The bitch slaps back

Yes, Jesus calls a woman a dog. It’s not his finest moment. But the bitch slaps back: and he listens, and learns, and grows. (Listen.)

‘Bitch.’ It’s a vicious taunt. Every time I hear it, I’m left enraged, gutted, and gasping, which is exactly what the taunter wants. It’s meant to silence: and mostly, it works. It tells me that the speaker doesn’t see me as fully human. There seems no point in continuing the relationship: so I shut my mouth, and move away.

So it’s devastating to read the story in Mark’s gospel in which Jesus calls a woman a dog. He was tired; he needed a break; he didn’t want to be disturbed. She burst into the house demanding healing for her daughter: and he snapped. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

There is no nice way to interpret this. Dogs in the first century, and in many cultures even now, are not domesticated pets. They’re not house trained; they aren’t carried around in handbags; they aren’t washed or clipped or groomed. Instead, they’re wild scavengers living on the streets, snarling over the scraps. They’re rabid, flea bitten; their butts are full of worms; when they feel cornered, they snarl and snap. If you see a dog, you cross the road to avoid it; if there are kids on the street, you hurry them inside.

And ‘dog’ is what Jesus calls this woman.

Many commentators say this is not really a bad thing, or maybe it’s a bit of a joke, said with a twinkle to tease the woman or test the disciples. Actually, no. The only person who could believe it’s okay to call a woman a dog is someone who is never at risk of being called a bitch themselves, and who has no interest in those of us who are. Take it from me, a woman who has been called ‘bitch’ a number of times: it’s an insult. This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild. It’s asshole Jesus, a product of his culture, an entitled young man who thinks his gifts should be limited to his own people, who has contempt for those beyond his tribe, and who verbally bitch-slaps a woman who is making demands on him.

‘The eyes of the blind shall be opened,’ sings Isaiah,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped …’ (Isaiah 35:5),

and we usually relate these words to how Jesus works among people. Usually, he helps them to see the world clearly; usually, he helps them to hear the good news; usually, he heals their dark and troubled hearts. But not here. Here, it’s Jesus’ eyes which must be opened; it’s Jesus’ ears which must be unstopped; it’s Jesus’ dark and troubled heart which needs healing: and it’s the Syro-Phoenician woman who does it for him.

For she takes his insult and slaps him back, saying, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Jesus is confronted by his prejudice, his rudeness, his bias and sense of entitlement; he is confronted by his lack of compassion. And amazingly, wonderfully, humbly: he takes it. He lets this woman, a Gentile beyond his ethnic and religious boundaries, teach him about his own faith. His eyes are opened, his ears are unstopped, his heart is blown wide open as he realises: His work extends to all peoples … and maybe even beyond.

I say ‘beyond’ because this story lies between two feeding stories, two occasions when Jesus teaches and feeds thousands of people. The first of these takes place in Jewish territory, and there are twelve baskets of leftovers. Numbers are important: and so, being intelligent Bible readers, we are reminded of the twelve tribes of Israel. We realise that, when we gather around Jesus, there is more than enough sustenance for all Israel.

The second feeding story takes place in Gentile territory; and this time, the disciples gather up seven baskets of leftovers. We recall the seven days of creation, and we realise that, when we gather around Jesus, there is more than enough sustenance not only for Israel, but for all people—indeed, for the whole of creation!

And the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is the pivot point. This is the moment when Jesus’ focus shifts from Jewish people to all people, and indeed to the whole earth. And it happens not when the Syro-Phoenician woman begs, but at the moment she stands up to him. For she refuses to be silenced by his insult, or to grovel. Instead, she pushes back, hard, and her word, her logos, her teaching, is the thing which cracks open Jesus’ heart. For he says to her, ‘For your teaching’—not for your begging, but for your teaching—‘the demon has left your daughter’: and with that, his ministry to the Gentiles begins.

So what does this tell us?

First, it says that we should push back against Jesus or any of his representatives who try to limit the good news to some people, and not others. If we have been told that we don’t belong, that God’s gifts of grace and healing are not for us, if we have been told that God hates us and hates our way of life, if we have been silenced in the name of church order or household codes, then this story should give us backbone. It shows that anyone can talk back and demand their place at God’s table, even those deemed beyond the religious pale. For as Jesus himself came to understand, in God’s eyes there are no barriers to healing, to wholeness, or to blessing: they are given unconditionally to all people.

But there is a flip side. Those of us who identify as followers of Jesus are called to be like him. And so this story presents a particular challenge, which is this: If we want to be like Jesus, we must be prepared to listen to people who are beyond our categories of good Christian folk, and we must allow them to teach us about our faith. We mustn’t assume that we know the full reach of the gospel: because in this story Jesus doesn’t. He expanded his faith and ministry in response to the teaching of a person who lay outside his gender, religion and ethnicity—someone, in fact, whom he first insulted and spurned—and so we too must be willing to listen, learn, grow and change in response to those people we deem to be beyond the fold.

Most obviously, this means putting ourselves in positions where we can be taught by Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist people, agnostics and atheists, and those who have left the church. For straight cisgender Christians, it means listening to people of diverse genders and sexualities, learning from them how dominant theologies are destroying lives, and being open to readings of our sacred texts which lead not to destruction, but to life, love, and healing. For some Christians, it means learning from a bitch like me; for others, it means learning from conservatives. For all of us, it means learning from those people we might be tempted to diminish, insult or reject; and it means learning from God’s other revelation: that is, the land.

For Mark structures his story to show that Jesus’ conversion is to a ministry extending beyond Israel, beyond Gentiles, to the whole of creation. And this brings me back to Isaiah. Here is your God, calls Isaiah: the one who makes the desert rejoice and blossom; who sends forth waters into the wilderness and streams into the desert. Here is your God, calls Isaiah: the one who strengthens the weak, emboldens the fearful, opens eyes, unblocks ears, and inspires the voiceless to sing. Here is your God, calls Isaiah: the one who reunites people and land into an intimate communion shimmering with gladness (Isaiah 35).

We began with Jesus insulting a woman, but we end with a beautiful vision: the reconciliation of all creation: male and female, Jew and Gentile, people and land. We end with permission to speak out and demand healing; we end with a mandate to listen to those often denied a place at the table. We end with crocuses blossoming, streams flowing, people singing and land rejoicing.

So here is your God: fully human and culturally bound, yet humbly checking his privilege in order to listen and learn and grow; and fully joyfully creatively divine, sending streams of living water through dry deserts and dusty hearts.

Let us be refreshed by this beautiful vision; and let us be formed in this God’s image: ever learning, ever growing, towards love. Amen. Ω

Prayer 1: Assurance
You can grovel and beg. But why?
Simply remind God of their own nature
and the greatness of their mercy,
and for your teaching
you will get what you need:
you will be made whole.
Thanks be to God.

Prayer 2: Blessing
May God grant you the faith of the woman
who refused to be silenced or spurned
and who took her rightful place at the table.
May God grant you the humility of Jesus,
who listened and learned and grew.
And may God grant you the joy of the desert,
when streams flow and flowers blossom
and the people come dancing home.
In the name of Christ: Amen.

A reflection on Mark 7:24-30 and and Isaiah 35 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 5 September 2021 (Year B Proper 18) © Sanctuary 2021. Image shows Between Worlds by Delita Martin found here. Read more about Martin’s work here (and if you live anywhere near Brattleboro, Vermont, go visit the exhibition, on until May 2022).

PS: Some good starting points for listening: Austen Hartke’s Transforming. The Bible in the Lives of Transgender Christians; and Brandon Robertson’s Our Witness. The Unheard Stories of LGBT+ Christians both include multiple first person narratives describing the suffering caused by dominant anti-LGBT+ theologies, witness to faith in the face of adversity and rejection, and point to healing ways of reading scripture which are joyfully, generously encompassing. Garry Worete Deverell’s Gondwana Theology and Denise Champion’s Yarta Wandatha both describe Christian First Peoples listening to, learning from and honouring the land in a complex dialogue with faith, church, Bible and ritual, albeit in very different ways. Of course, there are zillions of resources out there … just providing a suggestion or two!

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