Today’s reading is Mark 7:24-30:
From there Jesus set out for the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house there where he didn’t think he would be found, but he couldn’t escape notice. He was barely inside when a woman who had a disturbed daughter heard where he was. She came and knelt at his feet, begging for help. The woman was Greek, Syro-Phoenician by birth. She asked him to cure her daughter.
He said, “Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”
She said, “Of course, Master. But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”
Jesus was impressed. “You’re right! On your way! Your daughter is no longer disturbed. The demonic affliction is gone.” She went home and found her daughter relaxed on the bed, the torment gone for good.
Reading this passage, there are a lot of different things to focus in on. Perhaps the most obvious among them being: Ouch Jesus – why you gotta be that way? (If we were making this stuff up, surely we wouldn’t have included this one, would we!) Regardless of how you interpret fulfillment of prophecy, and the whole Jew-to-Gentile expansion of salvation thing, this verse seems kind of harsh. How about that Syro-Phoenician woman though? While we can concentrate in on why Jesus can speak so harshly yet still fit with our “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” reading of the Gospels, I think there may be something more to be learned from her, from the one who talks back to the maker of everything.
The Bible tells us of many people who argued, resisted, wrestled with God: Moses, Jacob, David, to name a few. And now here’s this Syro-Phoenician woman who, clearly aware of the special nature of Jesus if nothing else, contradicts his rebuke nonetheless.
On one hand, this shows that God rewards engagement. He likes people who wrestle with their faith. Reading this, I believe the God who gave us the free will to choose also takes pleasure when we care about the things God cares about. By extension, I think focusing in on the questions that are truly important, even if we’re not agreeing with God, garners God’s pleasure. In a phrase, I think God gives a lot of participation points.
Even more disruptive to my thinking though, is that in this passage the woman is successful in jumping the queue. She cuts in line with Jesus’ blessing. Salvation History as a process, as a mode of reading, isn’t something Jesus ever said, but it’s one of the core doctrines of any church tradition. We all believe that God worked through two covenants just as thoroughly as we read a collection of books divided by the covenant to which they refer. Here though – she jumps queue; she benefits from a sign of Jesus’ restorative power, even before it is supposed to be available to her. If we believed Jesus were slave to our doctrine then, this would be like saying “hey Jesus, what’s 2+2,” and Jesus answering “5”. But of course Jesus supersedes any and all of our human constructs – doctrine probably first among them. That said, Jesus saved lepers, but probably 10,000 died that year. What was special about the handful he saved then? Was it something about them … or something about Him?
He did come to save, but not in a medical sense. He’s concerned with out suffering, but sometimes its more prominent in our eyes than in his, insofar as we don’t see things as God does. What I’m saying is, Jesus wasn’t sent as a drive-through clinic, meant just to heal worldly ills. The question then arises, what was special about this woman? Through Jesus, the Jews were fed and the Gentiles weren’t (until later). However, the Syro-Phoenician woman manages to accomplish something where others couldn’t.
Step back a second: who else does Jesus heal? The lepers who yell out, the woman who grabs his robe, Bartimaeus who just screams and follows him everywhere, the friends who cut through the roof to dump their friend in Jesus’ lap – These are some of the people who Jesus healed. There were others healed, of course, both like this and not, but among these examples, there is a precedent shared with the Syro-Phoenician woman. These people were demanding something from Jesus, extremely participating, totally desperate for help.
However, miracles were signs, telling us not something about us but something about him. We are told again and again: Jesus came first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles. Prophets said it; Jesus said it; Paul said it. But Jesus did not walk a straight line, and Jesus healed the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Why?
I have no specific answer. All I can say is there’s something about being unreserved, something about throwing yourself whole-heartedly towards him, full-throatedly yelling his name, shamelessly demanding that your God be there for you. For that’s what the Syro-Phoenician woman did: shamelessly demanded that Jesus be Jesus Christ for her daughter.
Will Sack ’17 lives in Pforzheimer House and concentrates in East Asian Studies and History.