The Syrophoenician woman
In your order service, as you will have seen, I have given you the reading. This short encounter between Jesus and the nameless Syrophoenician woman, which we find in both the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, is an encounter which has been subjected to much debate. An encounter which happens at a critical juncture in Jesus’ ministry, and thus warrants a close reading.
It happens about half way into Jesus ministry. He’s already taught many of his parables, fed the 5000, walked on water, and performed other healings. And the conflict he’s coming up against, primarily with Jewish leaders, is intensifying. John the Baptist has been beheaded, and Jesus has had an argument with some Pharisees over purity laws; pressure is rising, and in response we’re told Jesus sets out and goes up to the region of Tyre. If we assume the account of Mary and Joseph fleeing with the baby Jesus down into Egypt is apocryphal, then that would make this short account the only time in the Gospels that Jesus ever leaves Israel. Presumably it’s to just to get away from all the conflict he’s encountering. Tyre is in modern-day Lebanon and is about 35 miles north from the Sea of Galilee. So that’s probably the furthest north from Galilee you could possibly walk in a single day. In the same way that Jesus goes into the wilderness (earlier in the Gospels) to confront his interior world of doubts, and prepare himself for the ministry that he then embarks upon, so here, half way through his ministry, he goes north along the coast to get away, and re-examine his own ministry, purpose, and calling.
This is where Jesus encounters the Syrophoenician woman. We’re told she is a Gentile, a non-Jew, and yet despite that she wants Jesus to cast out the demon from her own daughter. And Jesus is initially reticent to do so. The reason for this is that Jesus, at least initially, believed his ministry and calling was to the chosen people of God only, to the Jewish people only. So this relates to the question: who did Jesus think he was? And what did Jesus see as his own purpose?
Jesus thought he was the anointed one of Israel, the Messiah. Now often when people hear the word Messiah today they automatically equate that with divinity, with godhood. That is not a leap first century Jews would have made at all; the Messianic figure was not a divine figure but a human figure, the one who would mediate God’s will on earth. The Jewish people believed that the Messiah would come as their King to restore the autonomy of the Kingdom of Israel, defeat the Roman pagans, and cleanse or rebuild the Temple. Now, this is obviously not what Jesus did, but the question is, while he was alive and ministering, did he believe this is what he would do ultimately? That is a debatable question. The other possibility is that Jesus had a more esoteric interpretation from the get-go of who the Messiah was, an unorthodox interpretation of that role, a more mystical sense of the role. That he wouldn’t be the leader of a worldly Kingdom on earth, as a great military ruler, but would proclaim the presence of an unworldly Kingdom - The Kingdom of God. And that he would therefore not need a physical temple, because God’s divinity was present everywhere, and was not to be contained within the Temple.
So, there are two possibilities. And as an aside, I think my own view on this, as to which I see as the more likely, has shifted. It was my opinion that Jesus always interpreted the role of the Messiah in more esoteric terms, that he never believed he would be the literal king of the Jewish people. And in a sense, he knew his own radical message would ultimately force the hand of the authorities to kill him, which would in turn universalise his message. But I think though it is more likely that he did think he would be the Messiah in a more traditional sense, the literal king of the Jews, and that as the king of the Jews, Jesus would bring about the new Messianic age in which the Kingdom of Israel would abolish war throughout the world, and allow compassion to reign supreme, ushering in a time of justice, truth and peace. However, he was killed. And that in turn forced his followers to either abandon him, as he was not the Messiah after all, or to reinterpret his entire ministry, and everything he had said, in more mystical terms.
With all that in mind then, we can return to the Syrophoenician woman. She’s asking for his help, and he’s reticent. The reason he’s reticent is because at this point, as far as Jesus is concerned, the Gentiles are an irrelevant part of the equation. Jesus will bring about the Messianic Age, which will in turn bless the Gentiles, but all that can’t happen until his own people recognise him as King, and he is proclaimed as their anointed one. And now we get this statement, which is quite probably the most shocking thing Jesus ever says in the New Testament: ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ So here we find Jesus telling this poor beleaguered woman that she is a dog. And in this Weinstean, #MeToo, Trump presidency climate, having Jesus call an anonymous woman a dog is quite disturbing. So, we must begin by not assuming this pejorative epithet carried the same baggage 2000 years ago as it does today; it could be more benign than it seems, but it could also be more severe. And basically, we just don’t know. There is not a consensus in the scholarly world around this question. Of course, Christian theologians are strongly motivated to give this as benign an interpretation as possible, in an attempt to neutralise the apparent negativity. Within Christian orthodoxy, Jesus is sinless, and if that’s your prerequisite assumption, that is going to strongly influence how you interpret this encounter. Because of that ideological commitment at play amongst Christian theologians, it makes their arguments concerning issues of this nature far more dubious. They have a prior commitment in play, and so to counter that, the burden of proof for them must be far higher to warrant legitimising their position.
Okay, so I'll go through the possible interpretations starting with the most benign. My wife Cat’s family are from Stoke-on-Trent, in the midlands, and there they use this slang term ‘duck’ - “You alright duck”, “Ey up me duck”. Cat’s family use this expression a lot. Almost every sentence ends with ‘duck’. “Ey, what you get there me duck?” Etc etc… So, this expression communicates warmth, affection, playfulness, and this is the first possibility as to the way Jesus was using the word ‘dog’, to be kindly. I think though that this interpretation, although it would solve a lot of problems, is the least likely. Almost every usage of the word ‘dog’ in the New and Old Testaments is pejorative, unless it’s being used to name an actual dog. The next possibility is that it would be more fitting to interpret this word as ‘bitch’, as it is used pejoratively in English. As a straight insult, deployed because this individual is a Gentile and thus by default not someone who would understand or even grasp the significance of the holy, and is, as such, lesser. Someone who doesn’t follow Kosher laws and so is, by definition, spiritually unclean and unfit. As problematic as that is, its seems more likely. Another possibility is that it’s a racially charged insult, that ‘dog’ is a first century racist term that Jewish people used to describe the Syrophoenician people. Again, that seems like another likely possibility. Or perhaps a combination of the two. So, it’s one thing, what you say, it’s another thing, how you say it.
And one argument I have come across several times, suggests that Jesus’ mastery of this situation is never compromised at all. This position asserts that although the word ‘dog’ here is being used as an insult or a racial slur, it’s being used playfully to beg a response which Jesus already knows to be true, but he wants this woman to come to that conclusion on her own. So, when Jesus says, ‘Let the children be fed first, for, it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’, and she responds, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’, they’re possibly playing a game with language here. If the culturally normative state of affairs is that the Jewish people of the first century would have considered the Syrophoenician people to be [insert racial slur here] ‘dogs’, then they’re playing around with that racialised language.
‘You cannot eat because you are a [insert racial slur]’.
‘I know that I am a [insert racial slur], but surely even we should get a little’.
‘Okay, yes, you will get a little’.
Or finally, the most likely interpretation is, I think, that in the Syrophoenician woman Jesus met his match. This woman’s quick retort actually changes Jesus’ mind. Jesus’ default attitude, his culturally determined attitude is that in the pre-Messianic era the Gentiles have no role to play. He is therefore dismissive of her, and throws out this insult or racial slur. But, the Syrophoenician woman confounds that assumption of Jesus. Remember, Jesus is up north on a sabbatical of sorts because his own people don’t get it; amongst the Jewish people he’s being met with resistance. And yet here, the least important person you can imagine, does get it. Someone who is a foreigner. And a gentile. And way down the social pecking order, being poor and a woman. And a suspect woman at that, willing as she is to break cultural norms and instigate the conversation with this man. So Jesus responds, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ And she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Jesus is reminded, I would imagine, of the God-fearers, those Gentiles who were a part of the Jewish community, and worshipped God, despite not being Jews. As such it was possible even for the Gentiles to grasp the significance of the Messianic one, and thus participate in the new Kingdom to come.
Now this is not, as some Christian have claimed, a full and inclusive universalising of Jesus’ message. Jesus seems to have always thought of himself as the Messiah of the Jewish people, and it was not until after his death, with the likes of Paul, that Christianity become truly universalised. But the Syrophoenician woman represent a critical step in that direction, and more critically demonstrates, probably better than anything else in the New Testament, that even during Jesus’ ministry he was still growing and evolving in his understanding and perception of himself, and the role he was to play within this cosmic narrative. It demonstrates Jesus’ humanity like no other story, rebuking, seeing his error, and reconciling. It is an evolution which spans this encounter, but also spans the rest of his life and ministry, an evolution which even stretched beyond his life, stretching into his death in a sense. The Christ image, as it came to reside within the Christian imagination, supersedes anything Jesus in life ever was. This Christ image becomes an atypical exemplar of this unworldly Kingdom of God, which all are invited to participate in.
All are invited to live in the present as if we are citizens of this unworldly Kingdom of God, this Kingdom of Love, enacting it here in our midst. In closing then, I invite you to join with me in saying that prayer that Jesus taught:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.