So, She Went Home
Poling Sun writes, “The Syrophoenician woman comes as power…as Syrophoenician power, a dominant and oppressing group. Her coming and request could therefore be understood as an intrusion once again to the powerless.” I find this a compelling way to understand Jesus’ initial response to her. “Naming the dog does not refer to the woman as such,” Sun argues, “but the power and domination she embodies, i.e., the ethnic, social and economical status” (page 389).
The politically-charged name-calling is not, however, the end of the conversation but rather only the beginning. The crisis in her family requires her to sit with the protest speech. “Unlike the Gerasenes who asked Jesus to leave after the loss of the herd of swine,” Sun writes, “she knows that to cast out the demon, she has to listen to the shout and even to agree with it before she welcomes the healing power” (page 389).
The woman, Sun argues must repent. That is, she must change her mind and her frame of reference if she wants access to what Jesus has. Sun argues that Jesus does not repent, does not change his mind. There is no “Teaching the Teacher” in Sun’s interpretation of the scene. “Jesus does not change his mind,” Sun writes, “as if he has learnt a lesson from this woman that he should reach out to the Gentiles because he had been in the Gentile land before” (page 390).
Jesus is “the voice of those powerless to name the dog,” Sun continues. “It remains crucial for the power to discern the crisis and repent,” he asserts, “by listening to the cry and shout of those who have been silenced.” The kin(g)dom of God is a challenge to such power, in Mark’s gospel, to repent, to stay in the conversation, and to listen to the real Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
This is a significant way into the text and especially into Jesus’ harsh words to the Syrophoenician woman. But I think the story unveils a confrontation of power and power – the cultural, political, economic, and social hegemony represented by the Syrophoenician woman and the world-altering power of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I think it points as well to vulnerability meeting vulnerability – the desperate desire of the mother for her daughter’s healing and Jesus’ awareness that the shadow of the cross extends even into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.
I don’t think that Jesus repents and is converted in the way that the “Teaching the Teacher” scenarios would have it. Sun’s analysis cuts through that conundrum. But I do think Jesus changes his mind about the woman who comes to him in her time of need. He commends her for her “word” of humble, self-effacing wisdom. She relinquishes her power. She “dies to self” in order to save her daughter. In a very real sense, she came not to be served but to serve.
Matt Skinner points to the woman’s response to Jesus’ words as the crowning description of her repentance and, dare we say it, faith. Skinner argues that Jesus does have a change of heart toward the woman because of the nature of her argument as a theological proposal. Even though Jesus is focused on his mission to Israel, there are still crumbs enough for her daughter to be healed, she pleads. Jesus agrees.
“She does not appeal to standards of fairness or pity but makes a theological claim about the expansiveness and power of God’s reign,” Skinner suggests. “This, then, forms the first dimension of what we can justifiably consider her ‘faith’: her conviction that she does not need a seat at the table for her daughter to receive what she needs. If Jesus is for real,” he continues, “only a morsel can suffice” (page 18).
Skinner points to a second dimensions of the woman’s ‘faith,’ one that is enacted rather than spoken. She falls at Jesus’ feet in supplication and will not take no for an answer. “Her desperate, begging pleas and persistence do not represent alternatives to faith,” Skinner asserts, “they give added definition to what faith is, and what it looks like when expressed as dire supplications” (page 18).
There is, according to Skinner, a third dimension to the woman’s faith. Jesus speaks, and she goes home. We get to travel with her and arrive at her house. When she gets home, she finds her daughter resting comfortably, freed from the demonic possession.
Like the lepers in Luke 17, there was a healing “on the way.” The woman must take Jesus at his word and see if things worked out. Jesus “gives her what she wants, but it still will take an additional act of faith for her to realize this for sure,” Skinner writes, “The long-distance miracle therefore alters the woman’s circumstances and allows her faith to manifest itself once again” (page 20).
In some iterations, the “Teaching the Teacher” scenario for the story points to Jesus’ change of heart as deep evidence of Mark’s understanding of the Incarnation. I have spoken such words myself in sermons and bible studies over the years. I’m not at all troubled by the notion that Jesus doesn’t “know it all” from the get-go. I find quite attractive the idea that Jesus must learn as a human being and that he even has biases and prejudices to overcome just like the rest of us slobs.
The incarnational dimensions of this story, however, go much deeper with a close reading of the story. Both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are complicated. Each is an intersection of both complementary and competing identities. Each is a bundle of contradictions looking for a self to serve as the center. That’s human existence. It’s not clean. It’s not very organized or consistent. But it’s real.
Both Jesus and the woman experience changes of mind and heart in the story. That’s not troubling to me either. If there are echoes of the Jonah story in the background of this text (and I think there are), then the idea that both the hegemonic power and the Divine power experience repentance and reconciliation is old news. We may find that news uncomfortable and inconvenient (just ask Jonah), but that doesn’t make it any less true.
I can imagine that this is one of the reasons the composer of Mark’s gospel includes this incident in the story. First, it seems to me that there must be some historical grounding for the story. Who would include such a story by choice in an account seeking to persuade Gentiles to follow Jesus? Perhaps I’m missing something here, but I don’t think this story is the best PR material the composer of the gospel story could have used. I think it was common knowledge and therefore unavoidable.
So, the composer used it in a powerful way. Perhaps this is the real experience of Jesus and his followers meeting potential Gentile converts. Some of them come from the dominant culture, with a measure of social, economic, and political power. The Christian movement has none of that equipment in the late first century. In fact, those powerful folks might have been experienced as a threat – an attempt to infiltrate and disrupt the little Christian churches just coming to be.
This difficult dance of riposte and reply, as we see in this text, may have been played out over and over again as curious Gentiles inquired about this Jesus following business. The overtures may have been met with suspicion, reserve, and even insult. If that was the case, at least some of these Gentile seekers must have sucked it up and stayed in the conversation long enough to make a connection.
These days, perhaps the dynamic is reversed, in part because the Church has been such a part of the power structure for so long. People regard the Church and Jesus followers with suspicion. We can be the butt of jokes and the subject of a fair bit of insulting language. In fairness, the Church deserves most of what we get in that regard. Will we stay in that conversation long enough to make a connection and get a fair hearing?
I like to be right. No, I really hate to be seen as wrong. That’s not a great personality trait for a pastor or a student, so I have battled that tendency for a lifetime. It’s hard to learn anything when you’re always right about everything. So, I struggle to sit and listen to different viewpoints, especially when they are rudely critical, as they sometimes are. But listen I must.
At the very least I can seek out other, contradictory viewpoints. The research behind these posts is often one attempt at such listening. Hearing the text read and interpreted from feminist, womanist, Black, Brown, Asian, poor, Queer, and non-American viewpoints is critical to a deeper and clearer appreciation of these texts. Without those viewpoints this week, our text would remain as opaque as ever.
Diversity is not a necessary inconvenience to be tolerated. Rather, it is the very glory of God and a gift to be celebrated. Will we bother to get into conversations where we are not the ones in power but rather the desperate supplicants hoping for a hearing? Will we “be opened”?
This question gives us a way to understand the deeper significance of the second part of this week’s reading. Perhaps it’s not just another Markan healing story, transposed into a Gentile key. If the confrontation with the Syrophoenician woman is an illustration and enactment of the purity pronouncement, perhaps the healing of the stammering, deaf man is an illustration of an illustration.
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.