Begging like dogs
Isaac S. Villegas
Sept 9, 2012
I don’t like borrowing tools. I don’t like asking for help. I don’t like bothering anyone. I’d rather figure out how to do it on my own. Well, two weeks ago, in the middle of the afternoon, while I was home alone, I found myself in the bathroom, and the door wouldn’t open. I tried everything I could think of: a hairpin, a nail clipper, a file, my toothbrush. Nothing worked. I couldn’t get the doorknob to turn, I couldn’t get the latch to release, and I couldn’t get the hinge to budge. So, I stood on the toilet and lifted myself out the window, feet first, trying to reach my bare feet to another window ledge, trying to get a little closer to the ground, then I jumped, which hurt a little, but it worked: I was out of the bathroom, but also locked out of my house. I walked around looking for a way to break in, but for some bizarre reason everything was locked up, every window and door.
I went over to my neighbor’s house, Richard and Mary, and borrowed a hammer, screwdriver, and ladder. I got back into my bathroom, hammered the pins out of the hinges, but still couldn’t get the door open. So I went back to Richard and Mary’s house and did what anyone in my situation would have done: I called Dave Nickel. There were more twists and turns, but two and a half hours after I got locked in my bathroom, I was able to get back into my house and was fixing the bathroom door.
Like I said, I don’t like bothering anyone. But, given the situation, I had to. Everyone seemed glad to help, even though I felt like I was a bother. If I had a choice, I’d rather solve my own problems, I’d rather take care of myself, I’d rather not have to beg, I’d rather not beg like the woman in the story we heard from Mark’s Gospel.
She grovels at Jesus’ feet, begging him, bothering him, pestering him, desperate to have Jesus give a damn about her daughter. Obviously her situation was a bit more desperate than mine: I was just wandering my neighborhood streets barefoot, the woman’s daughter was being tormented by a demon, an unclean spirit — I’m imaging a situation from the Exorcist movie. She would do anything to find help, even go see a Jewish rabbi who hung out with poor villagers, the Jewish laborers who worked the land in order to provide for the wealthy Gentiles of Tyre and Sidon — the province that the Syrophoenician woman called home. Phoenicians, in general, were known to be among the wealthiest people in the region.
That could be one reason why Jesus says such a nasty thing to the woman. Not only does she and her people take food from the Jews, but now she’s asking for more, and she’s willing to be invasive about it, entering a house where she doesn’t belong, asking for help from a Jewish healer whose mission it is to heal his people.
So, Jesus dismisses the Phoenician woman with a harsh saying: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27). This is as bad as it sounds. Jesus speaks as someone who knows the dire situation of his people, as someone who knows which groups who are taking advantage of the Jews, as someone who knows what the oppressor looks like. Here she is, bowing down before him, as a beggar, desperate for a favor.
In Jesus’ day, the Jews didn’t think of dogs as domestic animals like we do. Dogs weren’t really part of their family life. For the Jews, dogs were unclean animals because they were scavengers, eating scraps, contaminated food. So, for Jesus to call the woman a dog was a distinctly Jewish insult: Jesus is telling her that she is part of an unclean people and that she shouldn’t be busting into a Jewish house. Jesus is telling her that she doesn’t belong, that she is a contamination.
But the woman doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s too needy for that. Nor does she insult Jesus right back, trying to get even. She’s too smart for that. Instead, she works within Jesus’ words and shows him something new. “Lord,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28). It’s a clever response, one that surprises Jesus, that awakens him into a new possibility, that reveals something about God’s work that Jesus missed before. The prophets of old hinted at it in the Scriptures: that God’s love and care will extend beyond the family of Israel, that there will be a day when the nations will be brought into the family of God, that the Gentiles will also eat from the table of the Jews, that there will be enough of God to go around, enough for everyone who wants to be part of God’s family.
So Jesus responds to the woman: “Because you have said this, go — the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29).
I read this story and I worry a little about my desire to be independent, to not have to rely on others, to not have to bother anyone. It’s a silly desire, even a bit delusional, since I rely on your tithes and offerings for my salary. I’m dependant on you for my financial wellbeing.
Nonetheless, in the story, I’d rather follow in the footsteps of Jesus, not the woman. I want to be like Jesus, the one who shares food from the table, the one who reaches out with God’s healing power, the one who has everything to give and nothing to receive. But is that really what Jesus is like? Not according to this story, because in it Jesus does receive. With her begging, and her cleverness, the woman opens up a horizon for Jesus’ ministry, the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s mission in the world. It’s no mistake that right after meeting the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus heads out to the Decapolis, to the Gentile areas of Palestine.
If Jesus learns from the woman in the story, then maybe she has something to teach us as well. I’m challenged by her desperation: that she would stoop so low to get what she needs, that she begs and grovels at the feet of a stranger.
I can’t see myself doing that. Can you? Is there something you are so desperate for that you would follow in her footsteps? The agony of her tormented daughter drives her crazy, into an act of desperation. She’s a mother who would do anything for her demon-possessed daughter.
It’s not that I don’t worry about demons, I do. With sickness and drones and famines and pain and suffering everywhere, with the world the way it is, I can’t help but think that the demonic is all around us, powers of destruction hurting our world and us. There are plenty of reasons why I should be going crazy, why I should be driven mad, why all of us should be protesting against the demons, marching against the dominion of violence, begging at the feet of Jesus for healing — not just for us, not only for our family, but for the world.
I’m not begging, I guess, because I don’t know if there’s anything to be done. But Jesus’ word of hope to the woman is also a word of judgment for me, for us, for the world. After she begs and pleads, Jesus says: “Because you have said this, go — the demons have left.”