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Old Dogs, New Tricks

Lesson: Mark 7:24-37

I’m guessing that what grabbed your attention in this passage in Mark is the same verse that startles me every time I read it. Jesus compares a woman to a dog. We expect better from Jesus, don’t we? It makes me want to say to Jesus, WWJD, “What would Jesus do here, Jesus?” Except what Jesus would do, apparently – what he does do – is so offensive.

What is going on here? Jesus is fresh from a confrontation with some Pharisees over the traditional purity laws – those are the laws that define what is considered clean and what is considered unclean. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being hypocrites who care more about their own traditions than the intention behind God’s commandments.[1]

After this, Jesus needs a break. He sets off for Tyre to get some alone time. Tyre is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of Galilee, in present-day Lebanon. It was a region inhabited by Gentiles – pagans, non-Jews – so Jesus has left the land and people who are “clean” to enter a land that is “unclean.” Jesus doesn’t find the solitude he seeks. Almost as soon as he arrives in Tyre, a Gentile woman kneels at his feet, begging him to heal her daughter. It should be no surprise to him that he’s encountering Gentiles. It’d be like going to New York City and then wondering why you have to put up with so many New Yorkers.

This woman, on the other hand, is in the land of her ancestors, where the Israelites and their Jewish descendants were the more recent arrivals. But they see her as foreign – sort of like Mexicans in Texas or California. The woman cries out that she needs help for her daughter. Jesus brushes her off, quoting an old proverb that says a mother must care for her children before paying attention to the household pets.[2] I wish I could tell you that in the original Greek or in the context of first century Middle Eastern culture Jesus is not insulting this woman. But I can’t, because then as now, comparing someone to a dog is rude. Ancient Israelites and Jews in the first century despised dogs. Dogs were unclean scavengers. One commentator reports that an orthodox rabbi told her he’d never even heard of an orthodox rabbi who owned a dog.[3] Today, even though we might love our pets, it’s still the case that no one wants to be compared to a dog. This was made glaringly apparent last month when a tweet from the Oval Office referred to a former white house aide, an African-American woman, as “that dog.”[4]

So, is Jesus suffering from burnout because of the conflict with the Pharisees? Is this a glimpse at a shockingly human Jesus? How we understand this story does turn on our understanding of the humanity of Jesus, but it has less to do with the fact that he may or may not have been in a bad mood than it has to do with his being a creature of his culture. As racist as it sounds, Jesus’ response to the woman reflects the common understanding that Jesus would bring his message to the Jews first, and later it would reach the Gentiles.[5] Like humans in our own culture, he looked at the woman and put labels on her: Gentile; pagan. Those labels came complete with a whole story that had nothing to do with the woman, because he knew nothing about her. It had everything to do with Jesus and the very human first century culture in which he was immersed. That story, the story Jesus and everyone else he knew were told and believed, was that his group, his people, were more deserving, more worthy of attention, benefits, privilege, healing, holiness. Her group, in contrast, was less than worthy in all those ways.

If the woman is offended by Jesus’ remarks, she doesn’t let it show. We can almost hear her say, “Call me whatever you want; I love my daughter so much I’ll be a dog.”[6] But her response also contains a challenge – a lesson: “We all eat the same food. Why shouldn’t we be at the same table?”

For centuries, commentators have tried to soften this story by saying Jesus doesn’t really have such an ugly prejudice; he’s just testing her. She passes the test, and so her daughter is healed. But this would make the woman the only person who has to pass the test of putting up with a racial slur before receiving Jesus’ mercy.[7] That just doesn’t work for me. I am convinced that this woman changed Jesus’ mind, that Jesus learned something.

The woman’s response is brilliant, not least because it cuts to the very heart of Jesus’ own boundary-breaking, taboo-busting, division-destroying ministry of table fellowship. After all, he’s the one who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. He’s the rabbi who breaks bread with sinners. His disciples are the ones who earn the Pharisees’ contempt for eating with unwashed hands. The table is where Jesus shows the world who God is.

And so the table is precisely where the woman calls him out. As if to say, “Lord, where’s my Good News? Where’s my place at the table? If you are who you say you are, how can you be content while anyone goes hungry near your table? The good news is here somewhere; I know it’s here. Look harder, Jesus. Push further. See better. Believe that there’s enough good news to go around. Expand the circle. Widen the table. Preach your Good News to me.”[8]

And Jesus hears her. He allows her – the ethnic and religious Other – to school him in his own gospel. To deconstruct his bias and entitlement. To teach him that Syrophoenician lives matter.[9] The Jesus who never loses a verbal contest with anyone else in Scripture sits back in amazement and concedes to an audacious, female foreigner: “Because of your teaching,[10] the demon has left your daughter.”

In other words, Jesus changes. He allows himself to be humbled, rearranged, and remade. Barbara Brown Taylor describes the moment this way: “You can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.” The Syrophoenician woman’s faith and persistence teach him that God’s purpose for him “is bigger than he had imagined, that there is enough of him to go around.”[11]

Right after this encounter, Jesus heals a deaf man – another Gentile – in the region of the Decapolis. Placing his fingers in the man’s ears, Jesus looks up to heaven, sighs, and says, “Be opened.”[12] He sighs. Is the sigh ironic? Does he chuckle to himself? Is Jesus sharing the joke with God?[13] As in, “Okay, Abba” – Abba is what Jesus called God, and it’s more like Papa or Daddy – “Okay, Abba, I get it. Be opened. Ha-ha. Listen. Learn. I hear you. I’m working on it.”

We are working on it. The Transition Support Group starts reading a new book this week: Debby Irving’s Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.[14] For those who participated in our Sunday Seminars on race and privilege over that past few years, much of what Irving found shocking as she “woke up” isn’t news. For example, that there is no genetic foundation for what we think of as “race,” that the post-World War II G.I. Bill largely excluded African Americans, and that the government basically created segregated inner city ghettoes with real estate mapping policies known as “redlining,” just to name a few. What Irving does better than anyone else I’ve read is not just be appalled that she didn’t know this; she also explores the cultural reasons why of course she didn’t know this. Our culture is set up so that she, and most white people, wouldn’t know any of this. Daniel Boorstin wrote, “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.”[15] That’s the education Jesus received in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus also proves a quotation of James Baldwin’s: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”[16]

Debby Irving tells a story about being at a workshop for the parents at her children’s preschool. The school hoped to attract families of color, and to keep them if they came. The workshop leader explained that exploring the parents’ own issues with race would be an important part of the work. “If we can’t be comfortable with it, our children will pick up on it,” he said. Then he posed a question: “How would you handle it if you were in a grocery store and your child pointed to a black man and said loudly, ‘Why is that man’s skin dirty?’” Irving says the room was filled with the sounds of gasps and of air sucked through teeth as the parents grimaced at the thought.

“That would be awful,” one parent said. “I’d try to get to another aisle as quickly as possible.” Another parent said, “I’d say ‘Shhh!’ to my child. Then later I’d explain that we don’t talk about people that way.”

The leader said that’s what most white people say. “But,” he continued, “if you send your child the message that skin color or race is a taboo topic, you risk a few things. First, you’re suggesting there’s something wrong with the black man, so wrong it can’t be mentioned. Second, you teach your child that curiosity can get you in trouble. And third, you miss a chance to explain that darker skin isn’t dirty – it’s just a different color. What we really want is to use moments like these to make talking and teaching about race natural. Kids notice difference without judgment, if we let them.”

The class let out a collective “Ahhhhhh.” Of course they didn’t want to plant in their kids’ minds that race is a source of anxiety. It was a simple paradigm shift. The parents began imagining other responses, such as, “Skin comes in lots of shades of brown – even your skin is brown, just lighter.” Or “Just like eye color and hair color can be different, so can skin color.” And, “That’s a good question.”[17] Let me be quick to add that this is not about learning how to say the perfect thing so you don’t offend anybody, because, God knows, in the conversation about race, most of us simply need to have the humility to confess that we don’t even know what we don’t know. This is about being open to hearing a new way. Seeing things a new way. Being ready to listen to voices we don’t usually hear, that we might even rather not hear because it makes us uncomfortable. It’s about old “dogs” – learning new tricks. New tricks that help us see the world isn’t what we thought and God’s reach is wider than we thought, and that we have less to fear in learning that than in hiding from it.

Jesus may have called the woman a dog, but he was the old dog who learned a new trick. He was the human being who needed to be schooled. You know, to be human is not actually such a bad thing – I speak from experience. To be human is to be made in the image of God with something of God’s capacity to love, and to be human is to learn and grow and change, to open up our hearts and minds, expand our beliefs and relinquish our biases. Jesus shares this with us; otherwise, he wouldn’t be fully human. We are at our best as human beings when we listen to and learn from someone who is so different from us that everything in our culture and our upbringing tells us she is other.[18]

Today we celebrate what we call Homecoming. The kids are back in school, folks are mostly back from vacations, and fall programs that took a break over the summer start up again. Homecoming. This year, in a number of ways, at the officers’ retreat, on the Next Level team, in the work we’re doing to spiff up the church campus, we’ll be focusing on hospitality, on how we welcome. This morning’s passage challenges us to ask, “What is it that we don’t even know that we don’t know?” What can the stranger, the other, tell us about welcome, and about inclusion – a word so important to our congregation that for years, “an inclusive community” has been our tagline?

What would it be like, this year, to follow in the footsteps of a Jesus who listens to the urgent challenge of the Other? Who humbles himself long enough to learn what only a vulnerable outsider can teach? What would it be like to insist on good news for people who don’t look, speak, behave, or worship like we do?[19]

As we start out the school year, let’s be opened. Be opened to learn new tricks, and to the truth that God isn’t done with us yet. Be opened to the disruptive wisdom of people who are nothing like us. Be opened to the widening of the table. Be opened to Good News that stretches our capacity to love. Be opened.[20]

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.

[1] Mark 7:1-23

[2] Herman C. Waetjen, A Reordering of Power (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989), 134.

[3] Wil Gafney, “The Woman Who Changed Jesus,”

[4] Eileen Sullivan and Michael D. Shear, “Trump’s ‘That Dog’ Attack on Omarosa Manigault Newman Is Latest Insult Aimed at Black People,” August 14, 2018,

[5] Waetjen, 135.

[6] David Lose, Daily Bread, June 23, 2012,

[8] Debie Thomas, September 2, 2018,

[9] Wil Gafney, ibid.

[10] In Greek, λόγος, logos: thought, speech, meaning, reason, proportions, principle, teaching, standard, or logic; in religious contexts, it can mean the divine Word, wisdom, or truth.

[11] Barbara Brown Taylor, Seeds of Heaven: Preaching the Gospel of Matthew (London, UK: Canterbury Press, 2016), 64.

[12] Mark 7:31-35.

[13] Debie Thomas, ibid.

[14] Debby Irving, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Cambridge MA: Elephant Room Press, 2014).

[15] Daniel Boorstin, “A Case of Hypochondria,” in Newsweek, July 6, 1970.

[16] James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” in The New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1962; republished in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (2011), edited by Randall Kenan.

[17] Irving, 125.

[18] Wil Gafney, ibid.

[19] Debie Thomas, ibid.

[20] Debie Thomas, ibid.

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