What We Learn from the Syrophoenician Woman

By David Ney

Some of you will remember the scene from the 1999 film Dogma in which Cardinal Glick kicks off the new public relations campaign of the Catholic Church called “Catholicism Wow.” The first thing Glick does is retire the Crucifix, which he calls the “wholly depressing image of our Lord crucified.” “Christ,” says Glick, “didn’t come to earth to give us the willies, he came to help us out. He was a booster.”

Glick then unveils the new symbol of Catholicism, the symbol that will replace the crucifix, the Buddy Christ. It’s after hearing readings like the one we had today that we could all use a little Buddy Christ. But you know me well enough by now, don’t you, to know that that’s not the Christ I’m going to talk with you about. Nor am I going to tell you about the Christ that I have met at some Anglican Churches, Jesus the generic principle of niceness.

And I hope you know by now that it’s not because I’m a hard man, but because I love you. I pray and hope that you’ll tell me straight if you ever feel that I don’t. And I pray and hope that as long as I’m with you I’ll be able to love you well, and all the while stay faithful to my vocation as a priest, and the authority of Scripture. As the Psalmist puts it, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10).

Of all the hard sayings of Jesus, Mark 7:24-30 is surely one of the hardest. Jesus sometimes gives us theological ideas that are more difficult, more troubling, but rarely if ever does he trouble us so deeply. The woman whom Jesus interacts with in today’s gospel lesson is a Gentile — that is, non-Jewish — woman from the city of Tyre in Phoenecia. She’s usually called the Syrophoenician woman. That’s just a fancy-pants way of calling people from the region of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria.

She went to Jesus and fell at his feet because she was desperate for her daughter to be liberated from demonic oppression. But Jesus, surprisingly, seems to dismiss her outright, and in the worst possible way: “First let the children eat all they want,” he says to her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” As one interpreter puts it, “Long familiarity with the story, together with the traditional picture of the gentleness of Jesus, tends to obscure the shocking intolerance of the saying.”

One way interpreters have worked to get around the awkwardness of Jesus’ response is to say, well, we can’t tell what tone Jesus used when he said this, but he probably had a twinkle in his eye as he spoke—you know, wink ,wink, nudge, nudge — as if to say, “You know what we Jews are supposed to think of you Gentiles; do you think it is right for you to come and ask for a share in the healing I have come to impart to Jews?” Well, you can get an app that will deliver a fake phone call to your phone at the perfect moment so you can get out of that extremely awkward situation. But eventually you’re going to have to face the music.

When we find convenient solutions to difficult texts that allow us to retain all of our assumptions, we’re actually ignoring the text rather than interpreting it. We’ve actually closed our eyes; missed an opportunity to learn. When we simply say Oh, Jesus was just saying it tongue and cheek, or alternatively, as some have said, Jesus was just quoting a familiar proverb to expose it, we’re actually saying, well, I’ve got this belief in sweet Jesus meek and mild, and this belief doesn’t match with what Jesus says here, so I guess I’ll just throw out the saying, rationalize it away, send it to Kalamazoo on a one-way ticket.

But we’ve got to take this text seriously. Even though we don’t like it. No. Especially because we don’t like it. It’s in the Bible for a reason. So let’s dig deeper. One thing people will often say is that when Jesus says, “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs,” he is drawing attention to the fact that his mission hasn’t yet been completed. He hasn’t yet been crucified and resurrected; he hasn’t yet ascended into heaven; so he hasn’t yet given his disciples the Great Commission, telling them to go to all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And until that time, Jesus restricted his ministry to Palestine and to Jews.

It’s certainly true that Jesus didn’t travel widely, it’s certainly true that his ministry was directed almost entirely to Jews. And its certainly true that the time for the great mission of bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth hadn’t yet come. But if that’s what Jesus wanted to say, then why didn’t he just say it? Why didn’t he just say, “You know, I’d love to heal your daughter, but that isn’t possible. A year from now, though, I’ll have ascended into heaven, and some of my disciples will come through town. Don’t worry, they’ll take care of your daughter then.” And, Jesus didn’t just end up in Phoencia by accident. He didn’t wander aimlessly around until he suddenly realized he was in a foreign country. He went there for a reason, even though the time for the Great Commission hadn’t yet come.

Let me give you my take on the passage. Following New Testament scholar Rikki Watts, I believe that we have to take Jesus’ words at face value. The parallel version of this story found in Matthew 15 gives us a good start: in it, Jesus says quite plainly to the Syrophoenician woman, “I was sent only to the lost children of Israel.” Jesus himself is the bread, the bread that belongs rightfully to the children, the children of Israel. And the dogs he is talking about are the outsiders, that is, everyone else. So Jesus’ point is simple. Imagine that a group of hungry — probably very poor — children are sitting restlessly around a small table, waiting eagerly to devour a single loaf of bread that their mother has baked for them. Suddenly, without notice, she bends over and places the loaf of bread at the feet of the children and it is quickly consumed by the family pet. All the children can do is stare hopelessly at their mother.

Jesus came to fulfill the promises his Father made to the people of Israel. As Paul puts it in Romans 15, “Christ became a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed” (Rom. 15:8). He came to prove that the people of Israel — those who have been endued with God’s favor — are favored indeed. Whenever Jesus encounters a non-Jew he encounters someone that, by definition, is in a problematic situation. As Paul puts it in Romans 9, the adoption as sons, the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises all belong to Israel (Rom. 9:4). In other words, if you aren’t an Israelite, then none of these good things belong to you. And most importantly, Paul continues, the children of Israel have the patriarchs, and “from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all” (Rom. 9:5). As God’s rightful heirs, the Jews are the ones with the birthright, the right to partake in the bread of heaven, the body of Christ.

But why is Jesus so blunt in rubbing this painful truth in the face of a suffering woman? Well, its because he knows that it is actually wrong to treat those on the outside as if they are on the inside. To do so is to follow the false shepherds of Israel who lead the people astray by saying, “‘peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14; 8:11; Eze. 13:10). And truly, there is nothing worse than telling people that there is peace when there is none, for when the invading army comes, they will be completely unprepared and they will be utterly destroyed. You’ve got to know the truth, Jesus says to the Syrophoenician woman: “If you’re on the outside, then you’re on the outside.”

But when he says this, the most remarkable thing happens. The Syrophoenecian woman refuses to despair. She acknowledges Jesus’ point: she accepts the fact that she is an outsider: but then she shrewdly responds, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She dares to hope that she still might possibly have a share in God’s provision even though she is an outsider. Then something wonderful suddenly happens. Jesus responds to her by saying, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

But wait a second. Only a moment ago Jesus had said that he was not authorized to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter because he was sent only to the lost children of Israel. What’s going on here? Is Jesus being inconsistent? Absolutely not. The daughter has been liberated from her suffering. But this is not the cause, it is the effect. It happens because of something else, something even more profound. Don’t miss what is going on! If Jesus insists that he can only minister to insiders, but then he ministers to the Syrophoenician woman, that can only mean one thing. The Syrophoencian woman has become an insider. Through faith in Christ she has crossed the barrier, she has traveled from darkness into light. The Jewish messiah has become her savior: Jesus, the one who has “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” has become her peace” (Eph. 2:14). Can all of this happen in an instant? Absolutely. But, let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting that the woman has suddenly become a card-carrying, Trinitarian, baptized member of the Church of Christ. She’s on a long journey, as we all are. Conversion is a process that involves the transformation of the entire person, and that process takes time. But even still, the corner has been turned, the transition has been made: through faith, she has staked her claim to be a daughter of Abraham and to possess all the rights and privileges thereof.

You’ll recall that when the Jews were getting a little too excited about their privileged status as children of Abraham, Jesus had said to them, “do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). This, I think, helps to explain why Jesus uses the derogatory term dogs to refer to non-Jews in this story: he uses it to emphasize the immensity of God’s grace, and to show his fellow Jews that through faith even those who are commonly regarded as dogs can be lifted up and given a place at the table with the natural heirs as adopted children.

And in this the Syrophoenician woman is not alone. She stands alongside so many other women in the Bible who found themselves without an inheritance, without a future, and yet dared to hope that God might have a place for them. Through faith even Rahab the prostitute found a place in God’s plan. Rahab is given a place in the so-called hall of faith in Hebrews 11—alongside heavy hitters such as Abraham and Moses. Like them, she is honored not for her cunning, her leadership, or importance, but for her faith. The author of Hebrews tells us it was through faith that she welcomed Joshua’s spies into the city of Jericho, and through faith that her life was preserved (Heb. 11:31). So it turns out that although it strikes us as radical that the Syrophoencian woman is invited into God’s family through faith, it isn’t as surprising as we might suspect. It has been that way from the beginning. Israelites and non-Isrealites, women, and men, all come to God on the same terms. The rules didn’t change in the New Testament, and they haven’t changed today.

There’s a wonderful little line in the Great Thanksgiving of the Service of Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common prayer — in plain English: the part of the Lord’s Supper when the priest thanks God for the body and blood of Christ. It’s a wonderful little line that Anglicans have been praying for 500 years, and it continues to be said at our 8 a.m. service every Sunday. It’s easy to miss the wonder of it because it is said so often — some of you may know it by heart: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under they table.”

“To gather up the crumbs under they table.” That’s a quote taken from Mark 7. But it isn’t just a literary allusion. It’s far richer than just that. It’s our way of plugging into God’s great story. Whenever Anglicans say these words they are actually locating themselves within the story of the Bible. They are taking the posture of the Syrophoenician woman as if to say, “I acknowledge, Lord, that I am an outsider by birth. I acknowledge that I have no natural claim to your mercy. And yet I dare to hope beyond all hope, that you might find a place for me at your table, and within your family.” The Syrophoencian woman deserves our respect and our admiration because she is our spiritual mother. Whether we use the Book of Common Prayer or the Book of Alternative Services, the same principle stands: we do not come to the Lord’s table by right; we come to the Lord’s table in the hope that God will look favorably upon us, so that we might be included in Israel through faith in Jesus Christ.

There’s a lot of talk these days about inclusion. In fact, inclusion has become one of the watchwords of Canadian society. It’s a good word, that. With deep Christian roots. The idea that every human being deserves dignity and respect is salutary, and comes straight from the Bible. In our society, however, the word inclusion has come to mean far more than just that. It has come to be the standard-bearer of the new ideology that you’re okay and I’m okay. But the truth is, there is nothing Christian about that idea. The Bible is clear, from cover to cover, that you’re not okay, and I’m not okay. We’re all not okay. And to make matters worse, we can’t make ourselves okay. All we can do is to follow the path of the Syrophoenician woman by reaching out to Christ in the hope that he will have mercy on us, and grant us the life that only he can give. It’s been said before, but now more than ever, it must be said again. God loves us the way we are; yes, but he refuses to let us stay that way. He calls us all from darkness into light, from alienation into adoption, and from death into life so you can be okay, and I can be okay. May God grant us the grace to follow him, and to follow him in inviting those we know to become included in the family of God through faith.

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is a a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada and associate professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.

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