It is a strange and troubling scene.

Jesus is approached by a desperate woman, distraught about her daughter’s condition. She approaches Jesus humbly and reverently:Syrophoenician Woman 1

a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. (Mark 7:25)

The woman seeks compassion, kindness, respect, and healing from Jesus. Instead, she receives a swift and callous rebuke:

He said 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 7:27)

I do not know how many sermons have been preached or scholarly articles written about this curious scene. But I do know that many words have been spilled attempting to make sense of or justify Jesus’ curious behaviour in response to this sad and vulnerable woman. His motivations have been endlessly analyzed, described and explained.

It happens all the time to public figures.

People look at leaders and believe they understand the motivations behind their choices, decisions, and words. It is called projection. Someone looking from the outside feels they see the true meaning of another person’s actions.

But, in reality, in our attempts to discern the inner thoughts of another person, we only project on to that person our own fixations, blindspots, prejudices, and biases. What we see in others is a reflection of our own inner lives. We are not seeing reality when we analyze and summarize their motivations; we are merely looking in a mirror and seeing our own reflection.

Projection is always an exercise in futility that leads to the breakdown of human relationship and the destruction of open human communication. Communities that trade in projection become places of death, disconnection and miscommunication.

No one knows what motivated Jesus to say to this desperate woman,

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

His intentions are unknown and unknowable to anyone but himself.

The story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 does not invite us to explain Jesus’ behaviour. We are not given licence to analyze his choice of words. Instead the story is a challenge to ask ourselves how we might respond confronted by the harsh words of Jesus.

How do we respond when we find ourselves in a difficult situation? How doe we respond when we feel offended or irritated by the choices and decisions of another person? Do we create endless stories about why the person is wrong and bad and how we have been hurt, abused, and treated unjustly? Do we fight back? Do we argue, demand justice, seek vengeance? Do we rally the troops to support our cause?

Or, do we respond like the Syrophoenician who replied to Jesus simply,

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28)

As with Jesus’ words, the woman’s words are equally opaque. It is impossible to know what motivated her response. But it may not be a mistake that the Syropheonician woman’s story is followed immediately by the story of the deaf man to whom Jesus says,

“Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” (Mark 7:34)

The challenge of difficult circumstances is not to analyze the motives of those by whom we may feel hurt, or to create grand stories about their behaviour. The call of difficult circumstances is to “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

The Syrophoenician woman did not lash back; she went to a deeper place. She responded from a place of strength and security. She allowed her difficult situation to break her open. She trusted something deeper in the situation than what appeared on the surface. The path she chose led to healing and life.

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