So, Who’s the Story?
We come to a part of the story which provokes far more questions than it provides answers. The NRSV calls this section “The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith.” It could just as easily be called, perhaps, “That Time When Jesus was a Xenophobic Jerk.” Or it could be called “The Desperately Persistent and Patient Gentile Mother.” Or maybe we should call it “Not as Smart as You Thought You Were, Eh, Jesus?” Or maybe…well, you get the picture. What, precisely, is the story here?
In this encounter we can see that both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are each a bundle of intersecting identities. In this context, Jesus is a Galilean Jew in Gentile territory. He is a man interacting with a woman in a patriarchal culture. He is a religious teacher and healer in a place where someone needs what he has to offer. He is a poor man in a part of the world that extracts wealth from his people in order to live in luxury. Jesus is each of those identities and all of those identities.
The woman – unnamed, of course – is a Syrophoenician Gentile native relatively close to her home turf. She is a woman interacting on her own with a man in a patriarchal culture. She is a mother desperately seeking healing for her demon-possessed daughter who believes that Jesus has what her daughter needs. She is, perhaps, a wealthy woman who lives, at least in part, off the extractive economy that keeps the Galilee and Galileans poor and hungry. The woman is each of those identities and all of those identities.
In which combination of identities does this story take place? I think that’s hard for us Western, individualist, white supremacist Christian folks to consider. We believe in our bones that we really are “individuals” who have a “true self.” Our cultural mythology doesn’t have much room for the fact that our “self” is shaped in large part by our context and that we bring different “selves” to different contexts.
Our sense of “self” is an ongoing construction project managed by our ever-evolving memories and ever-changing situations. I used to think I had a “true self” that I just needed to find and to which I needed to remain true. Then I went through the loss of a spouse, and all that changed. Being a husband was a big part of my sense of self. Being one of two parents was another part of that picture. Moving into the future as a couple growing old together was a third significant piece.
I found that I had to re-construct who I was in the new contexts. I have been able to do that in a satisfying way. But the upshot is that there wasn’t one “self” to somehow be recovered from the devastation of loss. There was, rather, new construction work to be done. I could no longer live on the mythology of a “self” standing underneath and apart from all the unstable circumstances and relationships in my life.
So, I ask the question again. In which combination of identities does this story take place? That will be critical both for understanding and for re-telling this story. I’m not for a minute suggesting that there is a “right” answer to this question. But I am suggesting that the interpreter will be required to make choices among these competing and conflicting identities in order to tell the story in some coherent way. It’s best to be conscious of the choices we are making in this regard rather than merely falling into them willy-nilly.
The opportunity and the danger of this story is that it will function more as a mirror than as a window. Interpreters will read and re-tell this story from our own positions and perspectives. I just want to caution us all against believing that such reading and re-telling will exhaustively “explain” the story and account for all the odd and shocking details we find.
As a first example and approximation, let’s take Tom Wright’s description and analysis in his fine popular commentary, Mark for Everyone. The choices begin with the translation. In verse twenty-nine, Wright offers this rendering: “‘Well said!’ replied Jesus. ‘Off you go; the demon has left your daughter’” (Kindle Location 1766). The Greek text itself is a bit more neutral, perhaps. “And he said to her, Because of this word, go. The demon has exited your daughter” (my translation).
Wright notes that in the preceding conversations Jesus “undermines the protective fence that first-century Jews maintained around their own identity” (Kindle Location 1771). Wright argues that the tone of the interchange between Jesus and the woman, though urgent on the woman’s part, “is nevertheless that of teasing banter.”
He discounts feminist readings that see the woman setting Jesus straight with a clever rebuke. In Wright’s view, the woman accepts the insult and uses it to turn the conversation to her advantage. “Had she (or Mark, telling the story) wanted to challenge or correct Jesus this was hardly the way to go about it” (Kindle Location 1777). Instead, Jesus wants to stay focused, according to Wright, on his mission to the Jewish people – Israel first, the Gentiles later.
“The Gentiles would be brought in soon enough,” Wright argues, “for the moment it was vital that he not be distracted from his primary task. He had come north, out of Jewish territory,” Wright continues, “not to preach and heal but to lie low for a while after doing and saying some quite risky things” (Kindle Location 1783). In Wright’s view, Jesus’ response to the woman is a function of his intense desire to remain on mission, even when he’s taking a break in Gentile territory.
Wright proposes that Jesus isn’t working as “an itinerant medical missionary” but is rather bringing about the beginning of the Kingdom of God. “The story is therefore a sharp reminder to us that Jesus wasn’t simply called to go around being helpful to everyone,” Wright says. “He had specific (and controversial) things to do and a limited time to do them” (Kindle Location 1788). The request of the Syrophoenician woman was, in this perspective, a somewhat irritating distraction from the real task at hand.
In spite of that reality, here she was – a Gentile woman with a demon-possessed daughter. This would mean something important, Wright seems to say, to Mark’s predominantly Gentile audience. And there was all that talk in the previous paragraphs about what’s really clean and unclean. “The old barriers, the old taboos, were being swept away,” Wright observes. “The dogs under the table were already sharing the children’s bread; pretty soon they would cease to be dogs and become children alongside the others” (Kindle Location 1794).
Yes, Wright seems to say, this woman’s plight and desperate request are an irritating distraction from Jesus’ mission. But in the longer view, we see how the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will work out – not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles as well. “From that moment on,” Wright concludes, “what was anticipated in the Syrophoenician woman became universally true. The King of the Jews had become the savior of the world” (Kindle Location 1799).
Jesus wasn’t mean to the woman, Wright says. He just had his mind on more important things. And, after all, he did heal the woman’s daughter as she asked. All’s well that ends well, eh?
Wright’s account is one of the many “Defending Jesus” accounts of this story. I know that Wright would give a much more detailed and nuanced account of this story in scholarly contexts. Nonetheless, his conclusions are pretty clear. Jesus knows what he’s doing and has good reasons for behaving the way he did. All things in their proper order. Matthew’s gospel makes the correction in that writer’s revision of this story. Jesus came “only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Even with that acknowledgement, however, I can’t accommodate Wright’s account in my thinking. If the primary audience for Mark’s gospel story was Gentile, how does this episode fit into that story? If the audience goes through a process of identifying with the various characters in the story, then certainly this woman provides an opportunity for close identification. And Jesus calls her a dog.
How does that work in the story? How is that helpful if we assert that Jesus knows precisely what he is doing? As a Gentile listener, I think my trust in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God might have taken a significant hit at that moment. If that was the purpose, why was it the purpose? If not, then what else might be going on here.
In short, I don’t think the “Defending Jesus” accounts stand up to scrutiny. They require doing violence either to the text itself or to many of the audiences who hear the story. That doesn’t fit with the overall structure of the gospel of Mark. We will meet other “Defending Jesus” strategies this week, and they will suffer the same defect.
Does this mean that I want to simply discard Wright’s reading of the text? No, I don’t think that’s helpful either. His note of Jesus’ urgent mission, especially in Mark’s gospel, needs to be kept in mind. After all, the gospel of Mark is the “immediately” gospel. That sense of urgency is real in the gospel and must be kept in mind. It is matched, of course, by the sense of urgency experienced by that desperate mother. Perhaps there is something to be learned in those competing and colliding urgencies.
Well, friends, that’s a beginning on this text. At the very least, I invite you to consider how you might entitle this section of the narrative. More in the next section.
References and Resources
Liu, Rebekah. “A Dog Under the Table at the Messianic Banquet: A Study of Mark 7:24-30.” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 48, No. 2, 251-255. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3082&context=auss.
Skinner, Matthew L., “”She Departed to Her House”: Another Aspect of the Syrophoenician Mother’s Faith in Mark 7:24-30″ (2006). Faculty Publications. 193. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/193.
Sun, Poling. “Naming the Dog: Another Asian Reading of Mark 7:24-30.” Review and Expositor, 107, Summer 2010, pages 381-394. https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/51627184/Naming_the_Dog.pdf?1486166793=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DTHE_GOSPEL_OF_MARK_Naming_the_Dog_Anothe.pdf&Expires=1629922639&Signature=fehZP7odtynKeFSy1fzAvFRtDVal6YS~V46kODdJJ02umisAs6dCxtI4~JSOJMfyk5qZZ2QufzBFgz8AJv2Xf88aUUSVI-9rHk2D144YJmmgp6tZgdGxYRQo06HC~8knVV6x-721~NKG9coCYxo4zVyk4Y5ostcsx4yFpZe7F8NpFOk8dxcbOPKuhncCX2MU8KY8EgjRJ9kzm3BwuDK~FZERu9k~ZhNvRff5K3jHSQ6-M78ndYjU9L3MzT7qoUMvZsoHQGnA2HNfeIR55mYi5zeCcQ4OD2bh15zlZBK3BjBR5VsN8PcFDGS9hN-Eh4~qOQg1CIz4~fmfS-sI4I1vaw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.