A family was eating dinner together, just the three of them. For once, even with a four year old, it didn’t involve trying to corral the child into staying at the table, focused on eating. He sat there, focused, determined. After a while, he said, “if I eat all my dinner, can I have candy?”
The father, feeling rather impatient, said, “I’m tired of hearing about candy! All day that’s all you’ve talked about. No, you may not have candy. Finish your food.” The child got a look of determination on his face, turned to his mother, and said, “Mom, tell my dad what you told me on the playground.”
Looking rather sheepish, the mom said, “I said if you ate all your food you could have candy.” A look of triumph crossed the four year old’s face as he turned to his dad and said, “You hear what my mom said?”
That’s the magical moment where you win an argument.
It’s what we’re all after when we have any kind of dispute: to win. If we can find the fact or point that will triumph over the rest, we might feel like we’ve accomplished something grand. Throughout an argument, we’re in search of the point, the fact, that will carry the day.
So it is for any of our arguments. We go into them believing in our point or perspective, not wanting to lose. No matter how the argument goes, we’re unlikely to cede our point because it’s too important to us. Whether we’re arguing about where to go for dinner with our family and have a strong preference for Southern Zest, or if we’re arguing about Georgia football’s prospects, or if we’re just trying to prove that our football team, say, the James Madison University Dukes, are also important, none of us wants to cede ground.
Arguments can be fun. They can also be debilitating, but regardless, we don’t want to lose. That’s just human nature.
In fact, if you search “how to lose an argument” on google, you find page after page of blog posts and business magazine articles extolling how to NOT lose an argument. These come with lists of pitfalls and argumentation errors that lead to losing an argument; things to avoid when in a dispute of any kind. One, Business Insider Australia, went so far as to say “Here’s how to win an argument even when you’re wrong.” https://www.businessinsider.com.au/heres-how-to-win-an-argument-even-when-youre-wrong-2017-10 If we’re humble enough to admit it, I think we can all relate to that article: at some point, in some arguments, it becomes more important to us to win the argument than to be right.
If we can structure the argument correctly, like the four year old boy arguing for candy, or if we can make the right point in the right way, or if we can just keep pushing our point until we wear down our opponent, we’ll win the argument. That’s the goal: win the argument.
So what’s remarkable about today’s scripture is Jesus teaches us how to lose an argument. Not in the way google presents the phrase, but how to actually be the loser of an argument. Engaged with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus cedes his point and her argument carries the day. Not only that, but her argument makes a big difference in Jesus’s ministry. In Mark, 7:24-37, Jesus teaches us how to lose an argument and why it can be important to do so.
How to lose an argument.
When the Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus, he is initially dismissive of her. He’s in a Gentile region, full of various cultures and people milling about because of trade. Mark tells us he entered this house trying to go unnoticed by hiding in a crowd. We don’t know why he entered the house at all, but I can relate to trying to hide in a crowd. Sometimes, I’m so drained of my social energy, introvert that I am, that I’ll go out of obligation to a function but try to go unseen. Or sometimes I know if the leader of a meeting sees me, I might get called upon to speak and thus become a focal point of the meeting and, sometimes, I just don’t want to be. So I try to hide in plain sight. Perhaps you can think of times where you’ve wanted to blend into the crowd, too.
Jesus has been healing, been teaching, and been walking a lot in Mark up until now. It’s easy to imagine that he’s tired and weary and ready to rest. Whatever’s brought him to this particular house, Jesus doesn’t want to be seen. He wants to blend in. In my mind, he doesn’t want to be needed.
But the Syrophoenician woman needs him. So when she approaches, he dismisses her using language that sounds coded to us but wouldn’t have to her. His use of children and dogs was common language for speaking of Jews versus Gentiles. Jews were children of Israel, children of God, whereas Gentiles were dogs, a derogatory term. Jesus is saying to her in no uncertain terms that, as a Jew, he will take care of the children first and then, if there’s something left over, he’ll take care of those Gentile dogs.
Ouch. But let’s not miss that Jesus isn’t wrong. The gospels state, and Paul’s letters affirm, that Jesus came first for the Jews and then for the Gentiles. The gospel message was couched in Jewish religious language, Jesus’s ministry was in Jewish territory, the disciples were all Jews, and almost all of the characters in the gospels are Jews. Jesus’s mission was a very Jewish mission. Paul gets at this when he says in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.” Here in Mark, Jesus saying he’s come first for the children, the Jews, is telling her a matter of fact.
But she is undeterred. Like a bulldog, she persists, she challenges, but does so very politely. Rather than react angrily to what she could have easily perceived as an insult, she responds and says in verse 28, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She cedes his point, not challenging whether or not she is a dog and he a child. She simply points out that even the dogs, lowly as they are (and they were considered lowly by ancient standards), even they get fed by the crumbs. She merely wants a crumb from Jesus. A crumb, she believes, will be enough to heal her daughter.
At this point in arguments, when someone has offered a challenge, we’d expect anyone, including Jesus, to respond with a counter point. Or maybe he acknowledges the request but says he’s too tired or worn out. Or, as is so often the case with others who argue with Jesus, you’d expect him to say something cryptic like, “you want healing for your daughter, but I offer healing from death itself.” You expect Jesus to say something kind of mysterious, that points to a larger picture, that says he recognizes the need but that he has an even greater need that he meets. Something other than verse 29, which says:
“For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” Jesus cedes the point, gives up his ground, loses the argument, granting the woman the crumb she asked for.
It’s absolutely remarkable. It’s so uncommon in the gospels for Jesus to lose an argument. Throughout all four, he doesn’t always win over his opponents, but time has proven his arguments to be right. Here, though, is a very different kind of encounter with Jesus. Here is a very human encounter with Jesus. We celebrate that Jesus was divine, and indeed he was, but sometimes that celebration obscures what Christians everywhere believe: that Jesus was equally human and divine. Here, we have a very human Jesus: weary, in probably a grumpy mood, being cold and difficult in his language. Here is a highly relatable Jesus. Here is the Jesus the book of Hebrews refers to when it says “he who knew our weakness.” (Heb. 4:16)
Jesus knew our weakness of not wanting to be needed, being worn out and weary, but when challenged, he doesn’t react the way we might, with harsh words born of our defensiveness, with a one-upmanship born of our egos, with total dismissal born of our weariness. Rather, Jesus chooses the path of humility, acknowledging that she is right, and meets her need. In doing so, Jesus shows us how to lose an argument and why it can be important to do so.
The humility on display in Jesus’s actions is powerful. Not only does he lose the argument, which is an act of humility itself, he does so to a Gentile woman, doubly considered inferior by his cultural standards for her ethnicity and her gender. Jesus shows tremendous humility, demonstrating it as an essential component whenever we find ourselves in an argument of any kind.
And this unnamed Gentile woman also shows us how to have an argument. She demonstrates respect, deference, and keeps her cool even when she might have felt insulted. Respect and humility guide this argument that, if it had happened between any two other people, might have blown up into personal attacks, real and damaging insults, and never achieved transformation. Arguments can harm because, when we decide the most important thing is to win, we forget that our opponent is human like we are, and thus worthy of the same respect we show ourselves. We turn to dehumanizing behavior because it’s the most efficient way to win, even if we’re wrong, but we lose relationships and harm ourselves in the process.
How many of our arguments would go differently if we applied humility and respect? Consider our arguments with our children. Sometimes in my parenting experience, my child has a valid point that I haven’t considered. Like the four year old boy, sometimes there’s more to the story than I realize. But it takes humility to hear my child’s argument.
Consider our arguments with our families. How far would humility and deference go in resolving long-standing disputes? It might reshape the contours from face-saving and defensive posturing to honest conversation that’s transformative. Or when we sit down at the dinner table together as a family and an argument arises, what would it be like if humility and respect shaped the dispute?
Consider our arguments in our business dealings or community affairs. How different would they be if we showed respect to everyone with whom we do business, even if we don’t think they’re deserving of our respect? What kind of interactions would we have if humility guided our interactions when there’s a dispute with a constituent, a contractor, or a customer?
I ask these rhetorical questions because arguments characterized by respect and humility are too often not the norm. Usually, we find it more important to be steadfast in our opinions and become self-righteous, rather than humble. We turn to disrespectful behavior like name calling or insulting or yelling or other dehumanizing behavior rather than show respect. We too often decide, at some point, that it’s more important to be right in the argument than to maintain relationship with our opponent.
Arguments create passion, heated passion, all the more if we’re coming from a place of being weary. If we fail to show humility and respect, if we fail to act like Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in the argument, we all know the results: harm to relationships, sometimes an end to relationship, bad business dealings, separation in families, and the furtherance of division. Our hearts end up the victims of conflict handled poorly; of conflict handled without humility and respect.
The stakes are high for choosing how we have an argument. Not only to prevent hurt to our hearts and our relationships, but also because positive outcomes to conflict hold tremendous promise. For if we are willing, with humility, to lose; if we can show respect because we respect the humanity of our opponent and ourselves, we can find ourselves and each other transformed.
That’s what happened to Jesus. In another sign of his humanity, another way in which he knew our weakness, this woman’s respectful challenge demonstrates to him the care and concern he should show Gentiles. The very next story Mark tells us, one he purposefully placed right after the Syrophoenician woman, is Jesus healing another Gentile. And not only that, but unlike the woman’s daughter whom Jesus healed remotely, Jesus violates Jewish purity laws by touching this man in his ears and tongue. Jews weren’t supposed to touch Gentiles in this way or else they had to go and ritually cleanse themselves at the temple. But Jesus violates the rules. Healing the Gentile man was more important than preserving his purity and the law.
The argument with the Syrophoenician woman transforms Jesus’s ministry. Now, in Mark, Jesus is ministering to Gentiles and doing so in a way that violates Jewish purity laws. He’s gone out of his way to demonstrate that his mission is for the Gentiles, too, even if it is for the Jews first. The placement of these two stories together is Mark telling us that conflict has transformed the mission.
And that’s the power of conflict handled rightly, handled with humility and respect. It has the power to create transformation; a transformation that, just like these two stories, provides healing.
Professionals talk about conflict transformation rather than conflict resolution. That’s because the “criterion for success [in conflict] is…whether or not people in conflict have changed and grown in ways that make them better people.” (Kraybill, Peace Skills, 6) Arguing shouldn’t be about winning because, if we approach arguments with humility and respect, they have the power to transform us into better people, regardless of who wins and who loses.
There’s a reason healing stories coincide with this episode of losing an argument. The transformation of conflict can “reduce violence, increase justice…and respond to real-life problems in human relationships” because conflicts, handled properly, are “life-giving opportunities.” (John Lederach, The little book of conflict transformation, 14). This is no overstatement. Consider this example: in communities around the country, racially-tinged crimes have not resulted in riots or property destruction because police and affected communities have argued with humility and respect.
Or consider another example. Just the other day, I read an article in the New York Times about a poll stating that faith in local governments is high. Most people believe their local officials are looking out for their best interest. They believe that because they have had disputes and they have been treated fairly, with respect, and even with the government demonstrating humility.
Consider that in my own family, we have known our own share of conflict. But I can point to relationships transformed into something healthy and whole because the conflict transformed us through our shared respect and humility. Healing has occurred, because conflict, handled properly, is a “life-giving opportunity.”
We, as humans, though focus on the negative examples, but our lives demonstrate that conflict can be transformational in a positive way, just as it was for Jesus. Because we tend to focus on the negatives, we can miss just how transformational conflict can be. If we think through our lives, I’m sure we can all find several examples of conflict that yielded a good outcome, offered healing; conflict that turned out to be a “life-giving opportunity.” And we can have more of those kinds of conflicts if we will approach conflict like Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman: with humility and respect.
When we find ourselves on the wrong side of the argument, we should emulate Jesus, changing our mind and ceding the point. That’s tough to do. We like to be right and we like to win. It’s especially tough to do if we’re worn out or weary or hurting. But we must be willing to lose the argument. We must demonstrate humility.
And on the other side, when we know that we’re right and yet we’re dismissed and feel mistreated as we’re being dismissed, we should be respectful and persistent.
The stakes are, indeed, high for being willing to lose an argument because doing so changes us, as it changed Jesus. Doing so is the way to real change, positive change, in ourselves and in our relationships. Arguments gone wrong can end relationships, cause much hurt and pain, as we’re all aware from our lives. But losing an argument when we’re wrong, approaching all arguments with humility and respect, can preserve and deepen relationships; conflict can, indeed, be “life giving opportunities.”
Humility and respect are key to arguments. Jesus sets a tremendous example for us this morning, an example of how to lose an argument.
Think to yourself this morning of the various arguments you have right now. Maybe they’re small, like where to go to lunch after church today. Maybe they’re big, like a family dispute that’s gone on for years. Maybe you’re having a moment where the national discourse has got you down. This morning, ask yourself if you’ve been humble in those arguments. Are you really listening? Are you willing to be wrong? This morning, ask yourself if you’ve been respectful in those arguments. Are you demonstrating deference, even if you don’t think it’s been earned?
Even Jesus, God made human, who knew our weakness, was willing to demonstrate humility and respect in the face of losing an argument. Be like Jesus this morning: lose arguments.