When my children were young I took them to our train station to drop off a guest. As a parting favor he gifted each of them with their own bag of chips, which they clutched to their chest like rare treasure. Before we could exit the chaotic South Asian platform, a crowd of ragged beggar children swarmed around them, tugging on their clothes and extending grimy hands in a plea for food. My first impulse was to drive the intruders back, protecting my own blond babies from being mobbed and robbed of their little treat. I am ashamed to admit it now, but I felt my children were entitled to their chips, and though I felt pity for these brown scraps of humanity, I didn’t value their nurture and well-being to the same degree as I would have if they looked, smelled, and sounded like me.
“I would like these children to remain in their poverty, and I will eat my chips.”
Like me, Jesus’ disciples struggled with implicit racism, valuing their own “kind” over the other ethnic groups around them and assuming God’s favor on them over the others rather than on behalf of the others. In a human economy, there were only so many chips to go around, and they wanted to make sure there were plenty for their own kids.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
No wonder the disciples got upset when a Syrophoenician beggar approached Jesus for a favor. On one hand they had been conditioned to expect His compassionate response to the myriad of marginalized individuals who came clinging to His robes and calling out from the street sides. That was simply His way, and they were learning to appreciate it. But those were needs from within the family. This woman pestering Jesus was an outsider. If He started doling out favors to all of them, then how much time and energy could they realistically expect to be left over for their own people? It wasn’t that they wished any ill for this woman, but they wanted Jesus to maintain His priorities (meaning them) and keep first things (meaning their best interests) first. Her persistent presence made them uncomfortable.
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
But Jesus’ priorities didn’t match theirs. In fact, His entire approach to resources and races was radically different from theirs. Jesus recognized the entitled mentality of His followers, and gently challenged it through His witty banter with the other-race woman. At first glance His comments to her seem shockingly racist. Children vs. dogs? Even if He did have an exclusive calling to the Jews, He didn’t have to insult her like that. But Jesus’ comments were as much aimed at challenging His disciples’ implicit racism as they were at engaging the woman’s need.
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Jesus knew a courageous, witty woman when He saw one. He threw her a soft pitch, and she hit it out of the park. Using derogatory language that had most likely been thrown at her before, He put a little spin on the metaphor that placed this “dog” not on the street as an unwanted outsider, but rather under the table as a beloved member of the family. And this plucky, determined image bearer took His cue and ran with it. Yes! She would take whatever place in the household she was offered as long as it meant she could share in the family benefits. Like the psalmist singing “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God…,” she recognized the treasure of the Kingdom and banked on it. I can almost see the twinkle in Jesus’ eye as He bantered with this woman, and the smile on His face when she pushed back with her demand.
Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”
Jesus’ interaction with the woman was not only an invitation for her to stand up for the dignity that was rightfully hers; it was also a demonstration for His disciples to witness His view of people from other races. His use of their racist language put a mirror in front of them, causing them to see the ugliness of their own attitude and giving them the opportunity to see another way. And if they were still struggling with the idea that opening the doors to “her kind” would somehow deprive “the children” of the house, He demonstrated otherwise by healing and feeding 4,000 outsiders from her region, with 7 basketfuls of leftovers to match the number of complete fullness.
If I am willing to stand up for the right of my children to eat their chips in safety and without fear, why am I not willing to do the same for children of another color?
Jesus’ example challenges our hidden assumptions about resources and race. If I am willing to stand up for the right of my children to eat their chips in safety and without fear, why am I not willing to do the same for children of another color? Does Jesus’ compassionate care end with my family and community, or does He intend me to extend the same to all of His image bearers crying out for security, dignity, and equal access to resources? To be honest, this raises fear in me—fear that if I expand the circle of my involvement my own family will suffer lack. Somehow it is easier to send a donation to help suffering children of color far away than to notice and share with the ones in the next neighborhood over.
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
My son hung back from the demanding hands, stating in his toddler simplicity what I have often been too hypocritical to admit. “I would like these children to wemain in their poverty, and I will eat my chips.” But my daughter knew the joy of sharing and the lavishness of the Sharer. She imitated Jesus, moving forward into the crowd to carefully distribute her chips into each outstretched hand and make sure that no one was missed.