14 September 2017

Making Sense of the Syrophoenician Woman

The Gospel of Mark, chapter 7, tells the story of the Syrophoenician woman. I don't know about you, but every time I have read this story, it's almost like hitting an unexpected dip in the road. The kind that makes your car bottom out and you think to yourself, I hope I didn't break anything. Up until this point, Jesus is loving, serving, teaching, and healing. He's comforting the afflicted and confronting the Pharisees. Even a few chapters earlier, a conflict arises between Jesus and the religious leaders over the washing of hands and Jesus confronts them for putting tradition ahead of love. That makes sense. This is the Jesus we know and love.

But then comes the passage beginning at verse 24. He and the disciples go to a house, hoping not to be found. Too many people around all the time gets to be exhausting. But in verse 25, we learn that a woman finds Jesus and falls at his feet. It seems her daughter has an unclean spirit. She came to Jesus to beg him to cast the demon out. Perfect. This is just what Jesus came for! But then there's this little detail. "Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth" (v. 26). We think to ourselves, no big deal, Jesus can heal anyone he wishes.

So after she pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter, we come to verse 27 "Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."


Wait what? Did Jesus just refuse a desperate woman because she was of the wrong birth? Did he just call her a dog, a mongrel?  What are we supposed with that?

Here's what I think. Jesus was always teaching his disciples; this time was no different. Taken at face value, Jesus' response was remarkably harsh. It doesn't fit his character. So how are we to take this? We could assume that he was being harsh, Pharisaical, and clinging to tradition...or he was using this woman as a living parable. I think it was the second.

Trying to put myself in the scene, I envision Jesus and his disciples heading to Tyre and Sidon, trying to find rest. The small band of brothers no doubt talking about the recent interactions with the Pharisees. Along comes this woman, full of faith, but of the wrong tradition. She asks Jesus to free her daughter from a demon.

Jesus looks first at the woman and then at his disciples. They've all be raised in this tradition. It flows through their bloodstreams. I suspect that for some of them at least, they looked upon this woman with disgust. Some probably physically distanced themselves from her. They were simply responding to their upbringing. So Jesus, seeing them, offers the response they're all thinking but not saying. "You're no Jew. Go away you dog." He kept watching the disciples. Judas subtly nods. Peter too.

But she persists; she is desperate but faithful. She will take whatever he may offer her. Now, he looks at her, tears welling in her eyes, and in his. "For saying this, you may go. I have healed your daughter." Faith, not tradition; heart, not behavior.

I wonder what shifted in the disciples. Jesus was using misdirection. He was leading them down one path, but then doubles back to his
main message. Faith, not tradition; heart, not behavior. Jesus not only told them parables, in this case, he showed them.

Jesus still surprises me. I read stories like this one that for years don't make any sense and then one day...clunk...the pieces fall into place. When you are reading and something is puzzling or doesn't seem to fit the narrative of the story or the character of God, it probably doesn't. Slow down and pay attention. Notice what is happening in the surrounding verses. This passage makes much more sense when set against the earlier story line in Mark 7.

God is good. All the time.

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