In Mark 7:24-37, we hear of an encounter between Jesus and a woman of the region, a region that in Mark’s day was considered to be inimical to Jews. I am going to retell the story with emphasis.
Jesus traveled alone to the region of Tyre, although it is well known that it is not a good place for Jews. He had arranged to spend some time at a house there but he decided it would be prudent not to let anyone know that he was travelling through the region.
His reputation had spread, however, and people talked about the Jewish preacher and healer who would be coming. A Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him and immediately she came and bowed down at his feet. She told Jesus that her child was ill and begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Jesus was repulsed by this unclean Gentile woman. He 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
At that, Jesus heard the Spirit within him, and he had a change of heart. Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis, all through the territory of the Gentiles.
It would be easy to explain away Jesus’ gender and tribal prejudice, but if we do so, I think we miss some important teaching about incarnation. As in the story of the Garden of Gethsemane, we would be more comfortable with a less human Jesus, but to do that, is to deny our own humanity and our own potential for spiritual and social evolution.
Jesus was after all, a man of his time, his culture, the prejudices of tribe and gender and religion. All humans begin in this way. I am sure you can each think of something you thought about another culture or race until you learned more about it. The “demon” that is sickening our world is a lack of understanding that we are responsible for each other, that we are family, despite external or even cultural difference. If we thought of people we consider foreign as our family, we would not kill each other. If we thought of prisoners as people just like us, we would not be satisfied with merely locking them out of sight.
This story of Jesus turning from fear, prejudice, and repulsion to kindness and acceptance models for us how we must be. Having made this discovery, he continues on through the towns of the Gentiles, presumably learning and opening his mind to the wider mission, the unity of all humanity in peace. It is important for us to understand that the incarnation was not about a drop-in proto-human, but about someone like us, a person with choices and possibilities, a person who could move beyond the boundaries to which he was assigned by birth and upbringing.
As in all stories of incarnation, it reminds us that we are called to be Christ-like, to move from fear to love, from prejudice to delight in diversity, from self-righteousness to the vision of a shared humanity.
The Sufi poet Rumi wrote:
Only ignorance keeps a bird encaged.
The Masters have fled from their cage
and have become guides, showing that
the only way out of ignorance is faith.
I think Jesus teaches us that compassion and courage, accompanied by faith, will lead us to freedom, whose other name is heaven.