Did you hear that? Did you hear what Jesus said to that Syrophoenician woman? He dismissed her. He dissed her. He called her a dog. A female dog. We have a word for that. And it ain’t pretty.
What do you make of this story? How do you square what we’ve just heard with Mr. “Love-Your-Neighbor-As-Yourself” Jesus of Nazareth?
Some people give him an out. They say, “He just called her a little dog, a puppy. It was no big deal.”
Other people say he was just testing her—her and his disciples. They say he knew all along he was going to heal that little girl. They say he just wanted to make a point about her faith or their understanding of his mission.
I don’t buy it.
I think something else was at work here. Something far more powerful than a test or a misplaced term of endearment.
Look where it all takes place. In Tyre. On the borderlands. In a place where Jews and Gentiles, Israelites and Greeks rub shoulders and not always lovingly. A land beyond the limits of Jesus’ sphere of ministry. A land far outside his comfort zone. A land fraught with danger and with possibility. A limnal land. A limnal space.
Remember what’s gone on before this encounter with that brassy woman. Jesus’ own family thought he was nuts. His neighbors chased him out of town. Pharisees and scribes were plotting to do him in. His disciples—they grew denser by the minute. I can imagine how he might have felt. Disappointed. Dejected. Maybe even doubting himself and the work he thought he was called to do. A moment fraught with danger and with possibility. A limnal moment in his life and in his ministry.
We all have those limnal times and places in our lives. Times and places fraught with danger. Times and places infused with the holy. Times and places we’d rather not be. Times and places filled with possibility if only we are open to it. Times when you get scared down to your boots. Times when you want to call back your words even as you are speaking them. Moments when we wonder if we will ever see our way clear to a new day. Times when the tectonic plates in our lives rub up against each other and threaten to swallow us up. Moments of fear, pain, shame, vulnerability and sometimes even an amazing kind of openness. Limnal moments in our lives. Moments when amazing transformations can occur.
Richard Rohr once called such moments, “a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them.” I wonder if Jesus was in such a place that day the Syrophoenican woman burst through the doors. There he was holding tight to what had worked for him in the past. There he was holding tight to an outdated vision of the ministry to which he was called. No wonder he says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”(Mark 7: 27b). He can’t let go of that old vision even when it’s not working as well as he might wish.
But she won’t settle for a “no”. She’s got a daughter that needs healing. Her words echo through the room like a gust of fresh air: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”(Mark 7: 28b) “Ephphatha. Be open,” she might just as well have added, for with her words came a shift—a major shift—in how he saw himself and the ministry he was about. Transformation in the moment.
Off Jesus goes. Off to another hotbed of Gentiles. Off to the Decapolis where he encounters a deaf man with a speech impediment. This time there’s no hesitation at all. Jesus pulls the man aside, sticks his fingers in the man’s deaf ears, spits on the ground, touches the man’s unruly tongue, and says,” Ephphatha. Be open.
That’s what Jesus says to us as well when we find ourselves in one of those places where we’ve lost all our moorings and have not yet found a place to drop anchor. When we find ourselves in a limnal time or place. “Ephphatha. Be open.” “Be open to God’s grace at work transforming pain and shame and fear and dread and emptiness into the stuff of new life.” “Be open to the possibilities inherent in the moment.”
“Ephphatha. Be open.”