Pious readers encountering this question may be shocked or offended. (Perhaps the impious as well!) And to tell you the truth, I had a hard time framing it this way myself, as it seems to border on being disrespectful, even unseemly. Yet that's the question that kept coming to mind as I read the passage many preachers will be dealing with this coming Sunday. It comes from the seventh chapter of Mark's Gospel and also borders on disrespectful, even unseemly.
Let me set the scene. Jesus, as Mark records, wants to get away, and so he goes to visit a house in Tyre, a seaside community quite a hike from his usual haunts in Galilee. Mark tells us that he doesn't want anyone to know he's there, but a woman finds him anyway, bows down at his feet, and begs him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. And this is the exchange that follows:
He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go -- the demon has left your daughter" (Mark 7:27-29).
Do you see what I mean? Why on earth would Jesus, the guy who has spent pretty much the rest of Mark Gospel healing anyone with so much as athlete's foot, respond to this earnest woman's plea with not just an insult, but an ethnic slur? Two possibilities suggest themselves, though neither is entirely satisfactory.
On the one hand, maybe Jesus has just had a really bad day. After all, it seems like no matter how far he goes, he can't get a break. I get that. Scarlett Johannson can't go shopping for veggies in Paris without the paparazzi following her and Jesus can't avoid nagging supplicants even in Tyre. That's the price of stardom. But it neither explains or excuses Jesus' response. This is Jesus we're talking about after all, not Alec Baldwin.
The second possibility represents the more "traditional" way of explaining this otherwise embarrassing passage and requires two interpretive moves. First, Jesus doesn't call her a dog, but rather a puppy. He's being affectionate, not insolent. You know, like "sorry little puppy, but it's just not your time yet." Second, Jesus isn't insulting her, he's testing her, resisting her request in order to stretch her faith.
Taken together, this interpretive move -- similar to some of the gymnastic performances we recently saw at the London Olympics -- doesn't persuade me. After all, not only is translating the word "puppy" a tad dubious -- it is as likely to refer to a small house dog as it is to denote affection -- I still don't see how it solves the problem. I mean, whether "puppy" or "dog," it's still a pretty obnoxious thing to call a desperate mom who's come seeking your help. (And let's be frank, you don't think often hear a man call a woman "a female dog" in a kind way.) As for the possibility that this nasty exchange is really a test, if it is it would be the singular example of this kind of faith-quiz in Mark. And besides, why should this desperate woman, who's already demonstrated her great faith by coming to Jesus alone, bowing at his feat and beseeching him for healing (demonstrating her belief that Jesus can, in fact, heal her daughter), be tested at all, let alone in such a demeaning way?
As much as I don't buy the traditional interpretation, however, I do understand why it's appealing: it preserves the picture of Jesus many believers hold in their hearts -- perfect in compassion, foreknowledge, courage and love. And if this were John's Gospel, where Jesus comes off something like the newest member of the Avengers, I'd be inclined to buy it. But this is Mark, the one who shows us Jesus so vulnerable in Gethsemane and so desperate on the cross.
So maybe, just maybe, Jesus responds as he does not because he's tired, or conducting an exercise in growing your faith, or because he had a really bad day. Maybe he just hasn't realized yet how expansive is God's kingdom and how all-inclusive is God's grace. Maybe it's only now -- confronted by the boldness of this foreign woman -- that it's dawning on Jesus that there is no wrong time to ask God's help and no group of persons excluded from beseeching God's mercy.
If so, then I think we should give thanks for this desperate mother and her fierce parental love, as she simultaneously stretches Jesus' conception of what his mission is about as well as offers us a dramatic picture of God's tenacious commitment to love all of God's children, no matter how unseemly such love may seem.
So is Jesus being a jerk here? I don't think so. Rather, I think that he's being human, like us, and in and through his encounter with this woman he grows into a deeper, richer vision of the measure of God's kingdom and love, a vision he is ultimately willing to die for. If so, then perhaps we -- the pious, impious and indifferent alike -- can learn from Jesus both to be prepared to be surprised by God's unrelenting grace and to learn from those who at first glance seem so different yet have the capacity to introduce us to a larger vision of both heaven and earth.