A painting of a mother holding a child while seated at a table.  The child is holding a bowl with one hand and reaching down to feed a dog with the other hand.  The mother holds a spoon.
Crumbs of Love by Michael Cook, 2008

Advocating for justice in an unjust world

Jesus has travelled from the predominantly Jewish communities by the Sea of Galilee and is now in a world of strangers and foreigners. He is ‘spent’ and is hoping to catch his breath. Jesus is trying to get away from people who know him and want things from him. I’m sure we’re all in this place from time to time! Parents hope for this kind of reprieve often.

And then a woman finds him. Tim Keller describes her station this way:

“She has none of the religious, moral, and cultural credentials necessary to approach a Jewish rabbi—she is a Phoenician, a Gentile, a pagan, a woman, and her daughter has an unclean spirit. She knows that in every way, according to the standards of the day, she is unclean and therefore disqualified to approach any devout Jew, let alone a rabbi.”

Timothy Keller, Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God (2013, p 93)

In the encounter as it is told in Matthew, we learn that after she cries out for help for her suffering daughter, “Jesus did not answer a word” (15:23). The disciples even urged Jesus to send her away because she was annoying them. Jesus ignores her! He then says, essentially, “this isn’t my job.” “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (24). This is uncomfortable enough, but it only gets worse. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27).

It’s okay to be distraught at this story. In fact, we should be. The Jesus we read about here seems very different than the one who said, “Let the little children come to me” (Luke 18:16). One would think that the disciples, who had been following and learning from Jesus, would also be uncomfortable at his seeming lack of empathy. Their reaction, instead, shows that this is how he was expected to respond. Jesus exposes the laws of interaction as they are, the powerful social forces that expect people to interact in certain ways. “This is the way it is.” This is how men were to respond to women, religious teachers were to interact with the unclean, how devout Jews were expected to interact with Phoenician Gentiles. In his initial failure to respond to the mother and his explicit statements following, Jesus exposes the social norms, and the social contracts that govern their encounter.

These norms, these laws, that privilege some people above others continue to dominate our social interactions to this day. The discomfort many people feel when meeting someone with an apparent disability. The lack of empathy that is expected as people walk by people who live on the streets downtown. The way we seem to be excused from compassion when people’s pain seem to be a result of “bad choices.” Continued racism, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, sexism… the list goes on.

Sent to the Lost Sheep

There is profound irony in Jesus’ words as he speaks to being “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” and “it is not right to take the children’s bread…” God has tended to the Jewish people like a mother bear (Hos 12:8), a mother eagle (Deut. 32:11) and in Matthew 23, upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus grieves for the Jewish people, saying “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mat. 23:37b, NRSV). Isaiah prophesies on God’s behalf, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13, NRSV). It is God’s motherhood that jealously loves and cares for God’s children, and it is the same motherly devotion that drives the Phoenician woman to fight for her daughter’s wellbeing.

So far, this foreign mother has displayed God’s lovingkindness in a way that Jesus has failed to do.

In our work at Christian Horizons with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we meet countless parents and family members who are battle-worn from advocating for equality and support for their children with disabilities. These parents can be fierce, because they need to be! They are forced to advocate/argue/fight against systems and societal forces that actively discriminate against their children. Too often, they face these same barriers and oppressive attitudes in churches, synagogues, and faith communities that claim to care for all God’s children.

Based on how we see Jesus interact with others throughout his ministry, I think Jesus knew the strength and wisdom of this woman. He knew she would push through – she had fought through so many barriers already, just to approach him. She wouldn’t stop now. This was the strength of her love for her child and the strength of her faith. He also knew something that the disciples had failed to recognize – that God’s Spirit was about to be poured out on all people (Acts 2:17). This mother was one of the first to recognize the way that God’s love would transform the world; the way that God’s love would upset all man-made systems and structures of oppression, for those willing to follow the Jesus Way.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

(Gal 3:28, ESV)

Considering the pushback and blatantly insulting language this mother has come up against (“is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”), she actually seems pretty composed when she rejoins,  “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28, NIV). She does not dispute that the societal and religious institutions of the day have considered her nothing more than a dog under the table – but God’s mercy extends even to (especially to) “the least of these” (Matt 25:40).

Jesus is our advocate

“My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous.”

(1 John 2:1, NLT)

In the first part of Mark’s story, Jesus represents not only the Judge and the Lawgiver, but also the prosecution and executioner. The mother’s position was clear. Through no fault of her own, she had “missed the mark” (ἁμαρτάνειν) in almost every way. Her gender, culture, place of birth, and religion were all wrong. On top of it all, her daughter was possessed by, well, demons and whatnot (impure spirits).

When the woman offers her defense, as impossible as it may seem with all of the odds stacked against her, Jesus comes through as her advocate, in the same way that she advocates for her child. “Lawyer” in French is “avocat,” a direct translation of ”advocate.” Ultimately, Jesus is our only hope – our advocate and our defense on those days when it doesn’t seem like justice will be done, the systems of injustice will crush us, when we have come to the end of our rope and the end of our resources. When we have “missed the mark,” and all is lost, Jesus pleads our case before God the Father. And it turns out that God’s Father’s heart is filled with His Mother’s love. And as a mother hen brooding over her chicks, God draws us all into the nest.

One day, mercy and justice will meet

In Mark’s account, Jesus says “For such a reply (λόγον), you may go; the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29). It is not pure emotion or will that has won Jesus over. The mother has offered a deep and insightful glance into the “logos,” the logic, law, and Word of God. There is a deeper Truth beneath the regimes of “truth” that structure our relationships and our world. This Truth is,

God’s mercy goes all the way down.

Just as Jesus is God’s Word become Flesh, this woman has brought God’s logos into an encounter fraught with cultural, religious, and societal tensions. Her response does not deny the current “laws” of societal interactions but points to a time when these will all be subverted by the deeper Truth of God’s unquenchable mercy. Indeed, it takes great faith to see this loving logic at work in a world of injustice. I think this is why, in Matthew, Jesus exclaims, “Woman, great is your faith!” Hers is a word, reason, logic of faith that claims something that has not yet been made real or manifest. It points to the political reality of a Kingdom that is here but not yet – the very Kingdom that Jesus ushers in.

Merciful advocacy in times of injustice

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’”

(Zech 7:9-10, NIV)

We are called to receive Christ’s mercy, to be people of mercy and to fight for “merciful justice.” This is a justice that may seem impossible or ridiculous in the face of the structures of injustice that rule our world, but is the constitution of the Kingdom that is coming. We learn that for the “least of these,” mercy and compassion are true justice. We call to account the ways of thinking that create the categories of “greater” and “lesser” as we advocate for justice in the communities where we find ourselves.

We all, together, are called to work for that world where mercy and justice meet.