In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
-Mark 7:25-29 (NIV)
I was riding the Chicago El this week, and a couple of stops after I got on a young man in his late teens or early twenties stepped into my train car. I was reading, and didn’t pay much attention when he first got on. But when he started speaking, I looked up and took notice.
I couldn’t help but take notice, in fact. He was talking to the whole car, at a pretty high volume.
He asked for our attention, politely. I looked around a little, and noticed most of the other riders concentrating even more intently on their newspapers, phones, or the view out the windows. He noticed too, because he asked again for us to listen, this time a little more urgently. He wanted us to hear his story, as it turns out.
His father had kicked him out, he told us, just the latest in a long series of disagreements between father and son. He had spent the previous night trying to sleep on the El, and most of that day trying to get people to listen to his story and give him enough money to get a bus ticket to Rockford, where he had a cousin he could stay with.
In between telling the story, he begged - literally begged - a couple more times for people to listen. And a quick look around the train car said that he wasn’t having much luck with that. The other riders had probably never been so interested in whatever they happened to be looking at. Maybe it was the buzz-cut hair and neck tattoos that made people uncomfortable. Maybe it was the strangeness of the situation. Whatever the reason, nobody was looking at him, even though they couldn’t help but hear.
I don’t know how genuine the young man’s story was. I’m sure there was more to the story than he was telling. But I know that it can’t be easy for someone to stand up in a train car crowded with Chicagoans who have seen and heard everything and try to get them to listen to you. And, as much as he wanted the money, he desperately wanted someone - anyone - to hear his story. To hear him.
It occurred to me, as the kid talked, just how many people I have in my life to listen to me. That’s one way to count your blessings, I guess: to tally up the people in your life you could call if you needed someone just to listen, to really hear you. Most of us have two or three people, at least. Quite possibly a lot more than that.
This kid didn’t know who to talk to except a train full of strangers.
I wonder if the Phoenician women Mark tells us about could have related to the kid I met on the train this week. It must have been difficult for her to get anyone to listen when she talked about her daughter; what could anyone do, after all? I think of parents I know whose kids are sick, or disabled, and how they’ll talk to anyone and do anything if they think it’ll help, and I imagine that everyone in her town knew who this woman was. I wonder if they crossed the street when they saw her and her daughter coming. I wonder if the town’s doctor closed up shop early on days she had an appointment. I wonder if former friends had stopped coming by to see her. I wonder why the girl’s father isn’t mentioned in the story.
When your child is demon-possessed, it must be hard for people to listen and care.
So when this heartsick, weary, lonely mom hears that Jesus is in town, she has to see him. Surely he’ll listen to her story. Surely he’ll help her daughter. She’s used to asking for help, so it’s not even hard for her to beg. She falls to her knees, hands reaching out in supplication, tears springing from her eyes, and she begs him to help her daughter.
And Jesus...Jesus dismisses her.
“Let the children eat all they want,” he says. “It isn’t right to give the childrens’ food to the dogs.”
It sounds harsher to our ears than it would have to hers. Most likely, Jesus was simply pointing out the priority of his mission to Israel. Non-Jews would have their chance with the good news too, but first, God’s covenant people would have the chance to receive him. This woman’s faith is admirable, but her timing is terrible.
She could have dropped her head and shuffled home. She could have given up, abandoned hope when the one person that she just knew would listen to her story pushed her away. Then again, she’s a mom with a daughter who needs her help, and so, no, she really couldn’t give up. Instead, as Jesus turns to go, she speaks up one more time: “You know - the dogs can eat the crumbs the children drop....”
And Jesus can only shake his head in amazement.: “For that reply, go home and you’ll find your daughter well.”
Two things. One, people who follow Jesus should listen to the stories other people tell. Even those who we think we have little in common with, those who we struggle to understand and whose stories don’t make much sense to us at first hearing - they need someone to listen, too. They need us to care enough to look them in the eye and hear what they think is important enough to tell us. We might be the only ones to listen, and even if we can’t solve their problems we can care enough to listen, and pray for them, and point them to the One who heals and saves and forgives.
Second, we always have someone who will hear us. When there’s no one else to listen to your story, no one else who you think might understand - Jesus listens and understands. He won’t always tell you what you want to hear, or do what you want him to do exactly when you want him to. But he’ll listen, and he’ll stoke whatever embers of faith he finds glowing in your heart.