The Syrophoenician Woman: Debate Team Champion!

I’m on vacation this week. But I can’t help write about this Sunday’s Gospel, for it’s about a women who will not give up—even when she is turned away by the disciples, and when Jesus seems cold and rude. She loves her daughter so much that she takes Jesus to the mat—and her daughter is healed. It is a stunning story, and one that I stumbled over for years.

The setting in Mark: The woman shouts at Jesus to get his attention and then kneels at his feet. When he says that it is not fair to give food meant for the children (the Jews) to dogs (Gentiles…that would be us), she throws his words back at him. Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall under the table, she says. She is suggesting, it seems, that even a wee bit of Jesus’ power—even the leftovers—would heal her daughter. And she’s right.

The story is puzzling and off-putting. What the heck? Why does Jesus put her off? Why doesn’t he just heal the girl? Instead, especially in Matthew’s gospel (we hear from Mark this Sunday) Jesus comes across as rude and unwilling to share his healing powers with a desparate mother because she is not Jewish. Yikes.

Over the years, scholars and preachers have processed this confusing story in different ways: Jesus was only testing the woman; the word “dog” in Greek does not mean snarling behomoth so much as affectionate lap puppy, etc. Yet the regions of “Tyre and Sidon” are in Gentile territory, so the exchange with a Gentile could not have come has a total surprise.

My take on it? Jesus was rude, at least initially. Fully divine and fully human, here he expresses the human side of human emotions. He’s tired. He’s a scandal in Nazareth. Herod is irriated with him. He’s gone into a house where “he did not wish anyone to know about it.” He’s grieving the recent death of John the Baptist. And intially, his  ministry WAS solely to the house of Israel.

And yet this woman would not give up. She kept at it. She was an advocate of the highest order. She was a mother, a true mother, one who would do whatever it took to find healing for child.

I like this story because it sticks. We see pain and human emotion on both sides.

From initial fatigue on Jesus’ part came words with a blessing–and I’m guessing both of them experienced healing. In Gentile territory was a woman who did not need convincing, who saw the hand and heart of God in front of her, and was determined to claim it, to bring it home, to use it. Her action confirmed how right it was for Jesus to carry his work out…and out…and out…

And here’s the thing that led to that healing: when Jesus and the disciples initially ignored the woman, she did not back down. When he first refused her verbally, she did not flee. Like a judo master, who uses the energy of his/her opponent to direct the opponent’s flight path, she engaged Jesus, coming back at him with words he had already used, specifically the word “dog.”

Boldly, the woman persevered—and Jesus healed her daughter because of it.

What might we take away from this story? Persistance can bring results. Faith can play a large part in healing. Those outside the traditional circle of faith are also God’s children. Most of all: Don’t give up. Go find Jesus and stay with him until the healing is found.

_________

While this Sunday’s story is taken from Mark 7:24-30, Matthew also tells of the encounter (Matthew 15:21-28). There, the woman is from Canaan, thus the term, “Canaanite woman.” Like a journalist, Mark is more specific.

Text adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, 2014

Posted in Bible Women, New Testament Women, Uncategorized, Words of Bible Women Tagged with: ,
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