The Syrophoenician Woman: Speaking Boldly
By David C. Cramer
Read Mark 7:24–30
There’s an ancient piece of wisdom, passed down to children and children’s children from generation to generation. And that wisdom is this: If ever you don’t know the answer in Sunday school, just say Jesus! Because Jesus is the answer, Jesus is—more often than not—quite literally the answer.
Who wants to be your friend? Jesus!
Who’s the savior of the whole world? Jesus!
This holds true even if you don’t understand the meaning of the question.
Who’s the messiah of the Jews?
What’s a messiah? I don’t know, but it must be Jesus!
Who’s the Alpha and Omega?
The what-a and what-a? Must be Jesus!
And then come Christmas or Easter, forget about it. Jesus is quite literally the reason for the season.
Who is Immanuel, God with us, the baby born in the manger? Jesus!
Who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the one who conquers Sin and Death? Jesus!
In Sunday school story after Sunday school story, the one who outwits his foes with a clever comeback is always Jesus!
The one who shows compassion and care to those who have been cast out by society is always Jesus!
So, if ever you don’t know the answer, you’re always safe to answer Jesus!
But then we get to this passage, and it’s more like . . . Jesus?!?
Initially at least, Jesus doesn’t look great in this passage.
He calls a woman and her daughter dogs.
He says he must take care of his own family and can’t trouble himself with this woman and her problems.
If we’re honest with ourselves, Jesus kind of sounds like a jerk.
This picture of Jesus has troubled not only many a Sunday school teacher but also many a Bible scholar. All kinds of interpretations have been offered to explain why Jesus comes across so bad at the start of this story.
One common interpretation is that this story is meant to highlight Jesus’s humanity.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human. But that means that we should expect to find some passages where Jesus comes across as, well, fully human. And what’s more human than having a bad day?
If we were to read what leads up to this story, we would find that Jesus has been cast out of his own hometown. He’s performed all kinds of miracles for his disciples, and yet his disciples still don’t get him. He’s learned that his cousin, friend, and fellow prophet John the Baptist has been executed by King Herod. He’s been followed around by thousands of people who all seem to need something from him. So now he leaves Galilee, gets as far away as he can in the northern city of Tyre, and tries to get some R&R at an undisclosed B&B.
And then, just as soon as he arrives, a woman from this town has the audacity to barge into the home he’s staying in and trouble Jesus with her problem. And so, tired and cranky, Jesus verbally lashes out at her.
Others have said that this story doesn’t so much represent his mood at the time as it does his culture at the time. Jewish people viewed Syrophoenicians as descendants of the ancient Canaanite people, who were the nemesis of the Israelites. The Jews were the true children of Israel. The Canaanites were nothing but dogs. Jesus, as a Jew himself, was simply reflecting the thinking of his day. After all, the Gospel of Luke teaches us that “Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52), which means that even Jesus had to grow out of some of his inherited cultural prejudices. When do we think he stopped growing? At the so-called age of accountability?
Still others have argued that we have the social dynamics of the story backward. The Jews were the marginalized people in this time and place. The Syrophoenicians were the politically well-connected and culturally cosmopolitan. So Jesus is merely lashing out as an oppressed person to a more-powerful person who has the audacity to come to him with a personal favor.
Finally, others have claimed that things aren’t as tense as they appear. It can be difficult to interpret the tone of a passage. Perhaps Jesus is being more playful here. If you were to transcribe my conversation, as a lifelong White Sox fan, with a die-hard Cubs fan, someone two thousand years from now might think we were being pretty harsh.
“It isn’t right to take food from the Southside and throw it to the Cubs.”
“That’s true, but even cubs grow up to become Da Bears.”
So maybe Jesus is being playful or testing the woman in this exchange.
But even that explanation doesn’t seem to let Jesus off the hook here. Mark writes that the woman “came and fell at his feet” and “begged him to cast out the demon from her daughter.” This is a woman in complete desperation. This is hardly the time to playfully tease her about their cultural differences.
But, if we’re disturbed or confused by Jesus’s initial response, that simply puts us in the position of the Syrophoenician woman. And so, at least in the case of this one story, the answer isn’t found in looking at Jesus so much as it is found in looking at this rad, unnamed gentile woman.
She hears Jesus’s initial response, but it doesn’t pass her BS test. Or, since this is a sermon, we’ll call it her nonsense test. And so, what does she do? She calls Jesus out on his nonsense.
Yeah, I don’t buy that children and dogs schtick. I don’t think you can’t heal my daughter because she’s not one of your people. We both know better than that, rabbi.
And here’s the cool thing about this story: Jesus doesn’t rebuff her. He doesn’t respond, How dare you question me! No, he responds, Good answer! And then he does what she came to ask him and heals her daughter.
There’s a sad irony among Bible-believing Christians. Scripture is chock-full of faithful believers calling God out on what doesn’t pass their nonsense test. The Psalms are full of King David crying out to God, What the heck is going on? And Scripture calls him a “man after God’s own heart.” The prophets question God all over the place for what seems to them like nonsense. Even Jesus from the cross cries out in the words of King David, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet, so often Christians believe that questioning God is a sign of unfaithfulness.
If there’s one consistent theme I’ve encountered in pastoral counseling situations, it is the fear of questioning God. Do my questions mean I’ve lost my faith? Can I be a faithful Christian if it seems to me like, right now, God is kind of acting like a jerk?
The good news of this story is this: When you call God out on something that doesn’t pass your nonsense test, it’s very likely that God will respond not with defensiveness but with Good answer!
Questioning God isn’t a sign of unfaithfulness but of faithfulness. It’s a sign that you have a healthy relationship.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t have the healthiest relationship with my dad. When I would come home late for curfew, and he would be waiting up for me and give me an earful about my disobedience or lack of respect, I would just stand there quietly until he was done and then be like, OK, good night!
But my brother, on the other hand, would talk back to Dad: Dad, you don’t understand, I got left late because so-and-so needed to talk, and then I knew it was better to get home late than to get a speeding ticket or, worse, put myself in danger just to make curfew.
All right, Dad would respond, good answer. Just wrap up your conversations with so-and-so a little sooner next time, OK?
Sometimes the conversation might turn into an argument, but even that was a sign that they loved each other enough to argue.
The same is true with God.
Yes, it’s true that we are finite creatures, and there are some things about God’s ways that we just don’t understand. God makes this perfectly clear in his response to Job.
But it’s also true that God has given us a moral conscience and has sent us the Holy Spirit so that we can test and approve that which is good and pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:2). And whether we’re right or wrong in any given situation, the worst thing we can do is suppress our questions for fear of upsetting God—for, by doing so, we end up going against our God-given conscience.
It’s far better to voice our views and concerns, even if that means questioning what our parents, or pastors, or church, or denomination, or statement of faith, or even Scripture itself appears to teach.
There are times when we might learn something new by voicing our question, and we might change our views as a result.
But there are other times where our teachers might be in the wrong about how they interpret Scripture or understand God.
And Jesus just might tell us Good answer! and then cast out the demon that’s been tormenting us.