by Belinda Brugh Harris (Mark 7:24-30)
“For such a reply,” Jesus said to the Syrophoenician woman, “you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29) “For such a reply” resonates differently from “Take heart daughter. Your faith has healed you,” which is what Jesus said to the sick woman who only “touched the edge of his cloak.” (Matthew 9:20-22) For such a reply (a teacher’s voice)…If you had a chance to reply to a teacher who challenged your worthiness to receive the good news and healing of Jesus, what would you say? What if the teacher was Jesus, and he was standing in the room so near that he could see himself reflected in your eyes?
Two gospels present the story of the Syrophoenician woman and the miracle healing of her daughter: Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28. The healing is especially wondrous because the daughter is at some distance away from Jesus. She does not even touch his cloak. It is her mother who seeks Jesus “as soon as she heard about him.” Mark wrote his version approximately 40 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry ended (70 CE), and Matthew followed one or two decades later (80-90 CE) with a version that includes more details. Both writers inherited the story from an oral tradition, although Matthew may have based his retelling primarily on Mark’s account:
Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Mark 7:24-30
Even a first-time reader of this miraculous healing will find it easy to follow and easy to understand with the exception of one sentence: “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Why would Jesus speak insensitively to a mother who is begging for the healing of her little daughter?
Scholarly explanations may inform, but they do not fully provide an answer. Some writers suggest that even Jesus could get tired and snippy. After all, he has been surrounded by crowds and challenged by Pharisees. He is exhausted. Seeking refuge, he enters a house where he is found almost immediately by a Greek woman, a Gentile. So he is impatient with her, loses self-control, and insinuates that she is a dog. Other scholars suggest that Jesus was merely being factual when he said his teaching and healing were first to be conducted among the Jews (the children) and only later among the Gentiles (the dogs). But would Jesus belittle and insult a woman who believes he has God’s authority to heal her daughter? Would he shrug as if to say, “I’m just too tired. I was seeking a place where I could keep my ‘presence secret’ (from Gentiles?). Go back to your own people and seek their help.” Where is the compassionate Jesus who turns to the sick woman in Matthew and says, “Take heart daughter. Your faith has healed you.” Does Jesus feel a relationship with the sick woman whom he calls daughter that he does not feel with the Syrophoenician mother and daughter because they are foreigners?
Now Jesus, as teacher, is at the center of Mark’s story about a woman’s faith. Whatever faith is (it’s a hard concept to pin down), gospel readers will agree on two things: Jesus knows it when he sees it, and more significantly, he responds to it.
Here is the scene as I visualize it: At Jesus’ feet, the woman who has pleaded for him “to drive the demon out” of her daughter. Perhaps her head is bowed. Around him are the disciples who want to throw her out of the house. (Matthew 15: 23) The teachable moment has arrived: It’s not in the lesson plan that day for the disciples or for the woman or, by extension, the readers of Mark’s gospel; nevertheless, it has presented itself, and Jesus grabs hold. He says, “First, let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” For once, Jesus doesn’t have to say to the disciples, “Listen. Are you listening to me?” The room is silent. The disciples can’t believe what they have heard. Jesus knows the insult he has used; the disciples and the woman know it. And without knowing the racial or ethnic slurs used during the time of Jesus’ ministry, WE know it is an insult to refer to a woman as a dog. The world knows this. And without knowing anything about Jesus’ plan for the spread of the gospel – first the Jews, then the Gentiles – we know it is hurtful to be told, “Wait your turn. Others deserve to be served first.” The disciples may feel shame as they recognize their own prejudice: “We all think of Gentiles as dogs, but we wouldn’t say it out loud.” Yet, Jesus has said it. By doing so, he challenges the woman’s faith and her acceptance of a commonly held prejudice against her; moreover, he challenges the perception of the disciples that the “dogs” do not belong in the presence of Jesus. What is going to happen next? How the woman responds to the teacher will change her self-perception so that she knows she deserves the full measure – not just the crumbs – of the good news and healing that Jesus brings, and it will change the disciples’ previously held ideas about the Gentiles. It is Jesus at his subversive best.
The woman lifts her bowed head and looks into his eyes. For the first time, the disciples see her human face. She is no longer one of “those people” – a “dog” to be excluded from the presence of Jesus. She speaks in a voice they can barely hear. Her faith is strong, so her voice doesn’t have to be: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Immediately, the miracle: Jesus heals the daughter and lifts high her mother as one of God’s own, a woman of faith. A prejudice of the disciples begins to be replaced with an understanding that all people of faith have a place at the Lord’s table. Gender doesn’t matter; race doesn’t matter; ethnicity doesn’t matter; a commonly held prejudice does not matter. What matters is faith in the Son of God and our response in his presence. “For such a reply,” Jesus said, “you may go…” and be forever changed.