This week I saw Ken Loach’s lovely film Ae Fond Kiss. Released in 2004 and set in Glasgow it follows the fortunes of two immigrants. Roisin is an Irish Catholic woman who falls in love with Casim a second generation Pakistani Muslim. The film is a romance but one with a twist as culture and faith get in the way of young love. Roisin teaches in a Catholic school and, in order to be made a permanent member of staff, she needs a Certificate of Eligibility from her Parish Priest – he refuses as she is divorced and, at this point, living with Casim. Casim’s parents have done well in the UK, built up a business, all their three children have been to, or are about to go to, university, they are traditional and caring but struggle when it becomes clear that Casim is in love with a, non-Muslim, western woman. This has repercussions as Casim’s sister’s engagement ends due to the shame felt. Casim’s friend advises him just to live with Roisin and quietly play the game his family wants but Casim is faced with the prospect of losing the woman he loves or his family to whom he is exceptionally close. There is prejudice here; prejudice about faith, about re-marriage, and about different cultures; not so different to the type of prejudice we see at work in our Gospel reading today.
Today’s passage follows on from last week’s where Jesus chastises the Pharisees for their adherence to laws on ritual purity. This week he, again in St Mark’s Gospel, leaves Israel and goes into Gentile territory.
He goes from a people who see themselves as being chosen by God to peoples who were seen as less than pure. The pagan nations around Israel worshipped many gods, didn’t keep to the food and purity laws that the Jewish people do. They lived by different moral codes. This meant they were, in some ways, looked down upon by the Jews. Of course the pagans thought they were superior to the Jews – they didn’t bother with laws about food, they didn’t upset the gods by insisting there was only one and they had a very modern view of marriage and divorce.
Jesus was tired, he needed to get away and be by himself. The passage opens with his desire to be by himself but word gets out and a crowd gathers. Even in this pagan place Jesus’ fame has preceded him. Even in this place which doesn’t know God, news of Jesus’ power is already there.
We know little about the woman who comes and begs Jesus to heal her daughter. We don’t know how the demonic possession manifested itself – probably through erratic behaviour. We don’t know what this woman had done in the past to try and get her daughter healed. We do know, however, of the relative social status of those involved. Whilst the pagans would have been looked down upon by Jews they were probably wealthier and more integrated into the Roman Empire. As a woman, however, she would have had lower status than Jesus in the male dominated society of his day.
Some people read this passage and think that Jesus is being very rude. After all there aren’t many cultures where it’s ok to call someone a dog! Certainly Jews and Gentiles could be very rude about each other, like in Ae Fond Kiss, the different cultures had difficulties if they got too close – some Gentiles were supporters of the Synagogue and had come to believe in God but, generally, the groups lived parallel existences.
The Greek term translated as “dog” is actually “little dog” and is affectionate. Given the dogs are under the table in the metaphor I think Jesus means pets – the children have the first call on the food of the household, the pets deserve some but aren’t fed first; if you have a dog you know that crumbs under the table are dealt with quickly!
I don’t think Jesus was being prejudiced here but rather reflecting on his mission. He understood himself to be called to the People of Israel. The Gentiles had a claim on the food but not as strong a claim as the children. He’s saying that he is called to the Jews first and the Gentiles second.
This sounds odd to us now but this was the missionary strategy of the Earliest Church. The first Christians understood themselves to be Jewish followers of Jesus. As more and more Gentiles joined the Church there was a debate about whether they needed to formally become Jewish – and obey the food laws and the practice of circumcision.
The unnamed woman is feisty. She approaches Jesus and speaks directly to him – remarkable in the culture of the age. The other woman that does this is the Woman at the Well in John’s Gospel. Jesus talks to her, he may have been rather tongue in cheek, he may have been playing with words but the woman doesn’t let up. She knows the pets are entitled to something and she wants it!
There is a movement here in the Gospel narrative. Jesus has started to minister amongst the Gentiles – he did it earlier in the Gospel – and he does again in these two stories today. The time isn’t yet right for the full mission to the Gentile world but this woman, who hadn’t been raised in the Jewish faith, came to this Jewish rabbi demanding healing. A woman on the outside sought God out; and God responded.
Some people read this passage and think the woman changed Jesus’ mind and moved him beyond the prejudice of his own age. I don’t think this is the case but boundaries are being pushed in Mark’s Gospel as Jesus goes beyond Israel and helps gentiles, as he criticises the religious leadership, and thought, of the day, as he went beyond social norms and spoke with women. This woman is persistent and her persistence gets what she wants. This is a foretaste of what Calvin called the indiscriminate mercy of God which, post resurrection, would be showered on both Jew and Gentile.
So What Can We Learn From This Passage?
I think there are three things we can learn from this passage.
First, God’s love is indiscriminate and crosses boundaries. Whilst Jesus’ primary mission, at this point in the story, is to the children of Israel, he crosses boundaries – literally he moves out of Israel and into Gentile territory. He crosses boundaries by engaging with a woman to whom he wasn’t related and, whilst the dialogue reads oddly to us now, engages in her theological debate. He respects her responses and doesn’t belittle her. Whenever we think that we know better than God we’re wrong! Whenever we try and limit God and what God is about – we’re wrong! The resurrection shows, after all, that humanity can’t pin God down.
Second, persistence pays off. The unnamed woman in today’s story would have known the social limitations of her gender, the fact that women didn’t approach and start conversations with men they didn’t know or weren’t related to. She would have known that Jews and Gentiles didn’t like to mix socially. But she was desperate. Her desperation made her persistent. Maybe she’d tried all that Roman medicine could offer but found it hadn’t work on her daughter. A mother’s love can be fierce; no social convention, no man was going to stop her reaching out to Jesus for help. What stops us? We may tire of prayer, think that things can’t be changed, lose hope for a better world, yet this story encourages us, like that unnamed woman of old to be persistent. Some of my friends are amongst the most persistent people I know. I think of my friend Jean-Francois who has spent many years as a destitute asylum seeker still waiting for news on his, excellent, Fresh Claim for asylum. His persistence and strength reminds me of this woman. How persistent are we?
Finally, we can transcend our cultural prejudices. The woman overcame hers and Jesus treated her with respect and humour engaging with her in a theological discussion. In the film Ae Fond Kiss culture gets in the way – different understandings of religion – although Roisin is surprised to find out that Casim, as a Muslim, also believes that Jesus existed, was a prophet and was born of the Virgin Mary. Different understandings of the importance of family become important and Casim’s family fear that Roisin won’t stay around, won’t be with him all his life. The film ends with the promise of a new life together despite the difficulties. The Gospel passage ends with Jesus healing across the boundaries of race and faith. We too can transcend the prejudices we were bought up with, we too can work for a world where everyone is valued and loved – as God’s love extends to all.
Will you pray with me?
whose word is life,
and whose delight is to answer our prayer,
give us faith like the Syro-Phoenician woman of old,
who refused to remain an outsider;
that we too may have the wit to argue,
and demand that our people be made whole,
through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.