mark 9.03The measure of someone’s desperation is, in part, what a person is willing to do for relief. Begging is certainly demeaning: the outstretched hand … the supplicating words. Seeking someone out, throwing yourself on his mercy, risking rebuke or rebuff—only desperate people behave in such a manner.

Take this woman, for instance … this mother. She was willing to beg. In Matthew’s telling of this story, the woman cried out … loudly … repeatedly … to the point that the disciples asked Jesus to send her away … her begging was bothering them.

Mark doesn’t go into this level of detail. He just tells us the woman bowed down at Jesus’ feet and spoke the words of desperate people: “Please … I’m at the end of my rope … my daughter …”

But another measure of desperation is what a person is willing to endure to get relief. Beggars suffer from more than hunger or and cold. They are laughed at and ridiculed. They experience rejection and refusal. In this instance, the woman begs … and must tolerate an insult.

“It’s not right to take the children’s bread and give it to dogs. First let the children eat all they want.” (7:27) That’s right. Jesus called this Gentile woman a “dog.” His fellow countrymen are the “children”—the ones with a right to receive bread from the family table. The “dog” deserves only leftovers, once the children have eaten their fill.

Insults to beggars should not surprise us. And, certainly, the sentiment expressed here was a commonplace at the time: Jews were assumed (by fellow Jews) to be members of God’s family … Gentiles were regarded as dogs. What shocks us is not the insult itself but the fact that Jesus is the one offering it.

In fairness, Jesus was quite capable of saying insulting things to people. He did it with the Pharisees all the time. “You snakes! You sons of hell!” But his words here—and to this particular woman—are unexpected and deeply disturbing.

This doesn’t sound like Jesus. You wonder whether he might have been testing the woman—smiling to lessen the sting of the slur. You wonder whether he was merely mouthing what the disciples were thinking in their prejudiced hearts—looking at them accusingly even as the slight slipped out.

Certainly this woman had been abused before. Doubtlessly she’d suffered her share of disdain and contempt. Perhaps she’d grown accustomed to the callousness of others. Perhaps she’d learned to roll with the punches. But, remarkably, the woman didn’t blink at Jesus’ words.

She should have been offended. She should have been hurt and upset. But she was desperate. Remember? And desperation makes you swallow insults, endure harsh words, and smile for the camera.

“Even dogs eat scraps that fall from the children’s table,” (7:28) she shot back, unabashed and undeterred. “Even dogs deserve a little mercy when the feast is so plentiful.”

You can almost hear Jesus laugh. “Good answer!” he tells the woman. “Great faith! Go home now. Your daughter is healed.”

She hesitates a moment. Can she trust this man or is he just telling her what she wants to hear? Is her daughter whole again or is Jesus sending her away empty handed (something she will not know until she arrives home)? She looks Jesus in the eye for a heartbeat and then walks away—a greater act of faith, I think, than the initial request or her bold answer to insulting words.

Jesus watches her go. His eyes are dancing. He likes desperate people. He appreciates mothers who go to extremes for their daughters. His heart goes out to people whose need exceeds their pride. Only blind men can see him. And desperate mothers.

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