Tonight, we heard one of the iconic tales from Mark’s gospel account. What has become known as the story of the Syrophoenician woman. In the story, we encounter one of the six unnamed women in Mark’s account. In addition to the Syrophoenician woman, Mark tells us about Peter’s mother-in-law, the hemorrhaging woman, Jairus’ daughter, the widow in the temple, and the anointing woman. Within each of these stories, the women serve to break open the heart of Mark’s gospel account, and each woman, though unnamed, plays a central role in the telling of Mark’s account of the Gospel. Instead of keeping women completely on the margins of the Gospel narrative, Mark deftly weaves them into the narrative and makes them icons of faithfulness, which is often in stark comparison to the lack of faith on the part of the disciples and the scribes and Pharisees. Yes, women play an important role in Mark’s account and help us reimagine the role of women within the life of the Church from the time of the writing of the Gospel until the present day.
The story of the Syrophoenician woman is a story that has been interpreted a number of different ways. Perhaps the most common understanding of the narrative is to illustrate that Jesus came not only for the Jewish people but also for those that were not Jewish. To move forward with such an interpretation of this particular narrative is to suggest that the woman is understood to be an outsider in terms of gender, ethnicity, and culture. She is not a man; she is not Jewish; she lives outside of Judea. She is, by this reading, a complete outsider to the world of Jesus; however, I also would like to suggest that this particular interpretation of the narrative is not quite right.
First and foremost, Mark tells us that Jesus has gone to the region of Tyre. In other words, Jesus has gone to a region that is most definitely Gentile territory! If we are going to read anyone as a stranger or a foreigner in this particular account, it should be Jesus and not the woman! When taken into account with this narrative, it begins to shift our view of what is happening in the narrative, and we can begin to assign different roles to the characters in the story.
With the story taking place in Gentile territory, the woman is now an insider. She is a person that comes from the Greek culture, speaks the Greek language, and likely worships in accordance with the Greco-Roman traditions of worship. She is a person that has lived within the Hellenistic/Greek world her entire life. She is in her home.
Jesus, on the other hand, is outside of his home territory. He is the foreigner that speaks a different language, upholds different religious traditions, and has lived according to the Jewish culture. Jesus is the one that is from the outside.
So what does this do for our understanding of what is happening in the narrative? Does it change our understanding of how the characters are relating to each other within the narrative? Can we begin to approach the text with a little different understanding of what is taking place in order to hear where God is calling the Church in the contemporary era? quite obviously, I think that the answer to these questions is an emphatic yes.
In the narrative, Mark tells us, “A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” If I understand the woman to be an insider of the community in the region, I can also begin to look at the actions that she is taking not as submissive but as actions that display her own agency in taking care of her daughter. The woman is a mother, and she is a strong mother. Others have described her as being a “good” mother, but I want to think of her as a strong mother. She is a mother that is willing to do what must be done for her child, including seeking the help of a Jewish teacher. She is willing to cross the boundary between the Jews and Gentiles in order to care for her daughter. She is willing to confront Jesus, and out of her strength, she bows down at the feet of Jesus. She humbles herself before the one person that has what her daughter needs in that moment. She becomes the symbol of faith, hope, and love.
As the narrative continues, the woman as symbol of faith emerges even more clearly as she stands her ground when rebuffed by Jesus. When she asks for Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” To our rather sensitive, modern ears, the words of Jesus are harsh – perhaps even cruel. Yet, the woman continues to show her strength as a woman and as a mother. She takes it upon herself not only to stand up to Jesus’ words but also to teach Jesus. Now there’s a crazy idea! A Gentile teaching Jesus??! That can not possibly be correct…can it? As we continue in the narrative, the woman says to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She actually has the temerity to give Jesus a clever response; in fact, it is a response clever enough to change Jesus’ mind!
And I cannot help but imagine Jesus sitting there stunned for at least a moment or two. Jesus finds himself on the other end of the teacher-student relationship. Instead of the clever words coming from his mouth, they are coming from one of the least expected persons that Jesus could potentially imagine. The teacher in this narrative is the woman that comes to Jesus out of her own strength in order to find the cure that her daughter needs. Though she is in a position that a disciple may take when learning from a teacher, she clearly teaches Jesus something new, and Jesus finds himself being physically in the position of a teacher while learning from a most unexpected source.
In a world filled with different voices and languages, it is easy to dismiss what someone is saying to us. It is easy to simply keep moving, to disregard what someone has said to us, and to fail to hear the lesson being taught. It is easy for us to have a harsh lens for those that have a different understanding of what it means to be Church, and it is easy to judge not only those that are strangers to us but also those that we know in our own community. The challenge for us, as members of the Body of Christ, is to tend to those marginal voices and to listen to the words of wisdom that may come from a most unexpected source. Like Jesus, we need to be stunned by the wisdom that we learn from those that are outside of the Church, but we can only do that if we are able to open our ears enough to actually listen to their words. We can only do that if we are willing to listen to a position that does not coincide with our own. By listening for those pearls of wisdom from what we may consider to be the most unexpected of sources, we are knit together as the individual members of the body, and we find that though we think of ourselves as sitting in the place of the teacher, we are actually fulfilling the role of the student.