The Syrophoenician Woman: Possibilities for Healing Across Borders

This semester I have come to believe that the story in Mark 7:24-30 has something to teach us about interfaith and cross-cultural encounters. This passage is unique in that it is the only example in the Gospels of a person winning an argument with Jesus. It is also challenging in that Jesus appears and speaks in a way that is inhospitable and insulting. I believe that despite its challenges, this story involves more than meets the eye.

Jesus travels to the region of Tyre. It is clear from the text that he is seeking to escape or hide from the crowd, which is pretty common in the Gospels. However his plan to conceal himself clearly does not work. A woman with a demon-possessed daughter finds out where he is hiding and begs him to exorcise the demon. The problem is that the woman is not a Jew, but a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. Jesus first responds to her by denying her request: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answers, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then Jesus replies, “For saying that you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So the woman returns home to find that her daughter is healed.

Despite the various ways this pericope can be understood through its motifs and genres, this narrative brings up many questions regarding the identity of the woman seeking help, Jesus’ harsh initial response, relations between Jews and Gentiles, the woman’s response, and Jesus’ apparent change of heart. Scholars have debated the identity of this woman, but there is one interpretation that I believe is helpful and challenging to us in the twenty-first century, and it has to do with agriculture. Pheme Perkins notes that the northern Galilean region exported produce through cities along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and Phoenicia. Those cities, including Tyre, depended on the Galilean region for food. During periods of crisis or food shortage, the peasant farmers may have resented producing goods for the wealthy cities, which unfairly consumed and benefited from their hard work (New Interpreter’s Bible 610). The woman’s ethnicity as a Syrophoenician would have represented a system of economic oppression and political injustice in the region of Galilee during that time.

But Jesus’ initial response to this woman usually takes modern readers by surprise. Today most dogs are well-liked creatures, but ancient Hebrews viewed dogs with a measure of disgust. Dogs were scavenging, unclean, and gruesome creatures, so calling someone a dog would have been humiliating and insulting. Poling Sun, in her article Naming the Dog: Another Asian Reading of Mark 7:24-30, writes that when a person or group of people is denied person-hood and a voice by an oppressive system, they are silenced. They are not able to speak and they are not listened to. Therefore, a shout or a cry might be the only voice that they have. If the woman was truly a member of an elite and dominant class, Jesus’ response could have been a product of his time and his identity as a Galilean Jew crying out against the systemic social and economic injustices that the woman’s ethnicity and social class embodied.

Now, the woman’s response in verse 28: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” makes it clear that she is still determined to convince Jesus to heal her daughter. Note that despite Jesus’ apparent insult (calling her a dog), she does not seem to be offended; she doesn’t indignantly answer, “How dare you call me a dog!” But rather she seems to accept his premise by including the term in her response.

If we align with scholars who believe she is coming from a place of power and privilege, then perhaps the woman’s answer indicates that she acknowledges the injustice that she represents, and the pain that it causes for Jesus and his Jewish community. Herself in pain with the weight of her daughter’s condition, she knows that in order for the demon to be cast out, she has to listen to Jesus’ reactionary response and even agree with it before she (and her daughter) can welcome and receive his healing power. She repents by accepting herself as “dog” in the eyes of Galilean Jews (Sun 390).  And through her repentance, reconciliation and healing are possible.

In a commentary on the Syrophoenician woman in Women in Scripture, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon suggests: “In addition to her intense desire to be a channel of healing for her daughter, she senses the fuller implications of Jesus’ ministry of healing: he heals what is broken—broken bodies, broken spirits, broken relationships, including the broken relationships between Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders. The Syrophoenician woman, an outside as a Gentile (Greek) and as a woman, achieves her goal… Jesus gracefully reacts with the maturity that empowers change and enables inclusivity.”

Today, like in the first century, there are many things that keep communities apart: religious boundaries, histories of violence and oppression, systemic injustices. But like Jesus and like the Syrophoenician woman, when we cry out against injustice and when we acknowledge and repent our brokenness, dialogue is possible. Healing can take place. Communities can be redefined. In the end, one thing is clear: despite his initial hesitation, Jesus chose to help this woman and her daughter, modeling the healing and wholeness that is possible when we take risks and reach across borders.

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