I wonder if today’s Gospel made you uncomfortable. If it didn’t then perhaps it should have. One commentator has described it as: “Jesus with his compassion down”. Another entitled this: “Beware the dog”. Perhaps we might call it: “Small crumbs of comfort”.
On the face of it, Jesus isn’t being very nice. Can you think of anywhere else where he initially withheld a healing from anyone? Then that awkward comment about the dogs. If one of the disciples had said that, then you can imagine that Jesus would be all over them. You can possibly see racism, sexism and Jesus just being, well, awkward.
Or do you see a tenacious, intelligent woman who broke all the normal social boundaries – and did whatever she had to do – to desperately claim a healing for her daughter? A daughter who probably lashed out and harmed both herself and others. I was going to say this was a woman at her wits end – but actually she’s a woman with her wits about her.
We are apparently presented with a choice. Was Jesus testing the woman and the disciples – and he said what he did with glint in eye and tongue in cheek? Or was he persuaded by the exchange – and he really did change his mind? Neither of those seem to sit quite right and we scrabble around to make excuses. Our view of Jesus has to shift a bit.
So, I stand here with another dilemma. Last time it was Bathsheba and David. And once again we have a scripture which can be looked at in different ways.
One approach to this, and the equivalent passage in Matthew 15:21-28, is to think about who else is present. The disciples aren’t mentioned in Mark’s narrative – but Mark must have got the story from somewhere. In Matthew, however, the disciples are very active in what’s happening. So, Jesus is not just dealing with the woman, he’s interacting with the disciples too. And, in this first take on the story, Jesus intuitively recognises the strength and intelligence of the woman and takes it as an opportunity to provocatively confront the disciples with their own, perhaps subconscious, prejudices – and, by extension, with ours. Perhaps each one of us has our own ‘Syrophoenician woman’…
We’re in or near Tyre, which is on the coast of modern-day Lebanon. That’s Gentile territory away from Galilee. It seems Jesus wanted some time to gather his thoughts since we’re told he entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. He wasn’t to get his wish though. And some see nothing more in what follows than a Jesus who was tired and crabby because he didn’t get the rest he was after.
But the woman finds him and presumably they are both speaking in Greek or Aramaic because they understand each other. She’s a woman and he’s a man and even today, in more conservative areas of the ME, men and women do not talk to strangers across the gender barrier. Plus she’s a Gentile seeking a favour from a Jew. And she’s from Tyre, a city which Ezekiel spends 3 chapters railing against.
In Matthew’s version, Jesus initially says nothing when the woman asks for the healing. And the apologists see Jesus deliberately not responding because the disciples would think it entirely proper for him not to talk to the woman.
But she persists. In Matthew’s version Jesus then says that he was sent ‘only to the lost sheep of Israel’. Again, the disciples would see this as being the correct thing to say. And it would have been an easy thing to say if they were deep in Galilee – but here, in Tyre, face-to-face with a Gentile woman in desperate need, such views were more difficult. Could Jesus look her in the eyes when he said it?
And it’s easy for us today to ignore a charity pleading for money on the TV or in a letter through the post. It’s much harder if the person in need is stood or sat or knelt right there in front of us. Did the disciples start to squirm a little?
And did the woman see through the words and believe that Jesus didn’t mean it? She asks again for his help. In Matthew, the disciples still want Jesus to send her away. And now comes the comment about taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs.
You can soft-soap this all you want and say that the word he used for dogs meant ‘little dogs’ or puppies – but it’s still insulting. Dogs were almost as bad as pigs in ME culture. Dogs were never pets. They scavenged or were used as half-wild guard dogs. They were seen as shameless and unclean.
Were the disciples shocked at their attitudes and feelings being verbalized this way? Were they embarrassed at their bias being shown for what it was when directly faced with a desperate, kneeling woman pleading for her daughter?
Have we ever had that happen to us? Something deep-seated publicly shown-up for what it was?
And what of the woman herself? Even if we agree that this is a test for the disciples, she’sthe one getting the brunt of this when she’s already desperate. How do we feel about Jesus putting her through all this to make a point?
Amazingly the woman responds: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”. She superbly, humorously, movingly turns the insult around and makes it into another request. She lives up to Jesus’ assumed expectations.
And this time she gets her wish. In Matthew, Jesus says she has great faith. The child is healed. And we’re left to wonder if the disciples’ attitude towards women and Gentiles is healed too – whether their understanding of God, and who God extends his love to, changes with it. Do we put limits on the extent of God’s love? Who are our ‘Syrophoenician women’?
But I wonder if we’re still a bit uneasy for the woman who accepted crumbs rather than a place at the table. Is it a case of when you’re desperate that you’ll take anything that’s offered?
Delivering the punch line
Or… Or we can see this as an exchange different to any other in the Gospels. Normally Jesus gets a hostile question which he then responds to, often with a parable, and then ends with a conclusion that his opponent can’t refute. But, in this story, it’s Jesus with the hostile saying and the woman’s response corrects him. It’s the Syrophoenician who delivers the punch line!
In this version it’s nothing to do with the disciples. This is all about Jesus and his own view about his own ministry. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus has had a run-in with the scribes and pharisees where he has been talking about what is clean and unclean – things that defile. This was a central issue in Jewish and Gentile relations – and now we have an opportunity to see if he’ll practice what he preaches in a rare encounter with a Gentile woman.
And that’s a pause for thought for those who preach. Do our actions, the way we live our lives, match up with what we say from the pulpit or lectern?
So, here she is. A woman with a demon-possessed daughter. She’s a Syrophoenician in Mark, a Canaanite in Matthew. Canaanites were ancient history and long gone. The indigenous people of the promised land. Matthew is identifying her as ethnically and religiously different. A pagan, an enemy.
But in Matthew this woman also uses words of lament that you would find in the Hebrew Psalms (27:7, 30:10, 86:3, 123:3). And in Matthew she addresses Jesus as ‘Lord, Son of David’. She’s acknowledging his divine authority and the fulfilment of the messianic expectations. Extraordinary words from an ‘outsider’.
Maybe Jesus’ statement in Matthew that he was sent ‘only for the lost sheep of Israel’ is not about being ethnically exclusive in his own sense of his divine commission. Perhaps rather he was so overwhelmed with the size of the task just in Israel that he simply had to prioritise his time and energies. The effect was the same though.
But, as we’ve seen, the woman persists. Perhaps she knew about the feeding of the five thousand which had taken place earlier – and with speed and wit uses Jesus sharp remark about throwing food to the dogs to her advantage. This was a God of abundance who supplies bread aplenty. There were 12 baskets left over from the Jewish crowd – surely there were enough crumbs for a Gentile?
And she gets what she came for. Despite Jesus’ apparent reluctance, she gets the healing for her daughter. She is acclaimed by him as a woman of great faith – and there’s much to learn. In the face of all the verbal rebuffs and deflections she embodies the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’.
And Jesus does appear to change his behaviour towards Gentiles afterwards. In our Gospel reading today he then went by way of Sidon and heals the deaf man in Decapolis, where there’s every chance that the man was Gentile. Sidon is north of Tyre away from Galilee. He went further into Gentile territory. And shortly after that we have the feeding of the four thousand, who were also thought to be Gentiles. There were baskets left over there too. Seven of them, signifying completeness and the world, Gentiles as well as Jews.
So, did the encounter make him question his commission of ‘only-to-Israel’? Did coming face-2-face with the woman help Jesus realise that the need was universal? At the very least he re-prioritised – or threw his priority list out the window – and afterwards met the need as he came across it, without distinction. And that became the Great Commission – to go out into all the world – which ultimately of course includes us. Without that woman, would we be here?
I heard a lovely sermon once where the preacher speculated that the woman was later with her daughter amongst the four thousand fed by Jesus. And that he saw them there in the crowd and broke the loaf and personally handed them each some bread – and said: ‘thank you’.
Humanity on display
If you prefer the second version, then how do you feel about a Saviour who can apparently develop his thinking, change his mind? Perhaps we welcome the humanity on display here? That it’s in stories such as this where we recognize his human character. That the woman herself ministered to Jesus in opening a new perspective – that her ministry opened-up his.And maybe, just maybe, if we let them, it’s people on the edges today who open us up too, to something new.
[Or… Or is there yet another reading? Faced with a woman from Tyre and Sidon, is Jesus caught between the memories of the Scripture stories of two other women from the same region, both of whom appear in 1 Kings?
Does he perhaps think at first that he has a Jezebel in front of him? Jezebel the politically astute wife of King Ahab who successfully evangelized the worship of Baal and effectively ruled the kingdom. Was this why at first Jesus was silent, fearing some sort of trap?
Or does he have a widow of Zarephath before him? The widow who extended hospitality to Elijah in the midst of famine – and Elijah later restored the widow’s son to life? Was Jesus response less to do with the Syrophoenician’s answer to his riddle and more that her persistent faithfulness showed her identity more clearly, an inheritor of the legacy of other faithful ones from amongst the nations? I wonder to what extent the assumptions that we make about people affect how we behave and what we say.]
Maybe, again, all this just over-complicates things. Perhaps all that we need to remember is that none of us have any rights. None of us deserve to be at the table. We’re all here by God’s grace. And, in God’s economy, one crumb is all it needs to change absolutely everything. Amen
- Bailey, K.E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. London:SPCK
- Gench, F.T. (2004). Back to the well. Louisville: Westminster John Knox
- Levine & Brettler (2011). The Jewish Annotated New Testament. New York: Oxford UP
- Lyons-Pardue, K.J. (2019). A Syrophoenician Becomes a Canaanite: Jesus Exegetes the Canaanite Woman in Matthew. Journal of Theological Interpretation, Vol. 13. The Pennsylvania State University,
- Newson, Ringe & Lapsley. (2012). Women’s Bible Commentary (3rd Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox
- Stagg, E&F. (1978). Woman in the world of Jesus. Edinburgh: St Andrews Press