It is interesting to me—maybe coincidental, maybe providential—that today, on this day of anniversary celebration this gospel passage, the story of the Syrophoenician woman and her encounter with Jesus, should present itself in the lectionary. I did not pick it, but perhaps it picked us. Despite how unsettling it can sound, it is probably my favorite story in the New Testament. It appears in slightly different forms in Mark, as we’ve just heard, and also in Matthew. So it comes up in the lectionary 2 out of every 3 years. I first preached on it on my third Sunday at Emmanuel, back in August of 2008, and probably 6 or 7 times since.
What more is there to say after 10 years? As it happens, I’ve had something of an exciting new insight after studying several commentaries this week. But before we get there, let’s lay the groundwork again—the context, the characters, what do they say and do, and why?
The first place we encounter this story of Jesus and his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is here in the gospel of Mark—written about 66 to 70 AD, at the height of a Jewish/Gentile conflict that led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and really a total leveling of Jerusalem as anyone knew it. Tensions were especially high, and there was a real belief among faithful people—Jewish and Christian alike—that the end of the world was coming. This end was both fearsome, but also hopeful, as it would usher in a new age under God’s Messiah. The Christians thought that Messiah was Jesus. The Jewish believers were not so sure. But they agreed that in the fulness of time the Roman Empire would not have the upper hand, despite its military and political strength in the present.
Second, we need to remember that Mark, the author of the gospel, was himself Gentile. We know because he doesn’t always have a strong grasp of Jewish religion, culture or customs, even as he believed with every fiber of his being that Jesus was the Son of God. For a long time, it was believed that Mark was written in Rome, and that he was a disciple of Peter or Paul. That’s still possible, but in studying how the gospel is written, his concerns, geography as he understands it, increasingly biblical scholars have come to believe that Mark may have been from Syria, writing for Gentile Christians there. This will be important later, so remember that. The church in Syria grew when Jews and others fled Jerusalem with the Roman siege and went there as refugees—a tragic irony given that so many are fleeing from Syria as refugees in today.
When we meet Jesus in this morning’s story, he seems to be looking for an escape. The most recent action event in the gospel, prior to this passage, is the miracle of the loaves and fish, when Jesus fed 5,000 people. That story is key, too. It happened in a Jewish area, and people are clamoring to see him. He has become a celebrity. He’s no longer just performing a miracle here and there, the occasional healing for someone who needs it, but instead, he’s started reaching people on a massive scale. Jesus has become a religious and cultural rock star.
And as with all rock stars, the crowds and groupies get to be too much. So, he tries to escape—to the region of Tyre, which today is Lebanon. This is an important detail, because it’s a Gentile region. In other words, he trying to go where no one would recognize him. Incognito. Hiding out in a safe house. Unfortunately, his fame has preceded him. Such was the force of his impact that even in a foreign land, filled with people of a different religious and cultural backgrounds, he can’t escape notice.
Enter, then, the Syrophoenician woman. We read that she is a Gentile. In other words, she’s not Jewish. She doesn’t share Jesus’ religious or cultural background. But she knows that he can heal. And, well, she’s desperate. Not for herself, but for her daughter—who is possessed by a demon or an unclean spirit. We don’t know what the medical diagnosis for such a thing might be today, but for her and her daughter it was something awful. Probably beyond awful. And when you are desperate for help, you don’t really care who the doctor is—race or religion or background or whatever—if he or she can heal.
Jesus, unfortunately, is none too interested. Maybe because he was tired and grumpy, on vacation. Or maybe because he really believed that his mission, and God’s mission, was first and foremost to the people of Israel. Whatever it was, his response to the woman’s desperate plea to heal her daughter is, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
There is no getting around the reality that his response was not only a rejection, but also an insult. Jesus called the woman and her daughter dogs—not worthy of the children’s food, not worthy of healing, not worthy of much.
Jesus’ response here reflects, in a sharp and vivid way, the tensions that existed between Jews and Gentiles in the first century, and particularly as Gentiles in the Roman Empire destroyed everything that faithful Jews held sacred. I have long believed that this passage makes Jesus look so bad that it must have really happened. Who on earth would make it up? But, maybe, it reflects even more the tensions of the 30 to 40 years after Jesus lived, tensions that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, and maybe less Jesus’ own words. Ultimately, we can’t know for sure.
But whatever the case, the real drama happens next, when the Syrophoenician woman, desperate to grasp whatever healing she can for her daughter, argues back. Now, notice that she doesn’t get in a shouting match—she is respectful, but also smart. “Sir” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She doesn’t question Jesus’ sense of his mission, she doesn’t say anything negative about his people, she just asks for some healing as well.
As we know, we are in the midst of a Supreme Court nomination battle. Perhaps capitalizing on that, CNN recently aired its documentary titled “RBG” about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I thought it was fantastic—powerful and deeply moving. And to me, here, the Syrophoenician woman reminds me a lot of the “Notorious RBG,” as she’s often called—not so much as a justice, but earlier, when she was a lawyer in the 1970s, arguing cases before the Supreme Court, slowly and steadily chipping away at sexist laws—with her carefully chosen words, cutting like a laser through centuries of sexism and bias. She won 5 out of her 6 cases. Her last case as a lawyer before the Court was in 1978. At the end of her oral argument, Justice William Rehnquist asked her, “You won't settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar, then?” Ginsburg later said she considered responding, “We won't settle for tokens”, but instead opted not to answer. Her late friend and much more conservative Supreme Court colleague, Antonin Scalia, said of her: “she became the leading (and very successful) litigator on behalf of women's rights—the Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak.”
And the Syrophoenician woman, is much the same. She’s not asking Jesus to overturn centuries of religious and cultural difference in one fell swoop. And she’s not allowing herself to be offended by the comment about dogs, but instead stays focused. Like a litigator, she’s arguing carefully, precisely, for what she needs. In her case, she was willing to accept tokens or crumbs, so long as they healed her daughter. And they do.
Jesus is so impressed, that he heals the girl from a distance. He doesn’t need to touch or even see her to include her in God’s act of healing, restoration, and salvation. It is the most remarkable story. And it is the only time, that I know of, that Jesus is bested in an argument. Not by a Pharisee. Not by someone who shares his cultural or religious background. Not even by a man. But by a woman. A woman whose daughter has a demon. A woman who is a Gentile. A woman who is desperate.
So, what do we make of that? Well, remember how I stressed the emerging consensus among scholars that Mark was written in Syria? That’s significant because the Syrophoenician woman was, herself, Syrian. She is from Syrian Phoenicia. Thus, it seems to me that she may really be the gospel’s embodiment of Mark and his own community. They know that they are not Jewish. They don’t share the same wonderful history and culture as Jesus and his disciples, going back to David and Moses and Abraham. But, Mark believes, with the Syrophoenician woman, that they are worthy of being included in the new community of faith and discipleship that is growing now. God, they believe, is breaking in, and making all things new.
You’ll remember, too, how I said that this story happens just after the feeding of the 5,000 with the five loaves and two fish. First that multitude was fed. Now, the woman and her daughter have been fed with their crumbs. And soon, in the next chapter, while Jesus is still in a Gentile area, he will perform another miracle, and feed 4,000 more people, this time with seven loaves and a few fish. Seven, notably, is a symbolic number for completeness. And so, the gospel shifts—exclusion falls away and all people, of multiple diverse backgrounds and languages are included as recipients of Christ’s miracles, and more importantly as guests in the heavenly banquet.
The pivotal figure in helping to bring that change is the woman from Syria, a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin, whose daughter had a demon. The healing of her daughter—the crumbs they receive—are really the foretaste of the wider and even more diverse and inclusive banquet that is to come. She is a hero of the Gospel. She’s the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg of the Bible, if you will, helping to bring change, little by little, step by step, chipping away at bias, exclusion, and discrimination.
So, there you have it—one of the most interesting, challenging, perplexing, and also hopeful passages in the Bible. As I said earlier, I used to think that the Syrophoenician woman’s story was included in the gospels because it had to be—it was known to be true, even if it was a little embarrassing to Jesus. Now, I more think that it’s there even more as an encouragement to Mark’s community and also to us. It’s a reminder that even if you sometimes feel left out, or alone, or desperate, even if you feel excluded or discriminated against, whatever it may be, God’s love, God’s embrace, and God’s kingdom includes you, too. Sometimes you may feel that you only get or only deserve crumbs under the table. But you should know that eventually, and even soon, you will feast at God’s banquet table. Whoever you are. Whatever your background—age, race, gender, orientation. All are part of the rainbow dream of God. That’s the good news. In fact, that’s the great news. That’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD