Sunday’s sermon: The Syrophoenician Woman: Woman of Frantic Hope

Text used – Mark 7:24-30

  • The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. This is, quite frankly, a challenging and all-around uncomfortable story.
    • A story that portrays Jesus uncomfortably
    • A story that hits uncomfortably close to home in a lot of ways
    • But it’s also a story that’s crucial to the development of Jesus’ ministry.
  • So let’s dive right into this story this morning. I think it’s best if we tackle the uncomfortable aspects of this story before we do anything else so this discomfort doesn’t get in the way of our learning and understanding.
    • Story hits close to home in some uncomfortable ways → ways that have to do with who the woman is – text: The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth.[1] → So “Syrophoenician” is your Jeopardy word for the day, right? Basically, it just means that this woman who approached Jesus was a woman from the Roman city state of Phoenicia in the province of Syria. Geographically, that also means something especially significant to Jesus and his followers: she’s a Canaanite.
      • Actually called a Canaanite woman in a lot of translations of this text (probably because Syrophoenician doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue so easily!) → Now, we’ve spent the summer going through stories of some of the women of the Bible, and up to now, those stories have come from the Old Testament – the First Testament – and many of them have dealt with Israel’s long, difficult, contentious history with the Canaanites.
        • History full of conflict and conquest and bloody back-and-forths between the two nations
          • E.g. – Rahab the prostitute, whose story we read about 6 weeks ago, was a Canaanite → helped Joshua and the rest of the people of Israel ultimately destroy her home city of Jericho as they began their occupation of the Promised Land
      • Amazing thing: woman’s “otherness” doesn’t keep her from approaching Jesus when she learns (despite his best efforts) that he is nearby – text: Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. … She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter.[2]
        • Woman’s “otherness” is uncomfortable (and we’ll explore why a little bit more in a minute) → But I want us to pause for just a second in this moment in the story and sit with the uncomfortableness of this moment, too, because it’s crucial to the story. This woman – this mother – loves her daughter so much and is so desperate for her daughter’s well-being that she seeks out this Jewish teacher and healer and begs him to work his miraculous healing for her daughter. I don’t know about you, but when I read this passage, the scene that plays out in my mind isn’t a calm one. It isn’t a safe one. It isn’t a logical, practical one. It isn’t a tactful, emotionally neutral scene. In my mind, this scene is a scene fraught with high emotion and frenetic energy. This woman is desperate, and she holds none of that desperation back as she beseeches Jesus to heal her little girl. → witness this desperation in the language of this passage
          • Gr. “fell at his feet” (when she first approaches Jesus) = prosepesen = root of the word “prostrate” → So the woman isn’t just kneeling meekly at Jesus’ feet. She has literally thrown herself down flat to the floor with her face and her tears in the dirt to beg for Jesus’ help.
          • Gr. “throw the demon out” = very forceful, evocative word – means drive out, expel with emotional connotations of disdain and rejection → So not only in the woman clear in her abject desperate need by throwing herself down at Jesus’ feet, she’s also abundantly clear in her desperate desire for this affliction to be as far removed from her beloved daughter as possible … and permanently.
          • You see, this woman is so abundantly raw and real in her interaction with Jesus. Her protective, sacrificing, do-anything-for-my-child mother love is on full display as is the frantic nature of her hope. And to be in that moment with her – that moment when she throws herself down and begs for her daughter’s wholeness and healing – is uncomfortable for us because it makes us examine our own lives … our own relationships … our own faith. Would we have the courage to do what she did – to prostrate ourselves at the feet of another? Would we have the capacity for such openness in the face of our own worry and fear? Would we have the faith to believe that Jesus could actually do what we asked?
      • Woman’s identity and circumstance are not where the discomfort in this story stops because after her desperate request, we have Jesus’ wholly unexpected and uncomfortable response – text: [Jesus] responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”[3] → Yes, friends, you heard that right. Jesus just called this desperate woman – this love-driven mother – a dog. UNCOMFORTABLE.
        • One scholar that I read this week was very succinct, describing Jesus as “caught with his proverbial compassion down”[4]
        • Another scholar clarified the point further for us: [We] need to understand that [Jesus] is being a Jewish man of his time. … Hardly anyone in that house in Tyre would wince or gasp when they hear this Jewish teacher speak in this way to this woman. She is a Gentile. Centuries of bad blood, and probably a social caste or two, lie between this woman and her Jewish neighbors.[5] → This is that history that we mentioned when we talked about this woman being a Canaanite. That’s a history that may have slipped past our 21st century understanding, but it certainly didn’t slip past Jesus’ 1st century understanding.
          • Before you ask: Yes, “dog” is as bad as it sounds → Apparently, in an attempt to soften the uncomfortableness of this passage – and, more specifically, the uncomfortableness of Jesus’ first words for this woman – some scholars have tried to explain away Jesus’ chosen terminology in a wide (and wild!) variety of ways. But the Greek is the Greek, and the word is blunt and undeniable and harsh. It is not ambiguous. It is not endearing. There is no hidden meaning. Jesus’ first words for this woman are a straight-up insult. And that’s uncomfortable for us, right, because Jesus is supposed to be all those wonderful, comforting, compassionate things that we want him to be all the time, right?
            • Declares the love of God for all … right?
            • Proclaims God’s peace and grace for all … right?
            • Opens wide his arms and gives himself even unto his life for all … right?
            • Yes to all of those things because, as Christians, we believe that Jesus was fully God, embodying all the love and grace and forgiveness that God wants to give to us. BUT as Christians, we also believe that Jesus was fully human – that he took on every aspect of humanity in order to redeem humanity’s broken relationship with God. And in this passage, we definitely encounter the more human side of Jesus. So we have to sit in the uncomfortableness of that and ask us why it makes us so uncomfortable.
              • Especially difficult question in light of the way that we have treated women just like the Syrophoenician woman → Throughout the centuries, immigrants – those of undeniable “otherness” in language, in customs, in appearance, in belief – haven’t exactly been welcomed into this country with open and compassionate arms.
                • Admitted, yes, but for work details … for substandard housing and slums … for jobs that don’t pay enough to keep a family fed let alone clothed or housed or medically cared for … for forced separation at the border and filthy and derelict refugee detainment centers and children in cages and years and years of waiting for just a small modicum of safety, security, hope
                • Admitted, yes, but not welcomed … not made a part … not belonging … held always at arm’s length
                • Is that maybe why we find this passage so uncomfortable? Because we recognize Jesus’ initial response all too well?
  • Fortunately, this initial, harsh rejection isn’t the end of the Syrophoenician woman’s story. – text: But she answered [Jesus], “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.[6]
    • There is a tenacity in this woman that we cannot help but admire. There is a cleverness that is strengthened by her humility. There is a resolve that, while this Jewish teacher whom she has sought out has deemed her worthless, she knows she still has worth enough.
      • With tenacity and cleverness, she takes that insult that Jesus just laid upon her and turns in around
        • Uses it to describe herself
        • Uses it to teach the Teacher a lesson: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” → Even those who are on the outside deserve a chance. Even those who are wholly other deserve a glimpse of God’s grace and glory. Even this frantic, desperate, Canaanite mother deserves hope.
          • Important to note: I don’t believe it’s her humility that Jesus is rewarding when he informs her that her daughter has been made well. There are plenty of people throughout the gospels that display some form of humility with our around Jesus without the same result. What spurs Jesus to action is her faith. Even though she is not a Jew … even though he has treated her poorly and insulted her … even though (in other gospel variations of this story) the disciples have tried to physically turn her away, this woman believes enough in Jesus’ divine ability that she persists. Her hope is frantic and her faith is steadfast, and for that, Jesus grants the request of this love-driven mother.
          • Related important note: This could easily devolve into a conversation about whether or not someone’s prayers are “good enough to be healed” or someone’s faith is “strong enough to be healed,” and friends, that is a dangerous and slippery slope. Much damage has been done by the Church when it comes to people’s health – mental and physical – by declaring that if your faith is “right,” any and all of your afflictions can be healed. And while I deeply wish that prayer alone could heal all ills, we know that’s not the case. Illness – mental or physical – is not a punishment from God. Illness – mental or physical – is not a shameful badge that marks your faith as not good enough. The good news of the gospel that we proclaim as Christians is that Jesus came to show us all that God’s love and grace alone make us “good enough.” Period. No exceptions. And if medication … or treatment … or counseling … or any other modern medical intervention is what we need to live into the best, healthiest version of our Good-Enough-In-God selves, there is nothing wrong with that.
    • Scholar gives us another take on a lesson we can learn from the Syrophoenician woman’s encounter with Jesus: Perhaps this woman might act as a reminder of the radical boldness required of those who would petition God. How can our praying, in general, become more daring, more creative, or perhaps even – following those examples in the [First] Testament and this woman – more argumentative?[7] → Clearly this woman’s relationship with Jesus isn’t perfect, but still, she approaches the Savior with boldness. She approaches with hope. She approaches with full belief and trust. And she makes space for us to do the same. Amen.

[1] Mk 7:26a.

[2] Mk 7:24-25, 26b.

[3] Mk 7:27.

[4] Amy C. Howe. “Proper 18 (Sunday between September 4 and September 10 inclusive – Mark 7:24-37 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 44.

[5] Karen Pidcock-Lester. “Mark 7:24-30 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 206.

[6] Mk 7:28-30.

[7] J. Barrie Shepherd. “Mark 7:24-30 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 211.