Jesus is exhausted, probably frustrated. In Mark 6 we read Jesus plans a retreat with his disciples, but clamoring crowds get in the way. So, he spends a full day teaching and organizing food for 5,000 people.
Next comes a night of prayer and then a stroll across the Sea of Galilee. He sees his disciples struggling against the wind. He plans to walk past them and reveal his divine identity, but they completely miss the point. So, he miraculously calms the storm and sighs that they just don’t understanding anything.
Then comes a heated confrontation with narrow-minded religious leaders and a disappointing conversation with his dull-minded disciples—Jesus’s words, not mine (Mark 7:18).
Jesus needs a break. So, he heads for the nearest resort town on the Mediterranean coast—something like a beach resort on the coast of California or Bali, Tenerife or Rio. Again, his plans are foiled: “He did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret,” (Mark 7:36).
Did you notice how the human and divine aspects of Jesus intertwine in this section of Mark’s gospel? Jesus miraculously multiplies loaves, walks on water, identifies himself as “I AM.” Yet he’s tired, frustrated, unable to follow through on carefully made plans.
“Jesus is the center of our faith”
The human Jesus, who learned and lived and served and suffered and experienced all sorts of human limitations, as we all do.
The divine Jesus, who exists from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity, creator of heaven and earth, worthy of all honor and worship as God.
This “divine-human” Jesus is the center of our faith.
The faithful church has always confessed that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. This is the mystery we call the incarnation—God becoming a human person, uniting forever in the person of Jesus, divinity and humanity.
“This is the mystery we call the incarnation—God becoming a human person, uniting forever in the person of Jesus, divinity and humanity.”
The Incarnation is the greatest barrier-crossing event in the history of the universe. In Jesus, the barrier is crossed between eternity and time, divinity and humanity, eternity and time, Creator and creation. And because of this, we can be confident that the great barrier still separating God and God’s faithful people will one day be gone forever.
After the great barrier-crossing event we call “Incarnation,” Jesus just kept right on crossing barriers— between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, male and female, sacred and secular, clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile.
Because Jesus is fully divine and fully human, we do well to explore Gospel narratives with two questions in mind: What does Jesus, the incarnate Jesus, God in the flesh, reveal to us about what God is like? and, What does Jesus, the fully human Jesus, reveal about how we should relate to God and to each other?
In many texts, the divine aspects of Jesus seem to be in the forefront. In Mark’s text about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7: 24-30), the human aspects shine through pretty clearly.
God in the flesh cannot even keep his presence secret. A woman shows up, a very unlikely candidate for Jesus’s ministry. A woman, a Gentile, a Syrophoenician—the nearest biblical equivalent would be Queen Jezebel. Jesus is not amused. And if we don’t listen carefully, it sounds as though Jesus simply insults her. “What? Throw good food to a dog? No way!” Wait! What? Is this Jesus talking?
If that is all we hear, we are not listening carefully. It is true that Jews sometimes called Gentiles “dogs” (kunes). Not house pets—wild, unclean dogs that roam the streets. Jesus here uses a different word. If your translation doesn’t make that obvious, check the footnotes. He refers to (kunaria), puppies, “dear little puppies,” house pets surrounding “the kids” who are eating at the table. The text sounds quite different already, doesn’t it? And note that Jesus does not actually call her a puppy; he’s using a metaphor. And did you notice that in English I just called the children little goats? That’s what “kids” actually means.
Jesus’s metaphor is not designed to be offensive, any more than mine is. He’s not demeaning her. He knows that one day Gentiles will be fully equal partners with the Jews in the people of God.
The real problem with this text is not that Jesus talks about puppies; it is that Jesus denies her request. “I’m on vacation! It is not a good time. Sorry, your request is denied!”
But again, let’s listen more carefully. “First, let the children eat all they want,” Jesus says.
“First”— Jesus is not saying, “No.” He is saying, “Not, yet.” Some things need to happen first. Jesus knows the divine plan for the salvation of the world: “First the Jew, then the Gentile.” First the blessing to Abraham and his descendants, then through them to the rest of the world. Jesus comes to save the whole world! That is why he starts with Israel, recruiting and training those he will commission to spread the good news to the ends of the earth.
And this spunky, persistent, faith-filled woman agrees! “Yes! Yes, Lord! First, the children! So, I won’t ask for a seat at the table . . . not yet! I’ll just wait for a tiny crumb to fall from the table now already. That’s all I’ll need!” Her clever and faith-filled response is enough to make Jesus change his mind!
Martin Luther put it this way: “Behind Jesus’s “no,” she heard God’s secret “yes.”
Jesus does not come to Tyre to do ministry, but he ends up doing it. Jesus does not plan to start ministering to Gentiles, not yet, but he ends up doing exactly that. Jesus has his plans in place, but he changes his mind. Or maybe we should say, she changes his mind. In fact, this does even more than that. She becomes the instrument through whom Jesus learns which “next step” he should take in doing his Father’s will.
Why should that surprise us? He is showing us how to be responsive to the needs of others . . . others whom God will often use to help us discover our own ministry calling. Jesus is showing us what our redeemed humanity ought to look like. At the same time, this is a portrait of what God is like, hearing the pleading cries of those in need, breaking through the barriers in a response of generous grace.
May we learn from Jesus what God is truly like, crafting a plan to save the world, working in time and space to bring that plan to its glorious fulfillment . . . and pouring out grace on individuals all along the way. May we learn from Jesus what we are called to be: barrier crossers who minister God’s grace to others. And may we learn from the Syrophoenician woman what it takes to cross barriers, reaching out in courageous faith to connect with the heart of Jesus . . . the divine-human Jesus, who is the center of our faith.
And may all that we do in our gathered communities – listening, praying, singing, worshiping and celebrating the diversity of God’s family – give us glimpses of what Jesus is doing among us, and around the world that he came to save.
This article is the sermon Tim Geddert preached July 5, 2022, at the opening plenary session of Mennonite World Conference’s Assembly 17. The theme of Indonesia 2022 was “Following Jesus together across barriers.”
Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. He is a member of the U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life.