The Patron Saint of Sass
I think it matters that Mark’s gospel was first of all an oral/aural experience and only later was committed to writing in approximately the shape we have it now. Joanna Dewey argues that this move from story to document resulted in a loss of women’s voices in the text. She points to words from both Plato and the First Letter of Timothy to indicate that at least some men in the ancient Mediterranean world wished that such a loss of women’s voices would happen in fullness.
In response to this trend, Dewey retells the story of the Syrophoenician woman as she imagines (based on lots of scholarly work) it might have been told in the early years of the Christian movement. In fact, she tells the whole Gospel of Mark in that way, but we will focus on her re-telling of the text in question for now.
She begins by giving the woman a name, Justa. She tells the story assuming that Jesus was insulting, and the woman absorbed the verbal abuse. “We, women, Christians, people who live in Asia Minor, we have a lot to thank that Syrophoenician woman for,” the storyteller comments. “She taught Jesus something—we are all people, not dogs; we all need food and healing. And Jesus believed her. He praised her word, what she said, her understanding” (page 134).
This is not one of the “Defending Jesus” readings of the Syrophoenician woman’s story. Let’s call it the “Teaching the Teaching” framework. In this view, Jesus is not bantering with the woman. Jesus is not testing the woman. Jesus is not using her as an object lesson for a larger audience. In this view, Jesus has not gotten it right, in spite of the previous verses, and needs to be pushed to a larger perspective. Jesus needs, in this sort of reading, to change his mind.
“Maybe we owe our whole, new, glorious life in Christ to Justa,” Dewey says as the storyteller, “to that woman who taught Jesus that even little Greek girls should be healed. And certainly,” the storyteller concludes, “she showed that women are to be listened to!” (Page 134).
Part of the significance of the story, Dewey argues, is that it is one of relatively few women’s stories in the written gospel accounts. “[O]ne major reason for the paucity of women’s stories in the canon,” she proposes, “is that while early Christianity was an oral phenomenon in which women could participate relatively fully, the writing of Christian texts and their selection for inclusion in the canon was the work of the small minority of literates who were mostly men” (page 134).
In the cultural settings in which early Christians found themselves, women were often the village and community storytellers. “The world of early Christianity was a world of oral communication,” Dewey writes, “in which women were full participants as active proclaimers and storytellers as well as receptive listeners” (page 138).
Oral/aural culture was much less prone to patriarchal, hierarchical, elite dominance. “As long as Christianity was based on oral authority,” Dewey continues, “as it was in the early urban churches, and as it remained well into the second century, full participation and leadership was open to all, regardless of class and gender” (page 139). That changed as the gospel accounts were committed to writing, transmitted by manuscripts, and thus placed in the possession of a small number of male elites.
Given the way the social system worked, it’s a wonder that we find any women’s stories in the gospel accounts at all. “Yet we may be surprised to find as much material as we do in the Synoptics,” Dewey observes, “coming from the women’s traditions; it is a tribute to the importance of women at the very beginnings of the Christian churches that so much is still present” (page 144). The story of the Syrophoenician woman is part of that tribute.
Given the fact that women were so integral in telling the story in the beginning, I think we ought to pay primary attention to the ways that women tell and interpret the story now. It should not be surprising that we find fewer women represented in the “Defending Jesus” camp and more women in the “Teaching the Teacher” camp. That says something about the interpreters, certainly. But it also says something about the text.
The Syro-Phoenician woman is not merely an intersection of first-century Mediterranean identities. She is a four-car pileup of identities. She is Syro-Phoenician in her home territory and has both status and familiarity superior to that of Jesus, the interloping and lower-class Jew. But she is a woman who accosts and confronts a man in a patriarchal culture.
She is perhaps well off and accustomed to being in charge, so her reply to Jesus is based in confidence rather than humility. But she is also in desperate need of what Jesus has to offer, and he’s not a mere peddler of faith-healing wares. So, when it comes to power in this situation, it’s hard to tell which foot the shoe is on at any given moment in the interchange.
Mitzi Smith reads this text through a Womanist theological lens. She experiences the Syro-Phoenician woman as “sassy.” Smith writes that “sass” as a term is “usually applied to the behavior of persons considered inferior or subordinate, by race, gender, position, class, or age to the person toward the talk, back talk, gesture, and/or attitude is addressed” (page 97). This type of speech, Smith writes is heteroglossia, alternative speech, “a culturally determined and subversive improvisation” (page 98).
Obviously, Smith is on to something here. Through this lens, Smith sees the Syrophoenician woman as being considered inferior or subordinate due to race, gender, position, class, or age, as compared to the person being “sassed.” She defines “sass” as “when the oppressed name, define, call out, and sometimes refuse to submit to oppressive systems and behaviors” (page 97).
Smith argues that this Greek, Syro-Phoenician woman with a demon-possessed daughter “bears a triple stigma because of her race, gender, and status as a mother” of such a child. She “experiences racism, sexism, and classism as interlocking forms of oppression. All three forms of oppression are highlighted in the narrative,” Smith contends, “and they impact how Jesus responds to the woman” (page 101).
She argues that Jesus responds to the woman “in a way that betrayed his Jewish male bias.” More than that, he seems to communicate that Jewish lives matter more, at least for now, than do Gentile lives. That’s a potent rhetorical connection that I had not seen previously in this text. Now that Smith has pointed it out, I cannot “un-see” it.
Jesus relies on a Jewish tradition and ideology of “racial priority,” Smith argues. “The woman can either submit to her oppression,” she continues, “or she can challenge and resist affirming her own humanity. Colonization does not encourage unity among the colonized,” Smith continues, “it encourages them to guard the crumbs. The oppressed are expected to achieve wholeness on the crumbs, to be treated like dogs and yet remain civil and silent” (pages 103-104).
The Syrophoenician woman resists, and her resistance takes the form of “sass.” The Syrophoenician woman went “toe to toe with Jesus” and used his own argument against him (page 105). Now comes the gut punch for the “Defending Jesus” folks. “Jesus’ consciousness is raised as a result of the woman’s sass” (page 106). Her sass is effective. “In response to the woman’s sass,” Smith writes, “Jesus acknowledges the power of her word (logos), her reasoning” (page 107).
Smith notes that Jesus says no words of exorcism to make things happen (unlike in the next section in the Decapolis). In fact, he ways that the woman’s word has done the work! Jesus “affirms the authority embodied in this woman’s sass,” Smith writes. “It is her word, her sass that brings restoration and relief to her child. Her daughter,” Smith concludes, “is no longer one of the untouchables” (page 108).
“The story of the Syrophoenician woman shows that sass can call our attention to and challenge unjust, biased, and oppressive traditions, laws and expectations,” Smith writes in her concluding remarks. “The power of sass can reveal and question the destructive forces at work in or against our communities.” The communities in question are those of black women. “We need to celebrate sass and talk back in women of color as well as in white women as a legitimate form of agency and method of truth telling rather than punishing women for speaking truth boldly in the face of corrupt, biased, life-threatening, and denying authority. Sass and talk back,” Smith declares, “are legitimate forms of resisting oppression and exploitation” (page 110).
Yes, but is Jesus the oppressor and exploiter here? Wow.
This is where the animal waste hits the oscillating blades, as they say. This is why we can’t just let this text slip by as an interesting story with a happy ending. I’ve had too many alert parishioners over the years who listen closely to this text and draw precisely the “Teaching the Teacher” conclusion. Or they realize that such a conclusion is possible and reject it.
In either case, this story can create anything from a minor interpretive storm to a full-on crisis of faith. On the one hand, the text has opened the door to some of the best teaching opportunities and spiritual growth I’ve observed in my ministry. On the other hand, I think no other text has exposed me to a greater number of charges of heresy (and I’m grateful for that, too).
Some listeners will retreat immediately to the safety of some variety of “Defending Jesus” position. Others will push forward into new territory. I’m not suggesting one or the other is better at this point. But I do know that thoughtful people will be destabilized if they listen closely to the text. I prefer to be proactive at that point.
References and Resources
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
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.
Smith, Mitzi. “Race, Gender, and the Politics of ‘Sass’: Reading Mark 7:24-30 thrugh a Womanist Lens of Intersectionality and Inter(con)textuality).” https://www.google.com/books/edition/Womanist_Interpretations_of_the_Bible/J2esDQAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=mark+7:24-30&pg=PA95&printsec=frontcover.
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.