Sermon - 9th September 2012
The Syro-Phoenician Woman
Scripture - Mark 7:24-37
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
Today’s passage is a difficult one to read, hear and preach about. I don’t know of any culture where it’s polite to call a woman a dog (even in those cultures which, like ours, love dogs). Jesus’ words means he comes across as being rude and grumpy – not attributes we normally associate with him. Preachers often try to explain away Jesus’ attitude in this passage but I think it shows his humanity in all its fullness and I think it shows that this desperate gentile woman managed to change his mind! The passage, though difficult, is full of meaning for us now in our own journeys of faith as gentile followers of the Jewish Messiah.
When I read this passage I wonder if Jesus had a bit of compassion fatigue. It follows an argument with the Pharisees about what makes a person clean and unclean and they were always trying to trip him up and make him look a fool. He has come to Tyre which was north of Israel and on the coast. It is now in Lebanon and was out of Israel proper in Jesus’ time and so had more gentiles than anywhere in Israel. We don’t know why Jesus was there – maybe he was trying to escape the crowds for a bit, maybe he wanted to go someplace where he wasn’t as well known in order to rest and recharge.
We don’t know the woman’s name. The writer of St Mark’s Gospel refers to her as a “Syro-Phoenician” woman, some translations have “Caananite”. Whatever her nationality she wasn’t Jewish and came from groups of peoples who had, historically been Israel’s enemies. At this time the Jewish people felt that they were closer to God than any other race as they were monotheistic. The surrounding nations, and the dominant Roman culture, were polytheistic and the Jews believed that the worship of idols led to all sorts of immorality provoking God’s righteous anger. Up to this point in St Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ ministry had been to and with Jewish people; he saw himself as being called to address and restore Israel in God’s purposes. That all changes with this episode.
I don’t know of any culture where it’s ok to call someone, particularly, a woman as a dog. It’s an insult in our culture, even though we’re generally crazy about dogs. The word “dog” is not good when used as an insult and I always take a sharp intake of breath when I read this passage and Jesus refers to this woman, and all other gentiles as dogs. The Early Church commentators didn’t know what to do with this passage as it had a strong, assertive woman getting the best of Jesus so they ignored her gender! In the early modern period the passage was interpreted to be all about faith and this gentile woman was held up to be the model convert that the Church had to reach. In more recent years people have started to wonder if the conversion that happened was actually Jesus being converted by the woman’s articulate answer. So we have to decide what we make of this passage before we can start to explore what we think it might mean for us now.
Some commentators want to see this passage as a test of this gentile woman. Jesus doesn’t really mean to be nasty, he’s testing her and seeing what she will say and do. He’s talking to her with a gleam in his eye, allowing her to express the faith that is within her so that the healing can take place – remember in St Mark’s gospel faith is needed for any healing to happen. But if this is a correct interpretation we have to wonder why Jesus doesn’t test anyone else in St Mark’s gospel and why the woman has to have the derogatory slur before Jesus will effect the healing on her daughter.
I think that it’s not that Jesus was testing the woman but that she changed his mind by winning the argument. Up until this point in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has ministered solely to Jewish people. He saw himself as the Jewish Messiah and he was called to address the concerns of Israel and restore them to a covenant relationship with God. The Jesus presented in St Mark doesn’t, up until this point, seem to have been concerned with gentiles. His answer to the woman in saying “Let the children be fed first” implies that the time isn’t right to feed others than the children of Israel. It maybe right in the future, but not now. What makes people resist this interpretation is the strange lack of compassion on Jesus’ part and his downright rudeness in his interaction with the woman. Some also don’t like the idea that God needs to have His mind changed – but the Old Testament is full of stories where humans have asked God to do something differently – indeed the whole story of Sodom came about as Abraham persuaded God to change his mind and have a look at Sodom before destroying it.
Jesus seems to imply that the woman has changed his mind. He says that the daughter will be well “because of this reasoning” – ie because of the woman’s wit in her argument with him. Her logic that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” has changed Jesus’ mind. Her logic won the day. Of course in ages past no commentator would want to countenance that a woman, a gentile woman at that, could change the mind of the Messiah but it does seem this is what happened. Her logic isn’t just that she, and gentiles, could have the scraps from the table but that she recognises an abundance and generosity in the ministry of Jesus – remember the leftovers in the feeding of the 5,000. It’s as if she recognises that the excess of God’s loving generosity must spill over. It’s also interesting that she doesn’t demand to be treated as one of the children – as Jewish person. She is wants healing for her daughter who is suffering. She knows Jesus can, and – more importantly – should do it. So she asks and she isn’t going to take “no” for an answer.
The compiler of St Mark places this small incident after the reading we heard last week where Jesus and the Pharisees were arguing about ritual purity – something which exercised the minds of the religious leaders of his day. Jesus’ answer that we are made unclean not by what goes into us but by what comes out rather reduces the difference between Jews and Gentiles. It’s as if this woman gets that idea and is putting Jesus to the test by making him think through the implications of his words. If there is no real difference, in God’s purposes, between Jews and Gentiles then Jesus needs to show that in deed as well as in word.
Significantly, after this encounter we start to see gentiles in St Mark’s gospel as subjects of Jesus’ ministry. He heals a man who can’t hear and he feeds 4,000 people – both in Decapolis; this is another Gentile area. St Mark doesn’t call attention to the ethnicity of these people but with a bit of local sociological knowledge the implication is clear - the Syrophoenician woman has helped Jesus change direction. This woman’s persistence benefits more than her own little girl.
Faith and Words
We should be thankful for this tenacious woman. She was an early theologian but her theology doesn’t start in books or study but in the experience of a fierce motherly love. She’d obviously heard about this healer and she knew she needed help. That was her context, her experience and she used it to argue with Jesus so that her daughter would be healed. Jesus comments her reasoning, her argument. He says nothing about her “faith” – even though, in the Pew Bibles, the passage is headed up “a woman’s faith”. It’s also interesting as other healing miracles in St Mark are always linked with faith. Maybe she does have faith – but maybe that faith isn’t what we normally take it to mean. She is persistent – refusing to go away until she got what she came for. She has insight – that a speck of grace isn’t out of reach and can make the world of difference for her. In the end she takes Jesus at his word and travels home to find her daughter believing that Jesus meant what he said.
Think of the asylum seekers we know who through desperation and tenacity have won their right to stay in the sanctuary of the UK – who says this isn’t a form of faith? Faith isn’t about getting Jesus’ name or titles right. It isn’t just about accepting all the things in the Creed, it isn’t about signing up to every single Biblical truth you can – it’s about clinging to Jesus through thick and thin, expecting him to heal, restore and save. It’s about demanding he does what he came to do. It’s showing loyalty to him and remaining steadfast.
Who here is like the Syrophoenician woman? Who clings to Jesus despite what the church has taught us about ourselves? Who dares to trust in Christ when the Church has condemned. Who pesters Jesus to do what he said he would; even when so many of us struggle to believe? We dare to believe that what we read and what we preach and what we believe includes us too. We won’t go away (despite so many in the wider church wishing we would) because we know that we are loyal to Jesus – and he is loyal to us – even if so many of his followers treat us like the ancient Jews treated the ancient gentiles.
This woman’s faith compels us to believe in a gospel which is abundant, where good things are there for all, not just the churchy and holy, a faith that is inclusive and where God is content to have His mind changed by a desperate woman worried to death about her daughter. This woman reminds us to ground our theology – the things we think about God – in our own lives, our own experiences, our own contexts – not in the thoughts, lives, and words of others (helpful though they maybe). We always need to start our reflections in our own contexts, just as that woman did long ago. She knew that good news for her was the healing of her daughter, but this knowledge became good news for Jesus and changed his ministry forever.
As we reflect on what is good news for us in our own contexts, we will get a fuller understanding of the Gospel and a clearer idea of how to share it with others.