Surprised by the Spirit

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps” (Mark 7:29).

This remarkable encounter between Jesus and the pagan woman on the northern border of Galilee has many possible themes to explore. One is that Jesus’ understanding of the scope of his ministry was expanded by the clear evidence that great faith was already present outside of Israel.

The Holy Spirit guiding Jesus shows him this in the determination of the woman on behalf of her sick daughter. In the exchange of words, the woman wins the case for healing by answering Jesus’ seemingly rude comment about dogs with the plea that puppies under the table get the children’s scraps. It is a brilliant response and it convinces Jesus that the Spirit is speaking to him through the woman.

To accept this explanation is also to accept the idea that Jesus’ understanding of his mission was not given to him fully but had to develop from his experience. Jesus had to learn. The woman opens his mind and heart to the needs of all people, including the pagans and foreigners beyond the borders of the Chosen People, the Jews. This idea of the human development of Jesus is present in Mark, whereas the Jesus in John’s Gospel is a divine figure who always knows what to do and say.

Another theme is that women often teach Jesus something about himself.  The woman suffering from the blood issue draws healing power from Jesus without his control. She draws him beyond the legal and ritual understanding that to be touched by such a woman would contaminate Jesus, making him unclean.  The woman teaches Jesus that compassion and faith are more important than the law.

These themes are sources of insight for us now. A disciple is a lifelong learner, always ready to be surprised by the Spirit.