A Slap in the Face: Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman
(A sermon on Mark 7:24-30, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Littleton, NH)
This morning’s gospel begins with Jesus going out to the region of Tyre. We are told that he enters a house and wants no one to know that he’s there. Apparently, Jesus is tired, and trying to get some rest. Of course, it’s hard to keep the news that he’s in town quiet, and it’s not long before a woman comes to Jesus, begging for help for her sick little daughter. She’s a Gentile: a Syrophoenician woman. Now comes the time of the passage where Jesus is to surprise everyone with his generosity of time and spirit.
Instead he says this: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
That’s not the way I expected Jesus to respond to the woman in need. In fact, I don’t know how this sounds to you...but I think Jesus just called this woman a dog.
For the last 2000 years, many people have attempted to explain this passage’s presence and meaning in the Gospel of Mark.
Many have suggested that Jesus was testing the woman with his words. While I was growing up, this was the most prevalent understanding. I have seen some versions of the Bible include the words “in order to test her.” Well, I for one can’t imagine that this is true: and if it is, I personally think that’s even crueler than the words at face value.This woman’s child was in torment! Is this a time to test her, to see if she can give the right answer? Of course not.
Some have claimed that Jesus words are meant as a compliment: that in comparison to the children of Israel, Jesus was going beyond the accepted norm by saying that Gentiles were not really enemies, but sort of like the faithful family dog. I wouldn’t even know where to begin in listing all the problematic things with this interpretation, but I will clearly say that it’s an understanding I don’t personally accept.
Others have concluded that Jesus never really said these words. These others include the majority of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, whose work I greatly respect and often use. The Jesus Seminar concluded that the dialogue of this story was the storyteller’s: not Jesus’ actual words. They soundly point to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ teachings suggest openness to pagans and gentiles:think about Jesus’ travels outside of Galilee, the story of the Good Samaritan, the encounter with the woman at the well, and so on. (The Five Gospels, Funk, Hoover & The Jesus Seminar p. 70 & p. 204)
There’s sound reasoning here, but what bothers me is this: why include the dogs comment, found in the Gospel of Matthew as well? Assume for a moment that this passage is a creation of the writer of the Gospel of Mark: putting words into Jesus’ mouth for a reason. What reason might that be? How does this account help make a persuasive argument that Jesus is Lord? The only apparent reason to have Jesus use these words is to suggest that Jesus understood his ministry to be within Judaism. Fine. Why then, include the woman’s retort and Jesus acceptance of it, granting her request? Any potential benefit to the story is now lost, and the results it that Jesus does not come off well in anyone’s eyes: the Gentile would be offended by his initial evasion, the Judean offended by his acquiescence to the woman. This story simply does not make Jesus look good to anyone, and seems unlikely to be made up for sake of furthering the new Christian community.
To me, there is a much more obvious explanation of this text, even if it’s a conclusion I don’t like. Jesus, my Lord, the one through whom I know the love of God...either due to his understanding of his ministry, or perhaps just because he was tired...attempts to evade this woman seeking his help, and for all intensive purposes calls her a dog.
My gut reaction is that I’d like to simply get rid of this passage, for it makes me uncomfortable. But upon reflection, I’m hesitant to dismiss it. This is one of the only times in our scriptures where we have a Jesus moment that does not speak well of him. Perhaps it is here because it was a story that refused to go away. Perhaps there were those who, in the midst of sharing the stories of Jesus said “But what about that encounter with the Syrophoenician woman?”
I once encountered a unique illustration of this story. Richard Swanson is a Biblical Storyteller and a professor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. He created a project called “Provoking the Gospel.” The students in his troupe are committed to the notion that biblical stories are dramatic, engaging, and provoking texts. They have been developing what they call “performative midrash,” which is a way of exploring texts through their embodiment, finding the tensions within the text. Their website says, “We do our work by poking the text and provoking it. We expect the text to poke us back, and to provoke us.”
I watched a video example of this technique. Two college students...a man and a woman...reading this passage in its entirety out loud, straight from the text, with the man speaking Jesus’ lines, and the woman taking on the unnamed Gentile. They read the text numerous times, and as they started to commit the passage to memory, they started to really interact with one another. Over and over the woman heard the man...Jesus...imply that he would not heal her suffering daughter...say that he would not throw the children’s food to the dogs. Finally, it sunk in: for one reason or another, she was not worthy of Jesus’ time.
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.”
She slapped him across the face...and she exclaimed bitterly: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Somehow, the young man stayed in character. With his palm cooling his stinging cheek, he said to her, in a stunned voice: “For saying that, you may go---the demon has left your daughter.” And...still in shock and perhaps only now glimpsing how he had wounded her...he turned away and left the scene.
Provoking the Gospel, indeed....
Think about this. Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus, a faithful Jew, would have originally thought that his ministry was supposed to be with his own people? His people were under Rome’s thumb, and were being taken advantage of by their own religious leaders. So he focused on them, but they struggled to understand. Even his handpicked disciples seemed clueless to the simplest of his messages. Jesus desperately needs some rest, and he finally gets away to a place where he thinks his time will be his, but instead finds yet another person in need: a gentile woman. His patience at an end, he attempts to push her away with what is either an unfortunate choice of words, or a not so cryptic dismissal that she is not “one of his people.”
But he underestimated her...she pushes back.
Perhaps at that moment, Jesus remembered his own bold and prophetic words that we heard last week: “It is not what goes in, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Mark 7:14-23)
What I think this means is that our capacity to do wrong is part of our human nature:we do not become infected with sin by breaking customs, like the Pharisees were trying to suggest. The capacity for sin...thoughts, words and actions that isolate us from God and each other’s love...comes from within ourselves, and is part of being fully human.
We teach in the church that Jesus, while divine, is also fully human. Do we really believe that? Will we allow Jesus himself to be fully human? Will we allow Jesus a mistake along his path of faithfulness to God’s call?
If we are able to, I think we begin to see the power in having Jesus learn something new... something so powerful that it changed the scope of his ministry...a ministry that would from this moment on especially focus on the outsider and the person marginalized by the community.
I am grateful for a portrait of Jesus that shows growth in his character from his experience with others. It proves to me that his encounters with people were real.There was the opportunity for all, including Jesus, to be transformed by each other. It shows that Jesus’ ministry changed over time... that it grew and blossomed in part by the people he met along the way. It suggests that even Jesus had to discern his ministry, just as we are all called to do.
Perhaps it might feel strange or uncomfortable to suggest that Jesus wasn’t perfect, but it might be just what we need: for such an understanding of Jesus might lead to a gentler and more patient way of our interacting with one other. After all, none of us are perfect...we all make mistakes...and the question often becomes how will we interact with people who have fallen short of our expectations. In proclaiming a fully human Jesus as Lord, we are called to follow in his footsteps and be a people vulnerable to a change of heart: open to new ways and understandings beyond our preconceived notions, and generous in our forgiving one another. In this way, the world might be transformed, and move towards God’s vision of heaven on earth. That's really good news from an uncomfortable text.
Might the lesson be to push back, as the Syrophoenician woman did, on what LOOKS like the final decision, the end of the road? Perhaps God wants us to fully partiicipate in what becomes of our lives, not simply passive recipients of God's grace.
My friend Karen had trouble posting on the blog, so she sent this to me directly:
Another lesson from the story is to look at it from the woman's point of view. It may be our job to push back when it appears that God has said "No."
We cannot let things remain as they are, and we should be involved, not passive, about making changes. The woman didn't just say, "OK. I guess my child will die." She refused to accept that as an answer. That's what we should be doing with life's challenges.
I don't see it as testing the woman. I see it rather as a lesson for all of us who are actively engaged in the world. Keep on pushing. Especially in places that others say you don't belong.
Here is an explanation I think you'll find interesting, one that shows His understanding and Love for both her and her daughter... enjoy.
Thanks Anon...and sorry for my late response.
I don't buy the arguments in this article: I don't think he was showing love or understanding with his response. He DID ultimately show love and understanding...but I think it was by his being changed.
(and please consider signing your name next time)
I am inclined with Kurt's two main points. One, there was capacity for Jesus, as fully human, to change and grow in interacting with others and those he ministered to, thus making Him open vulneratble to others, like us. Second, pushing back by the Syro-Phoenician woman is consistent with Jesus's teaching in "ask, seek, knock" persistent prayer. SC Chak (Singapore)
Kurt, I love your thinking on this difficult passage; it's almost exactly what I've come to in the last couple of years. For me, the blessing in this interpretation is (as you say) that it opens a window on a new way to understand the Incarnation, particularly Jesus' humanity: it meant he didn't know the full import of his ministry from day one--he had to learn a little at a time, like the rest of us. The "more human" Jesus is, for me at least, the more I believe he can identify with us. And that solidarity can be life-giving.
I think this is perhaps a lesson for the disciples, delivered with a bit of humor.
The disciples were Jewish exclusivists uninterested in serving or sharing the good news with Gentiles. They would have turned the woman away.
But Jesus, with a smile, engages the woman in a humorous way (expressing the disciples' perspective), and I can imagine the woman being in on the joke with a glint in her eye.
The disciples learned a lesson that day that helped lead, eventually, to Gentile inclusion in the church. And am I ever happy for that!
Perhaps: your interpretation works better with Matthew's version of the story...the disciples do complain, and Jesus proclaims her faith. It remains a possibility even in Mark's version, and I certainly agree with your rejoicing over the Gentile inclusion, even if I still think a tired Jesus (as the text describes) lends to my interpretation. Thanks for your comment!
I think it's always dangerous when we try to impose our current requirement to be PC and modern culture on the culture in Jesus time. This story was not misunderstood at the time or I am certain it would have been culled. If Jesus was operating in our current environment, you get the feeling the approach would have been slightly different. The ultimate lesson from this episode has not changed...bold,persistent faith yields results. Go, your faith "has done this" is a recurrent lesson. I don't see this as Jesus learning a lesson from a woman whose only concern was getting result for her child. There is a lot that can be said on this episode of scripture but we have to be extremely careful when we impose our current social attitudes on yesterday's. It smacks of a superiority complex that assumes it is superior to yesterday's.. and not simply building on it
Only took me two years to respond: sorry about that if you happen to read this. I disagree that my understanding of this is simply applying "current social attitudes" on yesterday's. Jesus grouped her with the dogs under their masters' table." I think that's pretty clear in any time that she is beneath. I think I take greatest issue with your statement that Jesus would not learn a lesson "from a woman whose only concern was getting result for her child." First off, Matthew has made it clear in his version that this Canaanite woman sees Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. She calls him "Lord" twice, and "Son of David". Yes, she is focused on getting her daughter healed, and her "persistent faith yields results." That is Matthew's other obvious point, but are you quite sure that Jesus isn't learning from these encounters? Sure, Matthew's Jesus always has things figured out, his actions usually "fulfilling scripture", (although not this time). But Mark's Jesus is constantly discerning his faithful path. His encounters drive is path of faithfulness. I think it's right to suggest he learns from others, especially considering the text before this story (what defiles). I think it's wrong to assume that this story would not have been troubling to first century audiences in some ways, and that is part of its brilliance.
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