Mark 7:24-30: The Syrophoenician Woman
September 9, 2018
The Rev’d. Dr. 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. 7.25But immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. 7.26Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 7.27And 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.” 7.28But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 7.29And he said to her, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 7.30And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.
Sometimes I am utterly amazed at the way the lectionary seems to dovetail with whatever is happening in the world. And this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark is a case and point. It is the story of the Syrophoenician woman as she is called here in Mark’s telling of this story, or the Canaanite woman, as she is called in Matthew’s version.
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; this story of the Syrophoenician woman, according to Mark. Scholars have been searching for some justification for the abject rudeness of our living God in this periscope, for as long as there have been biblical scholars.
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.”Hmmmm. I was not aware that Jesus was allowedto 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.
Jesus is not the only man to call an unwanted woman a dog.But that is a sermon for another political season.
As you well know, 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. It is almost worse to be called a dog than even a female dog, if you know what I mean. Because the latter is a commentary on one’s disposition and demeanor, while the former is a commentary on one’s ontological status.
And it was even more ugly in Jesus’ day when dogs were not generally beloved; not members of the family dining on kibble n bits and starring in the Christmas Pageant. 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 sabbatical. 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 the not-so-chosen people, by 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 Gentile.
In Matthew’s version of this passage, Jesus comes right out and says that he is not here for the Gentiles, he is here exclusively for the Jews. This theological travesty, as it were, 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 misunderstanding of his mission on earth.
But Mark offers no such cover for Jesus’ overt rancor. Here, his exclusivity is not theoretical or ecclesiastical, it is, to be blunt, racial. In this passage, Jesus is the bearer of an unequivocally racial slur. Ugh.
Nevertheless, inbothMatthew and Mark, this passage is often held up as testament to the power of a marginalized person to stand up for human dignity, especially women. 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 Gentilewoman 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, 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. The actual miracle that seemed to heal the child is another sermon for another day.
I am more interested in the relationship between Jesus and the Gentile woman. 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 who seem to follow without question or qualm……even when they are rejected and rebuked. They are the ones who believe fully in the power of this Jesus of Nazareth.
And it is hard to hear this scripture and not think of our own immigration policies in this country at this moment; not to think about the thousands of children at our border whom our government of, by, and for the people has separated from their parents as though they were litters of puppies rather than human families. It is hard to read this passage without seeing the children of the world who are seemingly acceptably treated as dogs, or worse. 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 feels like Jesus has forgotten his own message of universal love. He has not read his own Gospel according to John that God so loved the world! Here, Jesus has trumped, so to speak, his message of love with a message of entitlement. Entitlement based on race. The Israelites are entitled to God, but the non-Israelites are stopped at the border…the border between God and no-God. Jesus might as well have called this Syrophoenician woman an illegal….and in a way, he did.
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.” 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.”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 4thcentury monk John Chrysostom says that Jesus was testing the woman, which is the only interpretation that does not seem to 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.Okay. But is this really the way that God works? Are the oppressed and abused in this world just being tested? Is all suffering just a divine EKG? A divine test of heart?
I think that this is both unlikely, and an unnecessary stretch of the interpretive imagination. 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! And scholars have been trying, unsuccessfully as we have just seen, to mitigate that disappointment for years.
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 this woman rose to the occasion. And so in a rare Gospel twist, the teacher in this passage is notJesus. The teacher is the Syrophoenician woman. She is the ultimate example of speaking truth to power with love.
Because 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 refusesto betray her own heart, she refusesto abandon her own truth that she is a worthy daughter of God, she refusesnot only to obey the conventions of the day which would have prevented her from approaching Jesus in the first place, but she refusesto obey even the apparent rebuke of the shepherd she is beseeching. She refusesto be derailed by words that she knows to be untrue, words that would have dissuaded a lesser lamb.
She is the resistance! If we are looking for a model for our own resistance, I suggest we look no further than this Gentile. Not a resister of any one, but of every way that denies dignity, that refutes her innate and intrinsic worth, that suggests that her race is not chosen by God as equally as is that of Israel. She is the ultimate example of speaking truth to power with love.
And so instead of shrinking away, instead of obeying her social sensibilities or her comfort zone, this courageous woman 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.”Amen to that!
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 it is so.
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 of the log in his own eye. 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. There is divinity buried deep within our humanity, and therefore within our inhumanity. There is the chance to turn ourselves to the good. Can we find our divinity as Jesus found his? Can we follow Jesus’ lead and heal ourselves of our own misunderstanding of our mission on earth? Can we learn that we are here to bring every living thing into the fold? Can we live as though every living thing were as divine as are we? Can we find our way through our own racism, shedding our own privilege for the life of the world?
Jesus models for us the first step when he listens with open ears to the voice of the woman who challenges his assumptions. He changes his understanding of himself. Shechanges his understanding of himself. So let us go forth this morning listening for that challenge to our own assumptions. Listening for the ones who rattle our certainties, the ones who insist that even the dogs deserve some crumbs….because in the end we are all the dogs, and the dogs are all us.
© September, 2018 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty Russell (Westminster, 1984) 69.
President Donald J. Trump called his former advisor Omarosa Manigault Newman a dog. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/14/us/politics/trump-omarosa-dog.html
Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching (Macmillan 1929) 294.
William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Westminster 1956) 122.
Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 325