Our text 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.
The woman 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.
All that being said, some of us still have to ask, “Why is Jesus being such a…jerk?”
What if our reading of 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:
- Jesus is on vacation.
- Jesus is playing.
- Jesus has a more important mission.
- Jesus is bested in debate.
- Jesus is racist.
- Jesus is sexist.
The first three responses are variations of the theme I would call “Defending Jesus.” The last three responses are variations of the theme I would call “Teaching the Teacher.”
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).
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.
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.
“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).
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, does 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.
What if we come to this reading seeing Jesus as oppressed rather than powerful? 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.
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.
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.
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”?
Be completely opened! And be set free from the previous constraints of the old ways of hearing, speaking, and seeing! Is this prayer really for the disciples? And for us? We have discussed this before, but it’s worth re-visiting here. Most congregations make the claim that “All are welcome.” The real work happens when that claim is converted into a question: “Are all welcome?”
The pragmatic answer in all congregations, in one way or another, is “no.” We generally are not open to persons from a range of socioeconomic situations. We generally are not open to persons from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. We generally are not open to persons from a diversity of gender and sexual orientations. We generally are not open to persons with divergent political views.
Being thoroughly opened is hard work. No wonder Jesus sighed.