As Christians, our calling is to seek and find Jesus. Scripture inform us in the book of Jeremiah 29:13(NRSV) – “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all of your heart.” The work of personal theology (the study of God) is “a continuing search for the fullness of truth of God made known in Jesus Christ.” (Migliore – Faith Seeking Understanding).
We understand, as students of the Bible, the transformative power of Scripture, and also should willingly admit to ourselves and others that we often have more questions than answers. To search, and study Scripture is to struggle with our questions, as our seeking allows God to provide the answers, to some; but not all, of our questions.
In the story that we will consider found in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, (the two oldest of the 4 gospel accounts) we find a story of a woman who challenges our preconceived notions and traditional teachings of Jesus. The narrative of the Syro-Phoenician woman is one of, if not the most controversial and debated stories in the New Testament. Here we find a woman, a Gentile, who has the audacity to challenge Jesus after he decidedly denies her request to heal her demon-possessed daughter. On this particular day, Jesus has no intention of granting her request; but instead, attempts to turn her away with an abrupt and insensitive assessment of her desperate circumstances.
But, this story is not just about Jesus. It is as much, if not more, about this desperate mother with a disruptive theology. This is a foreigner, a non-Jew, a Gentile woman, who finds herself prostrate before the Jewish Messiah, begging for His mercy. This woman not only disrupts Jesus’ day – his desire for rest, peace, and privacy; but, we find she disrupts Jesus’ socio-religious ethos and defined opinion and approach towards ministering to the Gentiles. Here we see Jesus’ full humanity on display and undeniably this Syro-Phoenician woman, who desperately seeks Jesus for her daughter, is responsible for the challenge which is posed to Jesus and to us, in this most controversial story of their encounter.
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Matthew 15: 21-28
The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Mark 7:24 – From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet, he could not escape notice…..
Jesus in Gentile country which was potentially dangerous for a Jew. Tyre had a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles, so Mark’s audience would have known these two groups to be bitter enemies. Additionally, Jews considered pagan territories to be “unclean” (impure). This socio-historical ethos would have also applied to the Syro-Phoenician woman, as well.
Mark 7:25-26- but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syro-Phoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Mark 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.”
Mark 7: 28 – But, she answered him, “Sir (some texts indicated “Lord”), even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Mark 7: 29-30 – Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go- the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Jesus’ response is shocking! This is where the real controversy of the story begins. The “children” are the nation of Israel, the Jewish people, of whom Jesus was one. But what of the “dogs?” To whom is Jesus speaking? Is this a term of endearment, or an attempt at coy banter (as some scholars suggest) or does Jesus really refer to this woman as a “dog” and mean it?
Scholarship is split on this point, as commentary will present either side. Some biblical scholars posit that “little dogs” or “dogs” was used by Jesus to mean “little puppies,” which would not be the slight and insult that it seems. A word search of “dog” in both the Old and New Testament finds that the word “dog” is used 64 times in Scripture, and in each case, the term is derogatory. Here are some of the examples:
1 Samuel 17:43
So, when Jesus addresses this woman directly, his response is not what we, the Markan audience anticipate. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Here we see Jesus on full display and his humanity is showing, as well as the reflection of the ethos of Jewish culture: Jews did hold the attitude that Gentiles were akin to dogs. In Hebrew Scriptures and in other Christian writings (including the references above), to call someone a “dog” was an insult. Historically, the Jewish notion was that dogs were unclean/impure. Would this mother indulge such a comment while her daughter was in such a terminal state? At a minimum, Jesus’ response seems unnecessarily harsh and lacking of his usual compassion for those in need.
But then, the trajectory of this interchange takes a turn. Something happens in the story that is peculiar and unexpected. Despite the insult directed at her, this woman took the hit, laid down her dignity, prostrated herself before Jesus, and begged for mercy. Instinctively, she knows she has found the answer to her dire circumstance. She refuses to go away. She shakes off the insult, takes the rebuff, and pitches it right back to Jesus! “Call me what you will,” she seems to say. “Doesn’t my daughter deserve your healing touch? Is not my daughter also one of God’s children? While I may not be born of the house of Israel, isn’t it your God’s property always to have mercy? Surely, even the dogs have the right to the Master’s crumbs? Look at me Jesus and see my humanity!
And this is exactly what Jesus does. Humanity and divinity come together in a single narrative of a single agency – the agency of faith, that of a mother’s faith who refuses to be denied the property of mercy. We witness Jesus moving from calling this woman a dog to ascribing a healing and she teaches us (and maybe Jesus) something paramount about faith and theology. Both are tenacious. Both must be radical. Both assist us in seeking and finding the things which matter most to us.
Our faith must be radical and our theology must be disruptive. Faith is never faith unless it is tested. Theology has no real value unless it asks the difficult, as well as the simple questions. Faith and theology are partners, as this woman teaches us in her story. Because of her disruptive theology and faith, Jesus is reconciled to this woman, and expands his own ministry to include the Gentiles. The Syro-Phoenician woman becomes a minister of reconciliation – mother to Messiah, Gentile to Jew, female to male, daughter of God to Son of God. Finally, she teaches us that when humanity is reconciled to one another, humanity is healed, and the kingdom of God is realized.
What manner of woman is this? The answer is clear! A woman of great faith!
Questions for discussion and consideration
As we “sit with this text,” how does this story challenge our traditional thoughts about Jesus?
For each of us, we must decide for ourselves what this story means. Obviously, the evangelist Mark wrote this story to challenge his readers. What does this story mean for you?
Many churches delete this story from their preaching lectionaries. Why do you think they avoid this particular narrative?
What are some of the differences between the Matthew and Mark story? Which story challenges you more?
Fight like a girl!
Well behaved women seldom make history.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1
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