The Syro-Phoenician Woman Meets the Living Word of God
I preface this with the words of Hebrews 4:12: “For the word, the logos, the Word of God is alive, powerful, and sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing right through to where soul divides from spirit or breath, to where joint divides from marrow, discriminating and discerning the thoughts and intents in the inmost self.” And I remind us that John’s gospel identifies the word, the logos, the Word of God like this: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life, and the life was the light of human beings….And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1: 1, 4, 14). Jesus walked among us, making God visible, and speaking as the embodied Word of God to the other human beings he encountered each day. As we listen to what he says to these others, we can hear as well what he is saying to us, since Jesus has come today to teach us Himself through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Given this foundation, what do we make of the encounter between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman, told in Mark 7 (and Matthew 15)? Do we see a Jesus who does not understand that he is God-sent to the whole world? Do we see a Jesus who is given to testing the faith of a desperate mother before granting her wish? Do we see a Jesus who is modeling their prejudice in an acted parable for his disciples, teaching them thereby that God heals Gentiles also, that Gentiles also can have faith in the one God sends?
I’ve heard it all three ways, and now I want to add a fourth way that to me solves some of the vexing problems of the above interpretations.
First, I have an a priori objection to thinking that Jesus participated in the ethnocentrism of his countrymen. This may be a flaw in my rational self because I do object to the heresy that Jesus carried all of God’s knowledge around in his human brain and was just pretending to share in the human condition. So if Jesus was limited at all, there is no logical necessity that his limitations weren’t also ethnocentrically Jewish. The preacher I heard positing this interpretation was making the point that Jesus himself grew in understanding his mission, moving from the Jewish messiah to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But since this is what John the Baptist said at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, it is hard for me to believe that John knew more about what Jesus was called to than Jesus did. Even in Mark’s telling, Jesus had already healed the Gerasene (Syrian) demoniac, who became the first non-Jewish bearer of the good news (Mark 5).
Jesus had the following things to say about his ministry, and only God knows how they fit chronologically with his encounter with this Gentile woman, but Mark puts them prior.
“Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown, among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4). This makes clear his understanding that those closest to him were least likely to see his calling and gifts. “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave shake the dust off of your feet as a testimony against them,” Jesus told his disciples (Mark 6:11). This makes clear his awareness that his own people might well reject the good news of God’s kingdom. Then he said to the most conscientious religious Jews of his day, “You have a way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” and told his disciples, “It isn’t what a person eats that makes the person unclean, but the evil that comes from within” (Mark 7: 9, 17, 21). This sets aside the dietary laws that were a key way to tell Jews from Gentiles. So when Jesus comes to Tyre to talk with the Gentile woman, he has already said a number of things that confront the Jews. He has notified his disciples of the need for “new wineskins” for the fresh “wine” of the good news. He has announced that his true family are all those who do what God wills. For these reasons and more, it seems to me unlikely that Jesus was expressing his own racism in this moment.
I also have a visceral objection to the “test of faith” interpretation of this encounter. Jesus did not ask the Gerasene demoniac if he believed or require him to ask in just the right way. Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic and then healed him with no question at all to the man about his faith (Mark 2). He did not require the man with the withered hand to express faith, and the man did not even ask for healing (Mark 3). He stopped the storm on the lake in spite of the disciples’ lack of faith (Mark 4). The two miracles recorded in Mark 5 do include Jesus commending the woman’s faith that moved her through the crowd to touch Jesus’s clothes, and encouraging Jairus to believe rather than fear. These two people and the Gentile woman share the characteristic that all three are desperate and turn to Jesus with hope. So why would Jesus test the one with the least background in Jewish faith more than he does the synagogue leader? It seems unlikely that the one of whom it is prophesied that “a smoking flax he will not quench” would pour cold water on a mother’s desperate hope while encouraging a father’s. Thus I can’t see this as Jesus testing the Gentile woman’s faith.
There is some precedent for seeing that the Gospel writers recorded Jesus’s actions that they found to be rich in metaphoric meaning—and these acted parables are available to us on many levels. However, I cannot think of any other of Jesus’s actions that depends on acting out for the disciples their own prejudices or limitations in a way that treats another human being negatively. He didn’t sucker people into agreeing with something he pretended to believe and then punch them with the opposite truth. Look at his interaction with the Samaritan woman (John 4). Jesus is already talking with her when the disciples return, even though they may well be scandalized by it. He doesn’t pretend first to share their distaste for Samaritans and then try to engage the woman. Additionally, it seems unlikely that Jesus would waste the opportunity to speak into an individual’s heart in order to make a point at that individual’s expense. So if this is an acted parable, its interpretation needs to be something different.
I remember finding out that a short story called “The Overcoat” by the Russian author Gogol is primarily seen by Russian readers as humorous and playful (see for example The Enigma of Gogol by Richard Peace, p. 148: “the author also laughs at his hero…”). As an American, however, I see it as grotesque and tragic. I miss all the puns and verbal hijinks of the Russian text, and my reading experience is linguistically and culturally distant from the reader Gogol wrote for. I read the translated text like an American.
In reading the Bible, I read like an American heir to the Judeo-Christian mindset. I have typically adopted the interpretive stance that sees God’s chosen people as the center of the story and all other peoples as “inferior.” In fact, I read as if I myself were one of the chosen people, despite not being Jewish. I am, in fact, in the same boat as the disciples. So to them (and to me, ironically) this Gentile woman is by Jewish definition inferior and thus “a dog.”
Then it occurred to me: this encounter takes place on her turf, in Tyre. She is the one with Roman citizenship. She’s the one from a city with paved roads. She is the one who would be so unlikely to turn to an itinerant Jewish carpenter, even one with a reputation for working wonders. She is likely to be carrying in her heart a sense of social superiority, even pride. And if this is the case, I need to rethink her approach to Jesus. Matthew records that she followed Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” What can she possibly be meaning by these titles? Does she think that they must be flattering, since she has heard that Jesus responds to them? Does she even know who David was? And does she continue shouting because she demands that they listen to her?
I think it is possible that she views herself as a social superior, bending because of her desperate need to ask for help from someone she would be unlikely to speak to under other circumstances. In fact, she is more like me—a privileged American citizen—and Jesus is more like a recent immigrant, perhaps even a migrant worker with or without a green card. She uses a title of respect that she has heard but that means little to her to get Jesus’s attention so he will grant her desperate request. To her, Jesus is a means to an end.
His responses are recorded in different form in Matthew and Mark. In Matthew, he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Perhaps he even shouts this back to her. He confronts the ethnic and class issues directly. Jesus has a pattern of confronting issues directly. Why do you call me good, he asked a good Jewish man. You know only God is good. Why do you call me “son of David,” why do you call me “Lord”? These titles mean nothing to you. They are signs to the house of Israel.
But he does stop walking, and she embodies her desperation by bowing before him. The Greek word used for this contains in it the idea of a dog licking the master’s hand. Perhaps she has caught his hand and is kissing it, perhaps she is crouched over his feet. I dare say she has not often bowed before a Jew before. She is a Roman citizen, in a prosperous and vital center of trade and manufacturing, and he is a provincial manual laborer, not even a citizen. “Help me,” she says.
The words Jesus says next still confront her. Jesus says this: God sent me first to Israel, a people you feel yourself to be superior to, but a people God has called God’s children. You understand that it is inappropriate, it is not a beautiful thing to take what these children need (whom you care nothing for) and give it to the little dogs under the table, leaving the children hungry.
She finds a loophole in this parable; she’s a smart woman. She tells it again, from the dogs’ point of view. Her willingness to be counted among the little dogs shows that she is willing to accept a humble place in God’s economy. “Yes, Lord, but we both know that children drop food, and the little dogs are welcome to scavenge. There is enough goodness, enough mercy, to feed my child, my dear dear daughter, to free her from being tormented by evil. Even the little dogs eat the crumbs.”
Why is this speech counted a sign of great faith? Here is a woman driven by desperation to accost a socially insignificant itinerant laborer in public, despite her prejudices and assurance of superiority. As Jesus often, and perhaps always, does, he pierces to her heart and requires her to come clean. And when they get to the heart, they discover that she does have faith that there is enough goodness, enough mercy, for the arrogant, self-satisfied outsider, that the dogs have a place in God’s economy as well, and that an honest conversation with Jesus is good for everyone. This is true for us today as well. Bring your desperation and hope to Jesus and then hear what He says to you. When it pierces to your most inner self, you will recognize that you have heard the Word of God. Listen, accept, and respond to that Word, and then do what Jesus tells you to do.
Peace, Richard. The Enigma of Gogol: An Examination of the Writings of N.V. Gogol and Their Place in the Russian Literary Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981. Google Books.
The last century of Seleucid rule was marked by disorder and dynastic struggles. These ended in 64 B.C., when the Roman general Pompey added Syria and Lebanon to the Roman Empire. Economic and intellectual activities flourished in Lebanon during the Pax Romana. The inhabitants of the principal Phoenician cities of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre were granted Roman citizenship. These cities were centers of the pottery, glass, and purple dye industries; their harbors also served as warehouses for products imported from Syria, Persia, and India. They exported cedar, perfume, jewelry, wine, and fruit to Rome. Economic prosperity led to a revival in construction and urban development; temples and palaces were built throughout the country, as well as paved roads that linked the cities. (http://www.ghazi.de/romegree.html)