Mark 7:24-30: The Syrophoenician Woman
September 6, 2015
The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
The Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house, and would not have any one know it; yet he could not be hid. But immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone. NRSV, Mark 7:24-30
Good morning! It is wonderful to be back home with you on this lovely Labor Day weekend.
Sometimes I am utterly amazed at the way the lectionary seems to dovetail with whatever is happening in my life or our life together. And this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark is a case and point. It is the story of the Syrophoenician woman, or the Canaanite woman, as she is called in Matthew’s version of this reading – which shows up twice in our canon, once this week in Mark and once in late summer in Matthew. And as the divine lectionary would have it, Matthew’s version came up on my last Sunday before my sabbatical last year, and here it is, albeit in a different form, on the last week of my academic time off. Perfect bookends for my year of recalibration and discernment.
This morning’s passage from Mark’s Gospel is, to my ears, the more difficult of the two versions, both of which are among the most difficult stories in our holy scripture. And the first couple of times that I read this story I thought, if ever there were a slice of scripture that should be roped off for repairs….this is it! It is the story of the Syrophoenician woman, according to Mark. And scholars have been searching for some justification for the abject rudeness of our living God in this periscope, from the beginning. For this passage in Mark (and its sister passage in Matthew) presents Jesus in the perhaps the most unflattering light in our scriptural record. Biblical scholar Sharon Ringe says in her commentary “A Gentle Woman’s Story” that this is the place where Jesus “is caught with his compassion down.”1 Hmmmm. I was not ware that Jesus was allowed to be…caught with his compassion down. Ever. And Jesus is not just un-compassionate here, he is on the verge of being a bully. He calls this woman, who approaches him for help, a dog.
Now, no one loves dogs more than I do. But even I know that when someone calls you a dog, not a dawg, but a dog, you have been summarily insulted. And it was even more ugly in Jesus’ day
when dogs were not generally beloved pets dining on kibble n bits and starring in the Christmas Pageant, God rest sweet Diva’s doggy soul. In Jesus’ day, dogs were dirty, stray, disease-carrying four-legged scavengers. And so for Jesus to call this woman, this desperate woman, a dog is beyond……belief. Which makes this passage more than a bit of a challenge….and on more than a few levels.
So here it is: Jesus has retired to Tyre for some rest and recalibration…maybe a bit of a biblical sabbatical for him. Tyre is a territory bordering the Gentile land in the North of Gallilee; not unlike the way Texas borders Mexico. It marks the ethnic boundary that distinguished between the Israelites, God’s chosen people, and not-so-chosen people of God. And so the first challenging bit of this passage is that it clearly juxtaposes the status of Jews and the status of the Gentiles. Jesus, the Jew, is up against the Syrophoenician woman, the Greek, the Gentile. In Matthew’s version of this passage, Jesus comes right out and says that he is here exclusively for the Jews, which, in my reading, takes some of the spotlight, some of the heat, off of the absolute rudeness of his interaction with the woman. In Matthew, our indignation is immediately trained on Jesus’ apparent misunderstanding of his mission to serve all of God’s children. And so the brutal sting of his inhospitable remark to this desperate mother of a sick child feels somewhat overshadowed by his overarching….theology. But Mark offers no such cover for Jesus’ overt rancor. Here, his exclusivity is not theoretical or ecclesiastical, it is, to be blunt, racial.
Nevertheless, in both Matthew and Mark, this passage is often held up as testament to the power and standing of marginalized people, especially women, in Jesus’ ministry. This is the only time in these sacred scriptures where Jesus is seemingly contradicted, corrected even, by a human being, and a woman no less…..and a Gentile woman maybe most importantly. And so this thoroughly marginalized mortal questions and corrects Jesus until he acquiesces and agrees that she is right. And as a reward for her courage and wisdom her wish is granted and her daughter is healed……instantly, so says the scripture.
Now, I do not want to get into the efficacy of faith as a cure to our human ills. The fabric and purpose of prayer and faith is beyond the bounds of this sermon. Let it suffice it to say that faith may be the answer, but it may not effect a cure.
And, not for nothing, but doesn’t it seem like the only ones who ever recognize Jesus for who he is, aside from his friend John the Baptist, the only ones who get who he is and from whence his power comes……are the most disrespected, the most powerless people in his path? The unclean spirits, the sightless jaywalkers, and the underclass of women and men who have nothing but a prayer to count on….they are the ones to follow. And so I am finding it very interesting to read these
passages in the midst of this political season when every candidate is seeking the most well-known and highly respected endorsements they can find. In the midst of all of that, let us not forget that Jesus was never known, never recognized, never endorsed by anyone with more clout than a homeless vagrant……or a displaced refugee…..or a suffering schizophrenic. The ones who get Jesus immediately are not the voices we seem to value. And that seems a message that we should hear!
Anyway, back to our story…..here is this woman – a female in a time and place where women had no time and place, not in public anyway, and especially not in the presence of a foreign, unfamiliar male. But she musters her courage and she appeals to the one whose power and authority she clearly recognizes. She summons her resolve, she steadies her nerves, she sucks up her fear and she approaches Jesus, whom she already knows in her heart can help her daughter. She believes in Jesus sight unseen, from the get-go. Her absolute faith in his power to heal her daughter, seemingly without having seen him perform a single miracle, surpasses even the faith of Jesus’ own disciples who never ever seemed to get his power, at least in this Gospel. This Gentile woman gets it.
But Jesus, in a shocking reversal of roles – having, just a few weeks ago, been rejected by his own family – now rejects this woman whom he considers to be other than his extended family of God. And so Jesus tells this woman that he has not come for her, he has not come to feed the dogs – he has come to feed the children – because the children of the Gentiles are dogs (Jesus’ words, not mine!).
Its hard to read this without seeing that now ubiquitous picture of the lifeless Syrian boy in red shorts washed up on the beach next to a Turkish resort. It is hard to read this passage without seeing the children of the world who are seemingly acceptably treated as dogs. Every month, an average of 3,000 unaccompanied minors risks life and limb to flee the violence and poverty in Central America for a better life here is our America. And they are corralled and referred to in terms no better than the ones Jesus uses in this morning’s Gospel. And so, I can’t help but continue to ask, Jesus and we who follow him, whose children are we here to feed?
Because in this passage, it feel like Jesus has forgotten his own message of love. He has trumped his message of love with a message of entitlement. Entitlement based on race. The Israelites are entitled to God, but not the non-Israelites. Jesus might as well have called this Syrophoenician woman an illegal….and he did, in a way. He tells her in no uncertain words that she is not entitled to the riches or benefits that he bears from God. And then he adds insult to injury by calling her a dog. Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner says that “If any other Jewish teacher of the time had said
such a thing, Christians would never have forgiven Judaism for it.”2 This Gospel reading is about as outrageous as it gets.
In fact, this response from Jesus is so problematic on so many levels that most scholars treat it almost as if it were a biblical joke. William Barkley’s popular commentary says: “We can be quite sure that the smile on Jesus’ face and the compassion in his eyes robbed the words of all insult and bitterness.”3 Really? Where is that in the Greek? And A.J. Rawlinson writes that Jesus probably spoke these words whimsically. Seriously? According to what source? Other scholars say that Jesus did not call the woman a dog, but a little puppy, in a sort of affectionate way, like, hold on there little doagy, your turn will come. Oh please! Some say that the woman was wealthy, as many in Tyre were, and that Jesus was scoffing the affluent oppressor when he called her a dog. But there is no textual grounding for this interpretation whatsoever.
The 4th century monk John Chrysostom says that Jesus was testing the woman, which is the only interpretation that does not directly conflict with the scripture. Chrysostom says that Jesus wanted to give the woman a chance to respond to his harshness with utter and unfailing faith, which she did, and thereby healed herself. That is to say, Jesus, with his ugly slur, was setting this marginalized woman up to succeed.4 Okay. But is this really the way that God works? Are the oppressed and abused in this world just being tested? Is our suffering a divine EKG?
I think that this is both unlikely, and an unnecessary stretch of the interpretive imaginations. There is nothing in the Greek or in the context to indicate that any of these interpretations are based on anything other than….the danger we perceive when we are disappointed in God. Because, holy cow, is Jesus ever disappointing in this passage!
Most of you know that I have started my doctoral work at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. It’s a three year program that focuses on Biblical Interpretation. The bulk of the program is conducted online…..which makes it more convenient and accessible on one hand, but a bit more transparent and risky on the other. I have class every Monday and Wednesday from 4pm to 6pm……for the next three years. And in between those classes there is lots of work to be done! Lots of reading. Lots of writing. Lots of thinking. Hard. Thinking beside and beyond the bounds of what was covered in my Master of Divinity Degree. Thinking that is expected to break new ground. Thinking that requires asking the big questions in tough new ways. I love it!
One of the great things about this particular degree is that it requires a ministerial context. It is not a doctoral degree that is grounded in theory and study alone. It requires a practical context where the theology can breathe and live out loud…it requires ministry. And so ready or not, this is my context. We together are the grounding from which, if it works the way it is supposed to work, we will all learn to think and live more expansively and reflectively; we will all get a new view of how and where God is calling and working in and through us in this world. We will all learn more about how we can live more faithfully and more hopefully and more prophetically in this world.
And I cannot think of a better biblical passage to start with than today’s Gospel. A passage where Jesus is required to re-ground himself in the context of his ministry. To expand his understanding of his own theology. Who is God? And how is God working in this world, and for whom?
The Good News in this morning’s reading from Mark, the real mitigating Good News is not that Jesus was redeemed from his rude shortsightedness…..but that faithfulness was the key. And in a rare Gospel twist, the teacher in this passage is not Jesus. The teacher is the Syrophoenician woman. For she refuses to believe her ears without checking in with her dignity. Maybe Jesus has a lousy poker face. But this woman calls his bluff. She refuses to be baited with this insult. She is seemingly un-phased by the degradation and presses on with her mission – the healing of her daughter. Despite being somewhat bullied by this divine healer, she refuses to deny her own faith, she refuses to betray her own heart, she refuses to abandon her own truth that she is a worthy daughter of God, she refuses not only to obey the conventions of the day which would have prevented her from approaching Jesus in the first place, but she refuses to obey even the apparent rebuke of the shepherd she is beseeching. She refuses to be derailed by words that she knows to be untrue, words that would have dissuaded a lesser lamb. And so instead of shrinking away, instead of obeying her social sensibilities or her comfort zone, she presses on.
She kneels down at the feet of Jesus. And she responds to the affront by saying, yes Lord, but even the dogs deserve a few crumbs. Martin Luther wrote in his fabulous sermon on this passage that this woman, “catches Christ with his own words. He compares her to a dog, she concedes it, and asks nothing more than that he let her be a dog…..where will Christ now take refuge? He is caught.”5 Amen.
And so finally, and not a moment too soon, our story comes to its neat and happy ending: ”Because of what you said,” says Jesus emphatically, “go home ; the demon has already left your daughter.” And, not for nothing, the daughter is not the only one to have been healed by this
woman’s gently fierce faith. Jesus himself has been healed, or at least made more whole. This Syrophoenician woman reminded Jesus, in the depth of his humanity, his dirty rotten rejecting self-righteous humanity, she reminded him of his divinity. And that is the Good News. And I think it is our calling as well….to see the divinity beneath our inhumanity. And oh boy, does this world have plenty of space for that!
And so as we leave this service of refreshment to go back out into the world and do God’s good work, let us keep this woman on our hearts….let us BE this woman in our hearts. Let us hear this voice and then BE this voice. Let us aspire to, and then reflect, her faith and her courage. Let us obey the truth that we know in our hearts and not the words (often hurtful and dis-couraging) that we hear with our ears. In this morning’s reading, Mark tells us in no uncertain terms that we can thank God for those among us who are willing (though we are all able) to stand for what is right and rise to the occasion of God’s radical inclusive love.
Yes Lord, but even the dogs deserve some crumbs.
My prayer for myself this morning is: Let that voice be me.
My prayer for myself this morning is: Let that voice be me. Alleluia! Amen!
© September, 2015 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
1 Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty Russell (Westmonster, 1984) 69.
2 Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (Macmillan 1929) 294.
3 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Westminster 1956) 122.
5 Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 325