September 9, 2018 – The Great Teacher (or learner)

Text:  Mark 7:24-37


Once I was leading a confirmation class for youth. I asked them to draw a life graph to describe highs and lows of their lives. The higher the point, the better the experience; the lower the point, the worse the experience. Most of the life graphs showed a dramatic contrast between ups and downs in their lives. The major factor for this contrast was their teachers. Their experiences were as far apart as hell is from the heavens depending on which teacher they had. If they had a teacher who was kind, funny and caring, they were happy as they could be. The reality was that they couldn’t have their dream teacher as they would like. Sometime they had to learn how to survive the nightmare while counting the days. Their experiences, although they were based on single-perspective thinking, were valid.

Growing up, I had all kinds of teachers from the ones who made a huge impact in my life and whose examples are still inspiring, to the ones who gave me traumatic experiences. Like the youth in the confirmation class, my life graph shows a contrast because of the teachers. I realize, however, that I can’t choose one over the other. I have learned to embrace all of my teachers. All of them are my teachers. I have something to learn from all of them. There is something to be learned even in the follies of others. The world is a classroom, and life is the teacher. The question is are we willing to learn from every person we meet and every experience we have? We must engage our teachers all around us: trees, animals, the water, the air, the land, the people we love, the people we worship with, the neighbours we haven’t talked to, the friends we haven’t met yet. Often we miss the opportunity to learn from the least expected people. The enemy of learning is not a bad teacher. It’s knowing, assuming, or worse yet, pre-judging. In the same way, we often miss the opportunity to challenge people, especially those with authority. Consequently we lose the opportunity to help each other to learn something important. That’s why I am encouraged by the story, the encounter between Jesus and the Gentile woman.

First, we have to face the unfamiliar Jesus. In fact, he is very strange. His words make us uncomfortable. Jesus calls a mother and her child dogs. He refuses to help, just because of their racial and religious background. The mother is, as Mark clearly explains, a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. Jesus says to the woman, who begged him to cast a demon out of her daughter, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Even if we understand that Jesus restricted his ministry almost exclusively to Jews, and saw himself as primarily involved in addressing and restoring Israel, it is still hard to believe he said that. Is this the same Jesus who just said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles’? Is this the same Jesus who told his disciples “Let the children come to me”? He blessed the little ones without asking which community they belonged to. Nowhere else does he refuse a direct request to heal someone. Nowhere else does he respond to a supplicant with a bald insult like this, calling her and her afflicted daughter dogs.

If you think about your own pets, you may think, ‘It’s not so bad to be called a dog’. But don’t associate the dogs of Jesus’ time with the happy pets of today. Today’s dogs are bred for domesticity; they have the nicest owners, friends or sometimes staff. We care for them, love them, feed them, and live with them. They are a part of our family. But by dogs Jesus is referencing the dogs of his time – thin, half-wild creatures, skulking around at the edges of civilized life. They are the “outsiders”. They don’t belong. They are not accepted. They are the least important. They are everywhere, but unseen because they are denied. They are not welcomed just as they are. They are born to be perpetual foreigners. It’s hard to believe Jesus used the term, “dogs” which was used by his people to refer to Gentiles. It’s hard to believe that Jesus reflects the prejudices of his own day and of his own people.

You may want to believe that he knew he was going to help her, but he was testing her now. Jesus did test his disciples, and he quizzed the Pharisees, but nowhere else does he test others, especially those in need. You may want to believe that Jesus was driving this woman over the edge to reveal the true depth of her faith. But Mark doesn’t say that – her faith is not the point; Jesus’ change is.

The woman answers him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he replies, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” What do you think it is that makes his mind change? I think the key word is the crumbs. She does not refute him, saying, “No, I am not a dog.” Nor does she ask for bread. Instead, she asks only for crumbs, the children’s crumbs.

Dogs under the table don’t have to ask for crumbs, because the crumbs are always there, dropped from above. The crumbs may be small, they may be scant, but those crumbs are exactly what the dogs need to survive. The crumbs are not enough to fill their stomachs, but they make the dogs independent of people’s personal generosity; the crumbs are the minimum of what everyone should deserve. That’s what the woman is asking for. In order for her daughter to be healed, she doesn’t need approval from any particular group or their authorities. She is asking for help not from any humans, but from God, as she knows that mercy comes from above. And that is, I think, what impresses Jesus and finally makes him change his mind.

For me, the idea that Jesus changes his mind in response to the woman’s argument is more surprising than the fact that he calls her and her daughter dogs. How on earth can such a great teacher change his mind right away in public? Jesus, whom we name so often as our teacher, learns from a foreign woman, the outsider, who speaks out in her vulnerability. That is what makes him a great teacher. Immediately after his encounter with the Gentile woman, Jesus’ work goes in a new direction. He cures a man who cannot hear and can barely speak, then feeds 4000 people. Those events occur, apparently, in the Decapolis, a region populated mostly by gentiles. Although Mark doesn’t call attention to the ethnic identity of these people, it seems that Jesus takes the Gentile mother’s wisdom to heart. We see how the one who has been opened opens others. Jesus understood justice more deeply because she insisted that Syrophoenician lives matter. I am glad that both Jesus and the woman never gave up. He didn’t miss the opportunity to learn from the least expected person. She didn’t miss the opportunity to challenge and teach the great teacher.

This encounter doesn’t have to be a rare event. It can be every day experience if we are willing to learn from everyone we meet, and every experience we have. There are so many teachers all around us. We never stop growing, learning and changing with our great teacher who is also a great learner.