Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Now here’s a Gospel reading capable of kicking off a church’s new program year with gusto.

September 9, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 7:24-37

Now here’s a Gospel reading capable of kicking off a church’s new program year with gusto.

It reminds us that God’s reign is neither easily regulated nor decorously parceled out. The abundance this kingdom promises has a tendency to burst the seams. Moreover, the passage expands our understanding of what counts as real “faith.”

Tell your congregations to stay expectant; their persistence just might pay off and uncover grace flowing in new directions this autumn.

“Caught with His Compassion Down”1

As Gospel stories go, this one is odd. Why is Jesus in Tyre, of all places, so distant from rural Galilee in terms of mileage as well as culture? Why is he apparently alone and seeking to elude everyone’s notice? How did this woman learn about and find him?

Most important, why the palpable rudeness? Nowhere else does he refuse a direct request to heal someone. Nowhere else does he respond to a suppliant with a bald insult like this, calling her and her afflicted daughter “dogs.” Is he categorizing these people as unclean gentiles? (This would be especially shocking, given what the verses preceding this passage have just said about purity.) Are they “dogs” because they are wealthy? Because the Syrians and Phoenicians had historically not been Israel’s nicest neighbors? Is he lumping the mother and daughter together with other Tyrians who had recently oppressed the local Jewish population?

Although Jesus’ motives are not clear, the thrust of his refusal is. This entirely out of character with our usual image of a generously compassionate savior.2

The Interpretive Crux

Every interpreter must make at least one key decision about this story: Is the woman passing a test or winning an argument? Some argue that Jesus’ initial denial (verse 27) must be uttered with a playful gleam in his eye, that he’s giving the woman a chance to express the faith he knows dwells within her before he gladly heals her daughter. This would make the story rather unique within Mark, and the woman the only person who has to endure and own a derogatory slur before receiving Jesus’ mercy. In the end, I find little to commend the “passing the test” interpretations.

But perhaps Jesus means what he says and has no intention of expelling a demon from the Syrophoenician girl. Perhaps the mother argues Jesus into doing otherwise.

For one thing, in saying “Let the children be fed first,” Jesus implies that the time is not right. Blessings may come to gentiles, in time, but for now his work is on behalf of Jews. His answer is not “Absolutely not,” but “Not just yet.” This interpretation seems most in line with the story Mark tells. It’s the strange lack of compassion or imagination on Jesus’ part that makes many people resist such a reading. For others, it’s difficulty with believing that a divine Jesus might be persuaded to change his mind about something (see Numbers 23:19, but compare Genesis 18:16-33; Exodus 32:14; Jonah 3:9).

Notice, second, what Jesus says in verse 29: he expels the demon dia touton ton logon — “because of this reasoning” the woman puts forward. It’s because of her logos, her statement that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her argument. Her logic.

It’s not simply that she cleverly reconfigures Jesus’ metaphors of crumbs and canines to fit her desires. Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility. It appears she recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to. Go ahead, children, eat all you want. But what if your table can’t contain all the food Jesus brings? (Recall the leftovers when Jesus fed 5000, and perhaps more, in Mark 6:43.) The excess must therefore start spilling to the floor — even now.

The woman also recognizes the potency of this “food.” She doesn’t demand to be treated as one of the “children.” Look, Mister, I’m not asking for a seat at the table. My daughter is suffering. All I need from you is a crumb or two. I know that will do the job. But I’m going to need it right now. Parents of really sick children don’t wait around.

New Directions

It’s as if the anonymous woman inexplicably understands implications of what Jesus announced in Mark 7:14-23. Aren’t Jews and gentiles in the same boat, in terms of what makes all of them defiled? Then why should gentiles have to wait to participate in the blessings made possible through the reign of Israel’s God?

In any case, immediately after leaving Tyre, Jesus’ work goes a new way. He cures a man who cannot hear and can barely speak, then feeds 4000 people. Those events occur, apparently, in the Decapolis (Mark 7:31-8:10), a region populated chiefly by gentiles. Although Mark doesn’t call attention to the ethnic identity of these people, it seems Jesus takes the Syrophoenician mother’s wisdom to heart. The timeline has been accelerated; gentiles receive blessings, too, even now. The woman’s persistence benefits more than just one little girl.

Her persistence persuades Jesus to do new things in his ministry.

Desperate Resolve = Faith

Thanks be to God for this tenacious Syrophoenician theologian. But don’t lose track of the simplicity of her achievement. Her theology doesn’t originate in books and study; it’s an expression of painfully experienced need and fierce motherly love.

Jesus commends the woman’s logos (“reasoning”) but says nothing about pistis (“faith”) — strange, perhaps, in light of other Markan passages that connect faith to receiving blessings (2:5; 5:34, 36; 9:23-24; 10:52). For some interpreters, this makes the Syrophoenician mother mostly a model of determination or verbal dexterity rather than faith.

I disagree and have explained elsewhere why I’m convinced the woman does exemplify faith. In doing so, she makes us consider what “faith” even means. Notice, especially, her persistent efforts (refusing to go away until she gets what she came for), her hopeful insight (refusing to believe even a tiny speck of grace isn’t out of reach and knowing just a scrap can make the difference for her), and — in the end — her trusting acceptance (her willingness to take Jesus at his word and journey home alone to confirm her daughter’s healing).

Who says things like desperation and tenacity aren’t the same thing as faith, when that desperation and tenacity are brought to Jesus? In Mark, “faith” is hardly about getting Jesus’ name or titles right, nailing the right confession, or articulating proper doctrine. It’s about clinging to Jesus and expecting him to heal, to restore, to save. It’s about demanding he do what he says he came to do.

Look for the Syrophoenician woman in the back row of church this Sunday. Maybe she’s the one whose reputation discourages her from getting involved or the one who slips out during the last hymn to avoid having to mix with the churchy “insiders.” But she keeps coming back, fiercely convinced that if anything you preach week-in and week-out is true, then it’s got to be true for her, too.

Like Jacob (Genesis 32:26), she’s not letting go until she gets her blessing.

Let her faith compel all of us to recognize new implications in a truly abundant gospel.

1Sharon H. Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), 69.
2This passage includes a number of disturbing — and potentially empowering — dimensions in its portrait of Jesus and its implications for ethnicity and gender. For a fine discussion, see Sharon H. Ringe, A Gentile Woman’s Story, Revisited: Rereading Mark 7.24-31,” in A Feminist Companion to Mark, ed. Amy-Jill Levine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 79-100.