It is through raw, real human interactions that we are changed. It's easy to avoid encounters with people who are different from us and hold onto caricatures and stereotypes instead. But when we do that, we miss out. We miss out on opportunities to grow, learn, and connect with other people.
Jesus had a raw, real human interaction in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7, and it changed him. It's an encounter that has been written about extensively and interpreted by theologians in a variety of ways. It was the first text I ever studied in seminary: orientation week 2005.
In Mark 7: 24-30, Jesus interacts with a woman of a different religious background than him. She's identified not by name … only as a Gentile and a Syrophoenician (i.e. a religious outsider from the geographic region of Syria).
Up to that point in Mark's gospel, Jesus has been hanging out with people from within his same general faith tradition. Then, to get away from the crowds, Jesus stealthily hides out in someone's house. But he just can't escape the masses of people begging for his help.
The Syrophoenician woman approaches him boldly … begging for Jesus to heal her daughter. She gets on her hands and knees and pleads at his feet.
Jesus says something harsh and judgmental, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." I cringed when I heard that line during seminary orientation.
"What on earth?" I thought. "Is Jesus calling the lady and her child dogs just because they're different from him?"
Translated into our own modern-day national political landscape, he's basically saying something like, "Too bad that you're suffering but America first."
The woman refuses to relent. She digs deep within and emerges with a clever retort. "Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
In saying these words, she is expressing to Jesus that everybody, regardless of religious tradition and geographic background, deserves care and support … even religious outsiders from the region of Syria.
Jesus says, "For this statement you may go your way." He heals her daughter immediately.
Some people, uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus could initially have been so insensitive to the woman, like to imagine that Jesus was just testing her faith to see if she really believed.
I doubt it. That sounds like a really weird test to me. They both had enough going on without a random religious pop quiz.
I tend to interpret the text another way. I think it's a story about the woman who expanded Jesus' heart at a pivotal moment on his own spiritual journey.
Jesus grew up in a religious context in which there was one specific way to think. The human part of him didn't necessarily know a world beyond the cultural and religious landscape in which he was raised. Everything beyond the scope of his worldview likely seemed foreign, untrustworthy, and unfamiliar. He perhaps believed that his primary responsibility was to the people of his own faith tradition.
But through the interaction with the woman, something appears to shift. She speaks directly from the depths of her heart to the depths of his heart, and he hears her.
Jesus grants the woman's request. Her daughter is healed. I would imagine that all involved in the encounter are permanently changed.
It would've been easy for this story to be edited out of Mark's Gospel. But miraculously, it wasn't cut, and I am forever grateful. It is a story of transformation, vulnerability and change. It is an example of what happens when we pause long enough to question our beliefs about other groups of people. It is a story of grace.
Thanks be to God for the Syrophoenician woman of Mark, chapter 7 and for all those who courageously plead for justice today.