There’s a story in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is approached by a woman who asks him to heal her daughter who is possessed by an “unclean spirit” (Mark 7:24). There’s a brief, but probably a little heated, exchange of words and Jesus tells the woman to go home where she will find her daughter asleep and the demon gone.
This story is often accepted as simply another “miracle” story. In fact, in the larger context of Mark’s gospel, it is part of a series of miracles performed by Jesus, one of a series that demonstrate his divine power: feeding the 5,000, healing people, walking on water. It would be easy to leave it at that.
But something else is happening here, too. At this point in the gospel narrative, Jesus has been busy. He’s been healing and teaching and travelling and he’s tired. He has gone somewhere to get away from the crowds that have been following him. Then this desperate woman comes to beg him for another healing, this woman who is not a Jew. She is Syrophoenician, or Canaanite, – gentiles looked down on by the Jews of Jesus’ day. Jesus says 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” (Mark 7:27).
What? Did Jesus just tell this woman that God’s blessing (food) is for the Jews (the children) first and not for her? Yes, he did. Did he just say she was a “dog?” Yes, he did.
Jesus said that? Yes, he did. At least, that’s how the story’s told.
But here’s the best part: the woman responds that even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. And Jesus, hearing her wisdom, replies “for saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
As unnerving as it may be to hear Jesus say something so discriminatory and mean – especially the Jesus who proclaims the Good News for ALL people and teaches that we should love our neighbour, no matter who they are, even our enemy – as unnerving as it may be to hear that, the point is what came after: Jesus learned.
In this very human moment, when Jesus is so weakly and vulnerably human, the woman teaches Jesus, reminding him that the grace of God is for all.
Trying to picture this scene in my mind, I imagine an exhausted Jesus, perhaps a little short-tempered, grumpy even, looking to rest. And this woman standing up to him for her child. I wonder if Jesus might even have said something like “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was saying that for, you are right. And the strength of your conviction has made your child whole again. Thank you.”
Jesus has spent so much time teaching others, here, perhaps, is a little miracle of teaching that reminds us of the humanity of Jesus. And it’s important for us to recognize this side of Jesus. In our quest to follow Jesus’ example and live – and love – as Jesus taught, we, too, will have those very weak and vulnerable moments when we fail, moments when we are less than we can be. These are moments we must learn from, moments that may hold a life-changing learning.