special food is for the children, not the dogs." He knew his disciples had been programmed to approve of this response. Like the scribes and teachers of the law, this kind of exclusive thinking made them feel "special," and reminded them that they were the "chosen people." It gave them identity. But, Jesus also could read this woman. He knew her passionate love for her daughter wasn't going to be stopped by some theological distinction.
"But, Sir," the woman responded, "like the dogs, I'll take even the scraps that fall from the children's table." While his heart was racing again, Jesus was hoping that his disciples' hearts were softening, that they would begin to see all people as God's people, all people as God's children, all people as part of the coming Kingdom of God. He hoped they were starting to love this woman as a person.
"Woman, the demon is gone from your daughter. Go and be with her at peace again." Jesus didn't have words to describe to anyone, in any way they could understand, his divine delight in this moment in history. Only he could imagine what it would mean for us.
Today, we can ask ourselves, "Whom do I exclude? Who is foreign, different, frightening, confusing to me? What people do I have a hard time seeing as "children of God"?
Lord, thank you for this beautiful picture of your loving encounter with this woman. And, thank you for inviting me today to reflect on your divine love for all your people. Soften my heart to love all your people as you love us. Heal the fears that are at the root of my prejudice, racism, classism, judgmentalism. May your Kingdom come. May your will be done. On earth as it surely must be in heaven. Amen.