Allow me to tell you a story.

There is a woman, worried for her daughter. She has tried everything with no success, but today she has a new idea. A teacher and healer has slipped into town, his reputation preceding him. The odds that he’ll see her, or help her, aren’t great – but this is her daughter. She’ll give it a try.

Jesus has been busy healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and “discussing” with the Pharisees. He goes north for some rest, hoping he won’t be noticed while he’s there. But of course his incognito status doesn’t work for long. The desperate and courageous Greek woman comes, falls at his feet, and begs him to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon.

The conversation that ensues between these two is some of my favorite verses in the Bible. Let’s listen in:

“First let the children eat all they want,” he 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.”

Our modern ears are confused by this story. Isn’t everyone the same in God’s eyes? Could Jesus, the savior of the world, really be hung up by ethnicity? Is the Creator actually referring to this woman and her daughter as dogs? I’ve heard some teachers excuse Jesus’ response by suggesting he was teasing, or testing her understanding and faith, or laying out an object lesson on inclusivism for his disciples. But there is no evidence for this in the text itself. In fact, his reasoning seems entirely appropriate and expected to the woman.

Jesus was an ancient man, and like all ancient people would have a clear “in group/out group” distinction. In that world there was little sense of individual identity or value. People were defined by their community. Each person was under an imperative to care for those in their group, and failure to do so was the very heart of sin. As a man, Jesus had a true ethical obligation to work within these cultural ethics, to help his own first and foremost.

And Jesus was not only a man, he was also the Messiah sent from God. He had a real and urgent mission – to redeem Israel. It was only through redeeming Israel that the whole world would be saved. As God-made-man, Jesus had a true imperative to focus his attention on his own people, in order to achieve the long term plan of reconciling the entire world. He knew that only by keeping the main mission in focus could he ultimately help this woman…and all creation.*

With these things in mind, we can more easily imagine an ancient Jesus lovingly and compassionately using even these strange words to decline the woman’s desperate request.

The boundary this woman was up against was valid and culturally expected; the man declining her was respected and powerful. Yet she continued to advocate for herself and her daughter. Turning Jesus’ words on their heads, she used wit, humor, and an excellent turn of phrase to reverse his logic and open up a cultural loophole.

I love this about her. I love not only that she continued to advocate for her daughter, but her playful, intelligent banter.

 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

And I love how Jesus responds. He doesn’t put her in her place, or give her a warning for pushing the limits. I can imagine him chuckling at her courageous turn of phrase.

Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Jesus apparently loved her for her reply. “Well said!” is how N.T. Wright translates Jesus’ response.* He didn’t change his mind because he was really a modern, western individualist at heart, trying to teach a lesson – but because he loved her reply.

And I love this about him.

I resonate so personally and deeply with this woman. My children are healthy, and I have much privilege. Yet – as a woman, a writer, a student and teacher of the Bible – I too have found myself in conversations with Jesus when the path before me seemed blocked by cultural barriers. This story doesn’t shed any light on whether or not Jesus would approve of the barriers, or my choices to push or not push against them. But it helps me imagine what his facial expression might be as he observes me.

I tend to advocate for the things that seem right to me in the ways this woman did – not with physical strength or bold declarations so much as a witty turn of phrase or a cunning reversal of logic. And whether I’m right or wrong, I love the idea that Jesus is moved to a friendly smirk, or even a hearty laugh.

I’m grateful for a God who works within our cultural understandings and confines, but is larger than they are; who understands the need for rules and logic, but also the flexibility to transcend them at times.

And maybe he occasionally shakes his head with a smile and says “For such a reply…yes. I will do this for you.”

* See Mark 7 and N.T. Wright’s Mark For Everyone for more on this story.

Catherine McNiel
Catherine McNiel is a seeker who writes to open eyes to the creative and redemptive work of God in each moment. She is the author of “Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline” (NavPress 2017), and her writing has appeared in numerous books and articles. Catherine serves alongside her husband in a community-based ministry, while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Connect with Catherine at catherinemcniel.com or on Twitter @catherinemcniel
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