Full Human. Fully Divine. Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman or “Still she persists.” 4

Proper 18 (23) (September 9, 2018)

Etching by P. del Po after Annibale Carracci. Wellcome Library, London.

7:27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

It is good to be back with you all for one last Sunday. I admit, I wish we could have arranged an easier set of readings!1 Yet these challenging passages from Scripture this morning are an important reminder that we must read and wrestle with Scripture. We may not like or be comfortable with what it says, but we cannot ignore it, especially when “we” are clergy. Of the many choices this morning, I feel I must address the startling passage at the center of our Gospel reading, “[Jesus] 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.’”2

To anyone’s ears this should be sharp and shocking. In every language that I know and in antiquity no less than today, equating a person with dogs, even “little dogs” (the diminutive form is here), is offensive. So what is going on here? Is Jesus being racist? Boorish? Is he putting the woman to a test? Or is he a very tired man, fully human, fully divine, and fully exhausted?

Jesus needed a break. For the last few chapters of Mark, he has been trying to escape attention by criss-crossing the Sea of Galilee and now he has gone to Tyre, in hopes that no one would know he was there. Tyre was one of the strongest of the Phoenician cities, dating back to at least 2750 BCE (Think about that! It was founded at a time more distant from Jesus than we are!), and it remained a prominent and wealthy city on the Mediterranean coast. Along with Sidon and even at the height of Israel’s strength, Tyre remained independent from Israel. In the first century CE, Tyre controlled the surrounding region with a great amount of autonomy as a Roman province. It was a relatively wealthy region as well. Jesus was hoping to have a respite, to escape notice, in this Gentile territory. 

This woman who comes to Jesus was no doubt exhausted as well. Her daughter is possessed of a demon and if other passages in the Gospels are anything to go by, that means that the child lashes out it in fits, harming herself and perhaps others, and all the while any parent would be beside themselves, anxious to care for their child. Any person with an ounce of compassion can feel for the woman and resonate with her desperate appeal to Jesus, “Heal my daughter!” Anyone would want to help her in any way they could. 

[Jesus] 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.

What sort of response is that to such pain and suffering? How can we read this as anything but an ethnic slur. Some have suggested that, since this woman was also a Gentile, perhaps wealthy, and of a community that has been oppressing Jews in the region since Roman rule began, when Jesus equates her and her suffering daughter to dogs it is offensive but his comments are striking up the social ladder and not down. It is impossible to say. But I do not think we want to get into the habit of justifying offensive language when it is said to people in power, no matter how much it may be deserved. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What I think we can say is that this is a test for Jesus as much as for the woman. 

In the preceding passages Jesus declared the purity laws of the Pharisees null and void, challenging them to look beyond the words of the Law into the Spirit. “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:14). Mark tells us that Jesus is declaring all foods clean, but Jesus goes farther. 

20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. 

It is what comes out of us that defiles, since it is out of our hearts that comes cruelty and meanness, spite and anger, indifference and arrogance. The woman has begged Jesus to free her daughter of this demon and from out of his mouth comes…a fully human response.

Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

I am afraid I do not have any definite answers for the rhetorical questions I have posed. I do not know whether Jesus was testing the woman, challenging her with a wink (Filson, p. 180), or was he sincere in his immediate, hurtful reaction, one that likely would have been shared with the Pharisees he criticized the day before. 

We confess Jesus to be the Son of God and the Son of Man. This episode in his life serves as a reminder that Jesus was human as well. Fully divine and fully human means that Jesus needed food and rest. He also felt temptation and anger, and no doubt could get cranky and petulant from time to time. In other words, he was human, as we are. 

So it is that Jesus, tired, exhausted and seeking just a bit of  private time to pray and recharge, responds as any of us might, with a peevish, “go away, don’t bother me.” 

And yet the woman persists. 

28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

The woman, like the widow from Luke 18 who persists with the unjust judge, does not accept Jesus’ response, but perseveres and takes on the identity of a dog and turns it around, reminding Jesus that even the dogs receive the children’s crumbs. She acknowledges both the injustice of the world and the realities of survival. She is willing to beg and eat the crumbs left behind by the Chosen in order to save her daughter and she will not be denied.

Jesus has no choice but to acknowledge the truth of her statement and he is moved to act. Whatever human impulses that were at work in Jesus, no doubt the same impulses that cause us to look to our own tribe first, the same impulses that cause us to walk past the panhandler or shrug off our tearful neighbor, whatever they were, the logic of the woman’s argument brought Jesus back to his divine, Messianic Mission. “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 

This is a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel. This woman demanded mercy and grace from Jesus and from this point forward, he will heal Gentiles and Jews, he will feed a crowd of 4000 people from all backgrounds and there are not crumbs left, there are seven baskets full! From this point forward, Jesus goes throughout the Gentile region healing and preaching the Gospel of the forgiveness of sin, before returning to Jerusalem where he dies for the sins of all the world. 

This mother insisted that Jesus heal her child and would not be pushed aside, would not be denied. We are often that woman, in need of healing for ourselves and those we love. Her confrontation with Jesus reminds us of the example of the psalms, that we should be bold in calling God to see our suffering and to respond. Following her example, we must persist and insist that God see our needs and attend to them. “Do good, O LORD, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hearts.” Hear our prayer!

Elisabeth Johnson, a NT scholar reminds us, that whatever we were before, whatever people said we were or we believed ourselves to be, we are now the Children of God. “For those who identify more easily with the Syrophoenician woman begging for crumbs, it must be said that Jesus does not leave any of us in a state of beggarliness. He seats us at the table and claims us as God’s beloved children – children from every tribe and language and nation. Even crumbs from the table would be enough for our healing and salvation. But Jesus has given more than enough. He sets an abundant, life-giving feast for all.”

This is a pivotal moment for all of us. From this point forward, we proclaim the Gospel of Christ for all the world even as we call out to God for the crumbs of grace. And as we do so, we know that at the Lord’s table we receive not crumbs, but the Eucharistic feast that provides us with eternal life. 

Amen. ✠ 

  1. This was my last Sunday during a period when I was filling in for a priest on sabbatical. []
  2. Cf., Matt. 15:21ff. Since many asked me after the sermon, I should note that I do believe this to be a “genuine” Jesus saying, if for no other reason than the fact that it is so problematic. []

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4 thoughts on “Full Human. Fully Divine. Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman or “Still she persists.”

  • Tim Seiger

    This was great! Thanks. The possibility that Jesus was just ill tempered (even if understandably so) in that moment has not been an option in my interpretive tradition but it makes sense. Part of the reason that this reading has not been an option would be understanding an ill tempered reaction as sinful and therefore off the table in regard to Jesus. So, your reading here also raises questions I have had about reducing sin to discreet acts of wrong doing. I would be interested to hear your thoughts about this sometime either here or a future blog post :). Thanks again!

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Tim, thank you! It is good to hear from you and I greatly appreciate your comment. It may well develop into another post, but I think it would be good to continue the discussion here.

      You raise an excellent point regarding Jesus’ (lack of) sinfulness. (Cf. Heb.4:15 “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”) If Jesus is being rude or peevish with this woman, he is hurting her feelings and demeaning her and is that not sin? But you also suggest that perhaps we should not “reduc[e] sin to discreet acts of wrong doing.”

      First, I would suggest that as Christians we need to consider more deeply what it means to say that Jesus was “fully human” (again, Hebrews, this time 2:17 “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…”). In Evangelical (and more conservative) circles we are so solely focused upon his divinity and sinlessness that I think most recoil from any discussion of Jesus’ humanity. Others view his divinity as a later theological assertion (rather than an historical truth) and so reduce Jesus to simply a man. Sure, many of us will talk about the obvious human traits of Jesus, he eats, sleeps, and even cries, but I don’t think we dare to go deeper on that path of thought. The most complex discussion I can recall in my Evangelical circles has been the problematizing of Jesus’ being angry, anger being viewed as a sin. But that is usually dismissed by pointing out that Jesus’ anger was /righteous/ anger.

      Hebrews is putting forward the argument of Jesus as both High Priest to offer the atoning sacrifice and Jesus as the (spotless) sacrifice. In order to be acceptable, Jesus had to be sinless. It is not our only NT source for asserting Jesus is without sin (see Rom. 8:3, 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Pet. 2:22, 1 John 3:5), but they all seem particularly focused upon the ritual rites of sacrifice. So, when those passages argue that Jesus was without sin and therefore able to be an atoning sacrifice is it possible that they view of “sin” was not as broad and detailed as we modern Pharisees assume? As you said Tim, maybe we need to question reducing sin to discreet acts of wrong doing. After all, the “blamelessness” of a sacrifice (or a priest) was about its appearance (not lost limbs, flaws in coloration, etc.). Human priests were understood to do things wrong, but that did not necessarily inviolate their role as a priest. The lack of a testicle would, however (see Lev. 21) invalidate his qualifications.

      1 Pet. 2:22 ups the ante, however, and is directly related to this Gospel passage regarding Jesus’ speech. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” Of course, one could argue that Jesus was far from being deceitful in his response to the Syrophoenician woman; he was being, if anything, entirely too honest. And Heb. 4:15 focuses upon Jesus’ ability to withstand temptation. This would suggest that Jesus’ being “without sin” related to far more than simply his physical comportment.

      Let us return then to Jesus’ statement here in Mark’s Gospel, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Is this in itself sinful? It is if, as suggested before, hurting someone else’s feelings or being rude is a sin. I do not know if I could find a verse to justify that definition of sin, but I am sure we could stretch something to fit. Jesus is putting forward a proverb, albeit an offensive one if you are not one of the children. Presumably it would come down to intent. To cause offense is not in itself a sin, after all, we are told the Gospel is offensive, but surely the intent behind remarks that cause offense would be what is sinful. We do not have Jesus’ inner thoughts at this moment and Mark provides no direction for us (as he does elsewhere) so we cannot discern his intent. Back to Jesus’ comments about what comes from the heart. If Jesus uttered these words not to be offend, but as a deflection then I would suggest he is being peevish and flippant. So, behaving as any person might, but I think we could argue he is not sinning.

      Finally, and this would merit further thought, as a one who is fully human, surely Jesus was wrestling and struggling with his calling and ministry. We see that most clearly in the Garden (the whole “let this cup pass” monologue). Jesus’ remark “Let the children be fed first” may reflect his own inner struggle with how his ministry should move forward. The Messiah is sent FROM and TO the Children of Abraham, but he is also sent FOR the whole world. “How do I live this out? Have I preached enough in Jewish regions that I should now move on to the Gentiles? Should I let my disciples handle that? Is the world ready for this message, what further preparation is needed?” Now who is that knocking on the door, I thought I could find a little peace and quiet in Tyre, away from everyone else, to think this through….”

      [Enter distraught mother.]

      • Tim Seiger

        It certainly is a sticky question! I too think it is clear that the NT teaches that Jesus is without sin. But this tendency to understand sin as little more than moral accounting results in defining all kinds of things that may not be sin as sin. There was a book some years ago entitled something like “Growing up Born Again” and I think it was there where the author described (tongue in cheek) why bowling alleys were suspect and maybe even sinful. He explained that the problem was two fold. First, bowling alleys often have pool tables and everyone knows that where there are pool tables there is gambling and everyone knows gambling is sinful! Secondly, they play rock music and as you bowl your body contorts in ways that may approach dancing and everyone knows that dancing to rock music is wrong…” While it was meant to be humorous and a caricature there was some truth to the kind of reasoning parodied that I had experienced! All of this to say that perhaps we need a more robust definition of sin that doesn’t have us counting up the places and times we might possibly have gone wrong and then categorizing behavior as sinful because it takes us close to something that is sinful. As I read back I realize how crazy this all sounds 🙂 but I run into all the time! I don’t know what you think of NT Wright but he seems to be pushing away from a small understanding of individual sins (not dismissing but reprioritizing it) to a larger understanding in his book, “The Day the Revolution Began.” He writes: “Modern Christians need to be reminded regularly that Jews in this period did not perceive themselves to be living within a story of an angry moralistic God who threatened people that he would send them to hell if they displeased him. Nor were they hoping that, if somehow they could make things all right, they would go to a place called “heaven” and be with God forever. Some ancient pagans thought like that; most ancient Jews did not.”

        • Christian Brady Post author

          Ya Got Trouble! (Video of song from the Music Man, for those who do not want to click through.)

          Tim, I like much of what I have read of NT Wright, but that particular quote I would need to see more of in context. Judaism of the first and subsequent several centuries did have a sense of the imperative to keep the Law (and, for many, its oral corollaries). But if he is talking about the “hope of heaven,” that is a different matter… I would need to read the whole thing to get a good sense of the argument.

          I am very sympathetic with where you are going though and I think that got lost in my verbiage. I do think we are too fixated on the specifics of individual, minute actions when defining “sin.” It is, in a very deep sense, the attitude and approach rather than the actions.