You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Jesus
But what if our perspective on reading this text is the problem rather than the solution? David King outlines six varieties of solutions to the problem of Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman. We’ve explored some of those responses in detail in the previous posts.
In his analysis, King uses three questions to analyze representative responses. He does this using a technique of reader-response criticism called “gap filling.” This technique acknowledges that readers make assumptions to fill in the narrative holes that any story leaves unfilled. “In the case we examine here,” King writes, “the gap is created by the characterization of Jesus in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, a characterization which seems inconsistent with his characterization elsewhere” (page 3).
The six responses King identifies include: 1) Jesus is on vacation; 2) Jesus is playing; 3) Jesus has a more important mission; 4) Jesus is bested in debate; 5) Jesus is racist; and 6) Jesus is sexist. We have examined some of these responses in the previous posts. We have even analyzed some of the same N. T. Wright texts that King uses as examples. Based on the gap-filling analysis, King finds the examples of each response to be unsatisfactory.
We should note that most of us use some combination of the above responses with better or worse effect. For example, N. T. Wright uses a combination of 2) and 3) with a sprinkling of 4). In addition, the “Defending Jesus” perspectives tend to use the first three responses in some combination. The “Teaching the Teacher” responses tend to use the last three responses in some combination. It’s a helpful taxonomy and analysis.
All of these responses, however, assume that Jesus is in the position of social and cultural dominance in the conversation. I think we’d be well served by re-examining that assumption as we read the text. I found the 2010 article by Poling Sun to be very instructive in this regard. Sun summarizes the “Defending Jesus” and “Teaching the Teacher” responses.
He notes that the “Teaching the Teacher” response takes on particular resonance in the voices of Asian Feminist Postcolonial interpreters. However, he does not agree that the situations of Asian women under British colonial rule are directly comparable to the positions occupied in the story by Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. “[T]hat missionary movements in the past made mistakes is simply undeniable,” Sun notes, “but to equate the Jesus of first-century Palestine with nineteenth century western Christianity is dubious, and the social-cultural descriptions of both Jesus and the woman seem not to be supported by historical scrutiny” (page 384).
He also notes that many of the “Teaching the Teacher” responses now focus on the gender of the Syrophoenician woman and the politics of patriarchy. He is not convinced. “If the powerful one in this story, however, is not Jesus but the woman,” Sun argues, “or more accurately, not the woman as woman, but the Syro-Phoenician woman who symbolizes and in fact represents the powerful and real colonialism, the story and message would be entirely different” (page 385).
Sun analyzes the story, then, from this perspective – the Syrophoenician woman as colonizer and Jesus as colonized. He notes that women occupy a variety of social roles and power gradients in Mark’s account. “Thus,” he writes, “contending that the gospel presents every woman as a victim, marginalized, oppressed, and colonized is actually shooting everything that will move” (page 386). This is not to say, he hastens to add, that androcentrism and patriarchy are absent from Mark’s account. But gender is not essential to this story.
“I would suggest,” Sun contends, “that the woman’s presence symbolizes the coming of a power instead of a victim” (page 386). This is not Jesus’ first foray into Gentile territory or the last. This is not the first Gentile healing story or the last in Mark’s account. This is not the first woman healed. This is not the first mother mentioned. Jesus breaks no new ground in these regards.
“If the story of the Syrophoenician woman signifies an important transition and therefore the way for the Gentile mission, we must look for another motif instead,” Sun argues, “I suggest that it is the power revealed and subverted that makes the Gospel heard among the Gentiles. It is also from this perspective,” he continues, “that Jesus’ offensive words can be understood and perhaps appreciated” (page 387). This story, Sun proposes is “about when Power and Jesus encounter each other.”
He notes the negative descriptions of Tyre and Sidon in the Hebrew scriptures. He also points to the continuing negative attitudes to Tyre and Sidon both in the Christian scriptures (Matthew 11:21-24) and in the Against Apion by Flavius Josephus. The hostility was even more recent and local than that. “If the readers of Mark were not unaware of the incident that the Tyrians had killed and imprisoned many of their Jewish inhabitants when the Jewish revolt broke out in 66 CE,” he notes, “the coming of a Syro-phoenician woman could hardly be thought of as just another visitor asking for help” (page 388).
In addition, the Gentiles along the coast exploited Galilee as their breadbasket. Galilean peasants often went hungry while the Tyrian elites were well-fed. Isn’t that an interesting image in light of the discussion about tables, crumbs, and dogs! The Syrophoenician woman came first as a symbol and cause of suffering for Jesus’ home folks. There are indications in the text, according to Sun, that she was “Greek-speaking, educated, urban upper class” (page 389).
“All these historical, cultural, and social considerations lead to the conclusion that the Syrophoenician woman does not come to Jesus as a victim oppressed by colonialism or male domination,” Sun concludes, “not to mention homeless or marginalized. There is,” he declares, “simply no evidence from the text that supports any of that” (page 389). He argues that the woman comes from a dominant and oppressing group. She intrudes on the relatively powerless Jesus. In that context, his response is an act, not of rudeness, but of resistance.
What if Jesus is not just taking a small sabbatical? What if, instead, he is hiding out from the agents of Herod Antipas and the Jerusalem elites until things calm down a bit? If that is the case, then the Syrophoenician woman has blown his cover. When she came in the door and put him at risk, did Jesus think, “Just another Gentile rich bitch coming to take what belongs to us Jews”? That puts a different spin on his words in the text.
This doesn’t exclude the possibility that Jesus was using some resistance humor to respond to this fraught situation. Right now, I’m reading the book by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar called You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey.” In part I’m reading it because most of the stories told have happened in Omaha, Nebraska, in the last few years. I’m also reading it because these are some very, very funny women. And I’m reading it to understand my own white supremacy from a different angle.
The fact that Ruffin and Lamar use humor in their stories doesn’t mean these are light pieces of entertainment. It means that humor is a tool of resistance and a resource for grieving. I won’t try to summarize or recapture the wisdom and pain in the book. Just buy it and read it. My point is that humor is no guarantee that everyone is happy and nice.
“Niceness” is a luxury and expectation of the privileged and powerful. I know that I expect women to be pleasant and pliant, and I’m put off when they’re not. That’s my problem. I know that I expect Black and Brown people to smile and be friendly in order to assuage my anxieties. That’s my problem. I know that I expect the world to be nice to me just because I’m a privileged and positioned white male. That’s my problem.
In a 1961 radio interview, James Baldwin replied to a question about being Black in American. Here’s what he said:
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time — and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance. Now, since this is so, it’s a great temptation to simplify the issues under the illusion that if you simplify them enough, people will recognize them. I think this illusion is very dangerous because, in fact, it isn’t the way it works. A complex thing can’t be made simple. You simply have to try to deal with it in all its complexity and hope to get that complexity across.”
What if we come to this reading seeing Jesus as oppressed rather than powerful, as enraged rather than abusive? How does that affect our experience of his initial words, and of his actual response?
More than that, what if we begin to see following Jesus as a path away from power? We read the text from a triumphalist perspective where Jesus has all the power (and therefore so do we). But, if Sun is right, that is not the situation It certainly wasn’t the situation for the Markan church. Jesus is one of the colonized, not one of the colonizers. If Jesus is suspicious, defensive, and reluctant, that makes sense. He is testing her sincerity, not her “faith.”
Can we mainline Christian types in America serve and witness from a non-dominant place? We are so addicted to triumphalism in the Western, White church that I’m not sure we can adjust. Can we submit to the leadership and wisdom of our Black, Brown, and Indigenous siblings in Christ to learn real humility in order to be healed? I’m not sure, but I hope so.
References and Resources
James Baldwin quote: https://www.npr.org/2020/06/01/867153918/-to-be-in-a-rage-almost-all-the-time.
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.
King, David M. “The Problem of Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman: A Reader-Response Analysis of Mark 7:24-31.” Journal of Religion, Identity, and Politics (2014). Pages 1-21. https://www.academia.edu/1353308/The_Problem_of_Jesus_and_the_Syrophoenician_Woman_A_Reader_Response_Analysis_of_Mark_7_24_31.
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.
Ruffin, Amber; Lamar, Lacey. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey . Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.
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.