Sufficient Crumbs

Pastor John’s Message based on Mark 7:24-37.

24[Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

The crumbs of Jesus are sufficient to satisfy the world.

In Jack London’s book, White Fang, the dog was born in the wild and she lived with a wolf pack. As the story unfolds, White Fang transitions from wild to tame. In one of the early chapters, two men are with seven dogs. The dogs are pulling a sled somewhere in Alaska. One night at camp, one man says to the other, “We have 7 dogs, but I’m counting 8 tails when they are eating their food.” Come to find out, White Fang, although wild and living with wolves, she learned how to sneak into human camp sites at meal time. Without invitation, White Fang invited herself to supper with the “civilized” dogs.

IN today’s gospel, much discussion revolves around Jesus comparing the gentile people to dogs, while referring to his own race as “Children of the household.”

I have puzzled over Jesus’ interaction with her, an interaction that seems not very Christlike. What is it about this encounter that the author of Mark’s gospel chose to include it. What can we learn about Jesus, the bread of life, and what can we learn about ourselves?

I won’t attempt a good excuse for why Jesus spoke harshly to this lady. It’s the only such occasion in scripture. If nothing else, there is an easy lesson to learn. If the Son of God can admit he’s wrong in an argument, then we should also be able to gracefully lose an argument.

Today, I want to point toward the results of this interaction. I want to show that the woman was very intelligent in her approach to Jesus. She is witty and crafty, like White Fang figuring out a way to eat with the civil dogs. At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus told the woman, she has great faith – making headlines in the newspapers: An unnamed gentile woman becomes one of few people in Mark’s Gospel to be told by Jesus, she has great faith!

Without trying to soften the “dog” language, I was interested to learn that there are two words for dog in the Bible. One word for dog, which is not used today, carries a strong negative connotation. But, the word Jesus used, is a softer word that can refer to the common household pet, even a puppy. 

The 12 disciples would have used the more negative word for dog when considering the gentile woman. A Syrophoenician was a foreigner to them, and this woman’s community was at odds with the Jewish community – they fought over politics, religion and food distribution. Jesus killed two birds with one stone: He corrected the disciples and he healed the little girl by giving her mother something to eat from the Lord’s Table.

I was interested to learn that in this time period, families could have dogs as pets. A dog owner, like a cat or other pet owner, might not hear this conversation with alarming offense. Many dog owners think of their dog as a person and member of the household. There’s the phrase, “My dog thinks he’s human….”  And that’s because you treat him like a human! . . I picture this dialogue taking place with Jesus and the woman seated at a table in the house, and the household had a pet dog.

I think a clue that Jesus was not intending to offend the lady is that Jesus welcomed her to a conversation, even though he was tired and wanted to be alone. He could quite easily have said, “I’m tired, I’m here to be left alone. Go away.” We know Jesus was full of grace and empathy. With compassion, he knew the great burden that she carried. She was a mother concerned for her child. 

Here we find a Jewish teacher having a theological debate with a gentile woman. Jesus elevated her to an equal place. This could explain why the disciples are nowhere to be found, they are upset with Jesus for treating her like one of them. Jesus was teaching her about his mission in the world, and the they exchanged questions and answers. Christ may have come to the Jews first, but Jesus always intended to come also to the gentiles.

Jesus had a mission and he had an order to follow. He would first teach and share the bread of life with the Jews, and then to the gentiles and other ethnic groups. The woman understood this line of teaching, and she does not complain about the Jews being compared to children in the house while her people were compared to dogs living in the household. 

When Jesus asked the question, “Is it right for the dogs to eat the children’s food?” She jumps at the opportunity to find a loophole in the holy order of things – “No it’s not right that dogs would eat before children, but even dogs are permitted to eat the crumbs that fall below the table.” Jesus smiled. He glanced down at the dog sitting under the table. Her reasoning was correct.

We might ask, why didn’t she argue for her people being called “children of God?” Why didn’t she demand a place at the table in Jesus’ analogy of the Kingdom? Why was she satisfied with crumbs? I would say, because she understood the power of God that comes through Jesus Christ – If a mustard seed of faith can move a mountain, then a crumb of the Bread of Life could easily heal her daughter. She was desperate for her daughter to be healed, and she believed with her whole heart that Christ could heal the girl. 

There is Good News in this passage, if we don’t get hung up on the word dog.We learn that Jesus knows our need before he sees our status. “God’s mercy responds to human need in such a way that it breaks societal patterns of exclusion” (J. Gundry-Volf). The use of kynarion for dogs “implies the dogs are house pets. They belong to the household and will be fed along with the children.” 

This woman teaches us to trust in the abundance of Jesus, and we are reminded that there is room for every kind of person in the gospel. There will be plenty of bread available ⁃  We saw this very theme in the feeding of five thousand: “And they all ate and were satisfied” and still there were many baskets worth of leftovers.  

For our congregation, we can learn a valuable lesson that all people who attend our services have value. It’s possible that a person could sit in our faith community and feel like an outsider when we take communion. “I’m not one of them, I don’t feel welcomed here.” This gospel reminds us all, that every person has a place at the Lord’s Supper.

When it comes to the holiness of God, we are all dogs waiting to be fed by our master. If you feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong here, I would remind you of today’s gospel and this gentile woman. I would challenge you to be like White Fang, come and be fed, there is plenty of Jesus to go around! 

Let us pray. 
Heavenly Father who feeds all your children, You welcome all people to be fed the bread of life found in your Son Jesus Christ. Give us faith to know and believe that grace is sufficient and there will always be a surplus of Jesus, the crumbs of the body of Christ are sufficient to satisfy the world. Amen.