Nevertheless, She Persisted: The Faith of the Syrophoenician Woman

A Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: St. James 2:10-17; St. Mark 7:24-37

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who came to feed the children of God. Amen.

We’ve seen something like this before.

The Syrophoenician Woman, 17th. century Coptic manuscript

Jesus is staying at a home in the area near Tyre when a woman comes to him, asking that Christ might cast a demon out of her daughter. There’s a familiar pattern for healing stories and exorcisms like this. There will be some little exchange, the disciples will get annoyed, onlookers will scoff at the entire situation, and Jesus will tell the woman that she has great faith and the daughter will made well. Standard enough fare for the Gospels.

We see these healing narratives over and over again. So much so that we get used to them and, to be honest, we stop paying attention until the end. “Oh, hey. Jesus healed the person with…what was it this time? Another leper? Leprosy! Jesus healed the person with leprosy. Yea. Alright.” They get a little boring, we lose focus, and the details often evade us as long as it’s a happy ending.

Usually, any sort of disturbing details are floating just under the surface; they demand a close reading of the text to really get at the real point of the story. But not this time. Today, one point of the story grabs us by the collar and slaps us in the face. A Gentile woman approaches Jesus and she needs help. She follows the social conventions of the day, coming to him in a home and throwing herself at his feet. She’s trying to follow the cultural norms for approaching a teacher with a request. And Jesus of Nazareth compares her to a dog.

Over the course of the very short, tense, and awkward conversation, Jesus offers this Canaanite woman a parable: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In short, he tells her, “You are an outsider. I came for the people of Israel, not for you or your daughter. They’re the children of God. You’re an unclean beast, a dog.”

A lot has been said about Jesus’ response. Some scholars have suggested that “dog” was a common racial slur for Gentiles used among first century Jewish communities and that Jesus is a product of his time, using terminology that he would have heard and holding on to grudges and suspicions that marked Judaism in the first century. What we see today, in this view, is an expanding view of God’s mission in the world – that Christ came for the children of Abraham but this woman convinces him to expand his ministry to the Gentiles as well. In the past, I’ve preached exactly this approach to the story. But the textual evidence doesn’t bear this out. A thorough reading of the ancient Jewish sources doesn’t show that “dog” was used in this way; it’s still insulting but lacks any sort of racial component.

Moreover, this interpretation doesn’t fit the narrative flow of the Gospel. Certainly, this Syrophoenician woman is an outsider. But already in Mark’s Gospel we’ve seen Jesus heal other outsiders. Think back a few months to chapter five. Jesus healed a woman suffering from twelve years of hemorrhages and a Gentile possessed by the demon Legion in the land of the Gerasenes. And on top of that, today’s episode is introduced with the detail that Jesus was hanging out in a house in a Gentile territory. These are people to whom he’s already ministered in a land where he would expect to interact with Gentiles. Further still, Christ had no problem arguing against the cultural norms of his day: just last week – only verses ago – we saw him argue with the Pharisees about what makes a person clean or unclean. His ministry has already expanded beyond the lost sheep of Israel to the unclean and the Gentile.

Other preachers have suggested that Jesus is testing the woman, but this seems out of step with Jesus. In the Gerasenes, he doesn’t abandon the Gentile to Legion for failing a test. Christ meets Jairus, the synagogue leader, and doesn’t stop to question him on the use of the Law. He doesn’t test the woman suffering from twelve years of hemorrhages even though she interrupted his mission to Jairus’ house. And would Christ have refused this woman’s request, punished her daughter, if this woman had failed? One scholar asks a striking question: what type of savior would do such a thing? The answer: “No Savior at all.”

And yet others interpreters have claimed that “dog” isn’t insulting. He’s not calling her a mangy beast but a pet, a puppy. But that doesn’t hold water. Besides the dehumanizing and vaguely condescending aspects of it, we know that the first century looked down on dogs as unclean animals – those who ravenously consumed the corpses of other unclean animals, who brought that contamination into the community. These aren’t pets but closer to scavengers like coyotes or dingoes.

On top of that, Jesus uses similar language in St. Matthew when he tells us not to place pearls before swine. Don’t give something valuable to something unclean, something dirty. Only today, he’s saying it in front of the very person he’s calling unclean.

None of this is in keeping with the Jesus we’ve seen work merciful wonders. And if all of this exegetical legwork isn’t enough, the reading from Saint James drives the point home:

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? …[Have] you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Such class distinctions are antithetical to the Gospel of our Lord, says Saint James. And yet here we have a pretty clear example of exactly that type of favoritism on Christ’s own lips.

We don’t know why Christ calls the woman a dog. I can’t pretend to answer this question, I can’t explain it away with some sort of interpretive slight-of-hand. And we can’t ignore it.

What we know is this: the Syrophoenician woman stands in contrast to the Pharisees of last week. The people to whom Christ had been sent rejected him on the basis of cleanliness. Here, we see a woman who, because of her ethnicity, was unclean, an outsider. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She says, “Dogs may be looked down upon. But even dogs are given the leftover scraps after the meal. Your table is overflowing. So please. Help my daughter.”

Let’s take stock of where we are in Mark: we’re in the middle of a set of stories that revolve around food. A chapter and a half before, Jesus fed a large crowd – five thousand people – and had twelve baskets of leftovers. Last week, Jesus argued with the children of Abraham about cleanliness, about what sets apart insiders and outsiders. And soon, in just a few verses, he will miraculously feed another large crowd – this time, four thousand in the land of the Gentiles and have seven baskets of leftovers. Smack in the middle, this Gentile woman asks to receive the crumbs from the table – a table overflowing with food miraculous deeds.

Jesus says he has come to feed the children of Israel, and a Canaanite woman points out that his baskets are overflowing with scraps. The spiritual food abounds. This so-called “dog” demonstrates more faith than Abraham’s heirs. Her faith wins the day and brings about Christ’s healing touch.

Pastor and scholar Bonnie Brown Thurston describers her this way:

The Syrophoenician woman can be held up as more than a foil to the Jewish officials….. This ‘uppity woman’ is [a sterling] example of faith; she exhibits the courage of those who have little to lose and can act on behalf of others for the sake of wholeness and liberation.

Boaz and Ruth by Rembrandt

It’s not surprising – Gentile women often win the day. Their faith often rivals, even surpasses that of their adopted siblings. Women like Rahab, Ruth, and today’s unnamed Syrophoenician mother are part of God’s plan to bless the entire world through the covenant with Abraham. Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, provides shelter and a means of escape for the Hebrew spies as they entered the Land of Promise. Ruth, a Moabite widow, demonstrates loving-kindness to her mother-in-law, seeking to care for her late husband’s family. Both of these Gentile women are mentioned by name in Christ’s lineage. They are central to the unfolding story of how God saves the entire world. And now a Syrophoenician woman continues to push that story further into the world.

All too often, we try to make our Church one of the insiders, little more than a social club. We have fought wars over who may and may not be consider part of the Church. We have sat by as those not like us were put to the sword, the guillotine, the gas chamber, and the machete. We have stood idly, doing nothing, as fire hoses and police dogs were unleashed on the outsider. We have closed off our borders to the foreigner. Those unlike us have come, seeking salvation, and we have scoffed.

Dear ones, in Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female, no rich nor poor, no American nor foreigner, no documented nor undocumented. There are only members of Christ’s Body, united in one Lord, one faith, one Baptism. The Church is not bound by national or ethnic or class boundaries. The Gospel drives us beyond our human distinctions between class, gender, ethnicity, skin color. The Kingdom of God is one of the outsider, the outcast, the downtrodden. We are aliens, immigrants, in this strange land. And therefore, we are called to side with the oppressed, to bring in the outcast, to welcome the immigrant, to love our neighbors as ourselves.


One thought on “Nevertheless, She Persisted: The Faith of the Syrophoenician Woman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s