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Jesus Getting Caught with His Compassion Down

Who is the “under the table” in your life?

by Carl Gregg

Gospel Reading: Mark 7:24-37

For Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012: Year B — Ordinary 23

Letty Russell, in Church in the Round, described Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman as the case of Jesus getting “Caught with his compassion down” (162). Jesus is usually so mind-blowingly impressive that we can forget he did not emerge from the womb fully grown.

Part of what it means to be “fully human” is to grow, mature, and develop over time. Most famously in Luke 2:52, we are told that, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor.”

Isn’t Pharaoh Supposed To Be the One Whose Heart Is Hardened?

We expect Jesus to be the mature sage, wise elder, and compassionate healer. But in this instance, Jesus’ heart seems hardened when he refuses to heal a child in need.

Jesus does not say that he is unable to heal her child; indeed, he does heal her at the end of the story. He seems to be choosing not to heal her because, at least at this point, he seems to understand his mission to be exclusively helping his own people, his tribe.

A Gentile Woman Takes Jesus to School

Jesus may have been fully grown into his adult height — that is, “in stature” — at this point in his public ministry, but he still had room to grow in wisdom and in divine and human favor. Instead of Jesus rebuking the stubborn, myopic, traditionalist religious leaders, we see a Gentile woman-in-need rebuking Jesus. And this Gentile woman harshly reminds him that God’s way of love is bigger, wider, more expansive, and inclusive than any individual, tribe, or nation.

Using the everyday imagery that we expect Jesus to use, she reminds him that even if the adults neglect to feed the animals, the children will often slip the pets some food under the table — that is, children will often make the compassionate sacrifice that adults are too preoccupied to make.

Jesus Was Wrong. The Woman Was Right.

Jesus’ life models the developmental journey that we all must take if we desire salvation —turning from our self-involvement, anxiety, and limited perspective and toward compassionate connection with others, inner freedom, and wholeness. Where Jesus had once felt disconnection and disgust, he suddenly felt connection and compassion. By humbling himself, admitting that the Syrophoenician woman was right, and expanding his circle of compassion beyond his own tribe, Jesus models spiritual maturity for us. He shows us what it looks like to grow in wisdom and in divine and human favor: to increase your love of God and neighbor, to expand your circle of compassion, and to deepen your sense of connection to the interdependent web of all existence.

The story of the Syrophoenician woman is among the strongest evidence available that both Jesus himself as well as the early church were part of an evolutionary process — that continues to this very day — in which we are continually being invited to learn just how much larger, more compassionate, and more inclusive God is then we are capable of realizing at any present moment.

The Hardest Question

Who is the “under the table” in your life, asking for only a crumb of bread or a morsel or attention? How is God speaking to you through those you have met or passed by or barely noticed in recent weeks? Whom is God inviting you to include, to love as if they were yourself?  Because in the largest sense, in God, your neighbor is yourself.

Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. He loves The New York Times, biking to work, and playing Ultimate Frisbee. Carl lives with his wife Magin LaSov Gregg, who is a Lecturer in English at Bowie State University. They have three cats and two dogs.


  1. Vicky Brown says:

    Great post, Carl. You opened my eyes to see the children feeding the dogs under the table!

  2. Carl Gregg says:

    Thanks, Vicky, for sharing that image. Glad the post resonated with you.

  3. Cathy says:

    Brings to mind the important idea of Jesus as an evolving being, the same as we are. Fully divine AND fully human, the same as we are. Truly our brother.

  4. What if, like so many other times Jesus isn’t caught off guard by her statement but instead in the unbelievable balance of his humanity and divinity isn’t pushing her away but providing her a parable.

    Jesus doesn’t say the dogs won’t get fed….just that they will later.

    She jumps into the parable herself and identifies with the dog in need and continues to seek the crumbs—knowingly and believing fully in the “Father” (they have to be some ones children and some ones dogs :) and trusting in faith that Jesus is capable of that.

    I would hate to say that Jesus was caught unaware or with his pants around his ankles. Feels like a false reading of the text to say so–look forward to hearing back :)


    • Hadge says:

      Hmmm, it’s too easy to try to harmonise this to make the claim that Jesus is all divinity disguised by humanity. This clearly is an account of raw honesty showing Jesus as fully human. We’ve all had it happen, we just want to get away from it all. After a busy few days of ministering we seek some solace over a glass of wine and a comforting harth in the safe house of a friend. The phone rings, or someone knocks at the door. They need help or assistance of some kind. My first reaction is resistance, maybe even a little hostility (I am human after all). During the course of the encounter, after an initial crusty response, I begin to see that the person needing my help has more faith in me than I do myself. A word, or a look, or her simple humility touches my heart and I have a sudden revelation of what I’m really about. The person who crashes into my hiding space leaves happy and I lift my glass to toast her, strangely warmed, and refreshed by her honesty and insight – seems we were both in need of help.

      I have always seen this passage in this way – seems to me that Jesus does indeed have an encounter which shapes and changes him – ‘Never have I seen faith such as this in all of Israel’, not the first time he says so about a ‘foreigner’. Let’s not forget that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and steeped in his law and tradition. It was through his encounters with those on the other side of the divide that would often challenge him and lead him to the place of seeing God’s love as for all and not just the ‘children of Israel’.

      I’m in agreement with Carl on this one (I preached a similar sermon back in Anglican seminary many years ago and was later ‘jokingly’ called a heretic by the college principle – he may well have been right) ;-)

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