There’s a large cherry tree right outside our dining room window. This week, as I was sitting at our table, eating my breakfast, I noticed that two leaves had turned from green to yellow.
Temperatures have dipped from the 90s down to the 70s.
It’s now dark when I walk our dog, Winfield, at night, while it used to be light until around 10:00 PM.
Students and teachers are going back to school. This week I met some brand new Small Wonders and Lee Owen Stone students who were at school for the very first time in their lives.
We’re not supposed to wear white shoes anymore.
In other words, summer is turning to fall.
We have entered a time of change, a time of transition.
So, also, has Jesus’ ministry. Today, in Mark 7:24-37, the Gospel begins to push its way beyond the borders of Israel and into the realm of the Gentiles. But unlike the slow, beautiful transition of leaves from green to yellow to orange, Jesus’ transition is abrupt and abrasive. It’s awkward and uncomfortable.
This story of the Syrophoenician woman is, in my opinion, the most challenging of all the Jesus stories. Jesus calls the woman a dog (which was an even worse insult then than it is now) and implies that her little girl is unworthy of healing based on her ethnic identity. In short, he dehumanizes this woman and her daughter simply because they’re Gentiles.
This story seems especially shocking on account of our reading a little over a month ago from Ephesians, when Paul claims that Jesus broke down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. But here it seems like Jesus is quite content with letting that wall stay in place.
I would like to begin by giving you permission to be upset by this story, as I am. I actually invite you to be upset by this story. I think that would be a good thing. Scripture is something we’re meant to wrestle with, as Jacob wrestled with God at Peniel. As a result of this wrestling, he was given the name Israel, which literally means “to wrestle with God” (Genesis 32:22-32). As this Syrophoenician woman, like Moses and the Psalmist before her, shows us, we are allowed to question, challenge, and even argue with God.
The baptist theologian James McClendon begins his 3-part systematic theology with this statement: “Theology means struggle.”[i] This is certainly a passage we should struggle with. If we don’t struggle with it, we aren’t taking it seriously.
On a personal level, I don’t totally know what to do with this passage. I believe there is good news here, but I can’t reconcile everything in this story. I can’t justify Jesus’ calling this woman a dog, no matter how I try. I will likely struggle with it the rest of my life, and that’s ok. That’s good. Because, like Jacob, I believe I will meet God in the struggle.
If this story bothers you, like it does me, it might be an invitation into reflection and prayer. Maybe you can spend a few days or the next week or maybe even the next month turning it over in our mind, praying over it, asking God to reveal something to you. Maybe it isn’t a riddle to solve, a question to answer, or a problem to fix, but the beginning of a conversation. Maybe you’ll find yourself in the place of this woman, on your knees reasoning with God, until God answers you.
But, despite the troubling nature of this story, or perhaps because of it, I think this story is an exciting one. It leads us into some scary, probably, for most of us, uncharted territory. It pushes the limits of our Christology, that is, our theology of Christ, just as our story pushes the boundary of Christ’s ministry from the Jewish regions of Palestine to the Gentile provinces of Phoenicia and the Decapolis.
So, let’s wrestle with this story and see if we can’t wrangle some good news out of it. Let’s see if we can’t meet God in the midst of the struggle.
Today, our passage picks up where we left off last week: Jesus had yet another confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees. After this confrontation, Jesus leaves the area around Gennesaret, and, v. 24 tells us, “went away to the region of Tyre.”
Ok, so, he went to another town. So what? It seems like Jesus is always doing that, moving from town to town. Well, yes, he is. But sometimes it’s important to know the geography. Like, for instance, in this case. Look in the back of your pew Bibles on the last page. Let’s find Gennesaret, where Jesus was. Do you see it? Now find Tyre. Where is it? It’s in a whole other province. It’s in Phoenicia. And the woman from our reading is a Syrophoenician. From there he travels to the region of the Decapolis by way of Sidon. Look where Sidon is, it’s way out of the way! All these regions are Gentile regions. Jesus has intentionally entered Gentile territory.
Often, when we read this story, we assume that the woman is the outsider. And, in a sense, she is. After all, Mark makes it very clear, she’s a “Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” It’s like he doubles down. It’s not enough to say she’s a Gentile (Mark actually says she’s a Greek), he follows up by telling us what kind of Gentile she is: a Syrophoenician. So she is, as far as Jesus and Judaism are concerned, an outsider, but geographically she isn’t the outsider. Jesus is.
Jesus has knowingly left the Jewish province of Galilee, which is kind of his home base, at least in the book of Mark, and has knowingly gone to a Gentile region. She isn’t encroaching on his territory, he is on hers.
It’s unclear why exactly Jesus ventures into Gentile country, especially if he’s going to be so mean to the first Gentile he meets. One possibility is that he needs a break. It’s clear that he’s exhausted. When he gets to Tyre he wants to hide in a house where no one can find him. When he heals the man in the second story, he “sighs,” and says “Ephphatha…Be opened.” Then he tells the man not to tell anyone. We don’t have to be super perceptive to figure out that Jesus is worn out. He heals begrudgingly, and he wants as little attention as possible.
So maybe Jesus travels into Gentile territory for a little vacay. Maybe he thinks the Gentiles won’t notice him, because his Gospel is uniquely Jewish, as he makes abundantly clear in his interaction with the woman. Like a celebrity trying to escape the paparazzi, Jesus might be trying to escape to a place where he’ll go unnoticed. If this is the case, it obviously doesn’t work.
Or, more likely, after his run in with the scribes and Pharisees, he’s realized that something’s gotta give. The religious leaders of Israel aren’t getting it, maybe it’s time to expand his ministry and reach out to those previously outside the fold: the Gentiles. Now, to be clear, he isn’t replacing Israel with the Gentiles, he’ll end up back in Israel, he’s simply broadening his ministry to include not only the Jews but also the Gentiles.
In either case, whether he’s just looking for a little respite or intentionally beginning a ministry outside of Israel, we have to believe that it is the Spirit that leads him to the Gentiles on purpose, whether Jesus knows it or not. At the beginning of Mark, Jesus is baptized, and immediately the Holy Spirit descends on him and drives him into the wilderness. From then on, though it isn’t always explicitly stated, the assumption is that Jesus is led, always, by the Spirit. It is the Spirit who guides and directs Jesus throughout his ministry, from his baptism on.
The same must be true in our passage this morning. Whatever Jesus’ motivation, whether it’s to get away or it’s an intentional mission to the Gentiles or something else, we have to believe that the Spirit is behind it, pushing Jesus outside the bounds of Israel and into the wider world, just as the Spirit often leads us into new, uncharted territory without us realizing it. The Spirit is propelling Jesus into a face to face confrontation with the “other.”
When he arrives in Tyre, he doesn’t want to see anyone. He enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. But this intrusive Syrophoenician woman bursts in and begins begging him for a miracle. In this moment, Jesus is confronted by the capital “O” other. She’s a woman, her clothing strange, her accent unfamiliar, her face contorted by grief, tears and snot flowing freely, begging him to free some little girl he can’t even see from the unclean spirit that possesses her. In that moment, a bias that Jesus maybe didn’t even know existed in him rears its ugly head.
So Jesus reverts to the narrative he grew up with. He was raised a devout Jew, and to be Jewish was to distinguish yourself against the Gentiles. Whether he knew it or not, this narrative had shaped his imagination. And now, face to face with a Gentile, the prejudice comes out: these people are less-than. They are disgusting. The first one he meets is dealing with a demon, which seems so fitting, because these are a god-forsaken people. The demons must run this place. These people are dogs.
He’s tired. He wants a break. And this is just too much. It’s hard enough dealing with his own people, the leaders always questioning him, the crowds constantly vacillating between wanting to make him a king and wanting to stone him. The Gentiles aren’t his problem. This isn’t his ministry. Wait a few years and Paul can deal with them. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. We should pay attention to the very important word first here. Jesus does seem to believe, even in this moment, that salvation is for the Gentiles as well, but he isn’t so sure this is the moment. He isn’t so sure that he’s the one to do it.
Jesus needing a little push from outside himself actually isn’t unprecedented in the Gospels. For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle is turning water into wine. Well, when that happens, Mary, Jesus’ mother, comes to him and says, “They’re all out of wine.” And Jesus says, rather rudely, “Woman, what does that have to do with me. My time hasn’t come yet.” Then Mary looks at the servants and goes, “Do what he tells you,” and leaves. So sometimes Jesus is a little slow on the uptake. Sometimes he needs someone else to give him that extra little push.
Jesus was fully human. He was also fully divine, yes, but he was fully human. And to be human is to be biased. We are all biased. We are all prejudiced. And if we think we aren’t we’re lying to ourselves. While none of us want to be prejudiced, if we pay attention to what’s going on inside, we’ll realize that we often make assumptions about people based on the ways they’re different than us. Because so much of forming our identity – who we are – is defining who we aren’t. This happens, most often, totally subconsciously. We simply grow up with “our” people, and instinctively know that we’re different from “those” people. All of this seems harmless enough, until suddenly, we’re confronted by the other in a way that makes us uncomfortable. This seems to be what happened to Jesus.
What’s interesting is that just last week, Jesus attacked the scribes and Pharisees for making the distinction between clean/unclean a matter of tradition, instead of a matter of the heart, and yet, here, he’s seemingly guilty of the same thing. He relies on the old boundary markers – Jews: clean, Gentiles: unclean.
But how can this be? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be perfect, holy, without sin? Yes. That is what Christian tradition teaches. And yet we have this story. This is where the wrestling comes in. This is the part of the story I can’t totally reconcile. I have to live with the tension. If Jesus just had bias, but didn’t act on it, and instead recognized it and changed his views, then that’s all good with me. But in this story Jesus acts on his bias and demeans another. It seems like he pretty clearly denies the image of God in this woman by calling her a dog.
Maybe we need to redefine what holy means, what perfect means, what sinless means. Maybe that’s where our error lies (I suspect it is). Or maybe I’m just reading the story wrong…but I don’t think so.
There are ways to interpret this story where Jesus doesn’t come out looking so bad, but, to me, they seem like wishful thinking, and you have to do some real interpretive gymnastics to make them work. They seem like an attempt to rescue Jesus, more for the sake of our own peace of mind, than for anything present in the text. There’s nothing in this passage that implies that Jesus doesn’t really believe what he says.
So, I think Jesus really means what he says, which is, once again, troubling. So the best sense I can make out of this passage is that Jesus, while being fully God, is also fully human, and in this moment, the bias he grew up with jumps out of him. Maybe it surprises him, the way I was surprised by my anger in the story I told last week about the driver who didn’t stop at the stop sign. Maybe Jesus’ holiness doesn’t refer to a lack of prejudice, but to the way he responds when confronted with his prejudice. Maybe what makes Jesus perfect is the way he reacts when he recognizes that his assumptions about this woman are wrong, she isn’t a dog.
The woman’s response is what finally gets him. As far as I can remember, no one else thwarts Jesus rhetorically…ever. And it’s not like no one else has tried. The scribes and Pharisees constantly test him, Pilate, the Roman ruler of Israel, questions him, and Jesus never flinches. Especially when it comes to the scribes and Pharisees, you can almost hear Jesus yawning over the questions they think are so clever. But this foreign woman, marginalized by ethnicity and gender, an unlikely interlocuter, does what all the others could not. She beats him in a match of words, and Jesus relents. Jesus changes his mind.
In this story we benefit from both Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. We learn something about God, and we also learn something about how to be fully human.
Jesus’ willingness to be swayed by this woman’s argument tells us something about the nature of God. If this is how Jesus responds when confronted by great sorrow and need, so also must God. When we come to God with our pain, God is not the unmoved Sovereign in the sky, as some would have us believe, but the compassionate Parent of us all, who is moved by our suffering and listens to our cries.
We can also infer that there is a special place in God’s heart for the down and out. Liberation theologians call this God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Beyond her skills of persuasion, perhaps this woman’s dire need moves Jesus. It’s not the educated, religiously astute leaders of Israel who change Jesus’ mind, it’s the foreign woman who even Jesus is – at first – inclined to ignore, who triumphs over him in a battle of wits. I’m inclined to believe that the same is true today. God’s ears are uniquely opened to the oppressed among us.
At the same time, Jesus models for us hows to be human. We are called to expand the borders of our ministry, to welcome all people, as God in Christ welcomes all people. This is what we are trying to do by being a welcoming and affirming, inclusive community. Being a welcoming and affirming, inclusive community means more than just welcoming and affirming LGBTQ+ folks, though it does certainly mean that as well. When we open our doors in radical hospitality, we are essentially doing the same thing as Jesus when he ventured into Gentile territory. We are inviting an encounter with the “other” – with those who don’t look like us, dress like us, talk like us, or live like us. If we are truly welcoming to all, there may be people who walk through our doors who reveal in you a prejudice you didn’t know was there. You may be tempted to think that they are somehow less-than. But, if we follow Jesus’ lead, we won’t let our prejudice win out. We will change our hearts. We will see their humanity.
This woman dramatically affects Jesus’ ministry. As I said before, after this interaction, he stays in Gentile territory and ventures to the Decapolis where he performs a miracle on another Gentile: the deaf man. When Jesus heals him, he says, ephphatha – “Be opened.” Isn’t this what Jesus has just experienced personally? He has been opened by this woman, opened to a new people, opened to God’s radical love for all of God’s children, opened to the Spirit’s transcending of all barriers.
And isn’t that Jesus’ healing, miraculous word to us today? Be opened, opened to the love of God that is poured out on you ever second of every day, if you would just recognize it. Be opened to the foreigner among you. Be open to the face of God in the face of the “other.”
[i] James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics, 17.