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

Proper 18 (23) (September 9, 2018)

  • First reading and Psalm
    • Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
    • Psalm 125
  • Second reading
    • James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
  • Gospel
    • Mark 7:24-37
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! [mfn]This was my last Sunday during a period when I was filling in for a priest on sabbatical.[/mfn] 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.’” [mfn]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.[/mfn]

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. ✠ 

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