Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV)
The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Reflecting on this week’s Gospel reading has been an infuriating experience. I’ve written three different introductions. I’ve tried five different directions. I’ve read two different commentaries.
And I still keep ending up in the same place.
These verses make Jesus sound like a racist.
Now. Let’s be clear. I don’t think Jesus is a racist.
I don’t think Mark believes Jesus is a racist.
But a woman asks for help and Jesus says, ‘The children have to eat first. It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’
Transport this moment to the world in which we live.
Imagine hearing it said by your manager or pastor.
Imagine saying it yourself. It’s almost inconceivable.
And yet, here it is, in the red letters of Scripture. The words of Jesus himself.
What could he possibly mean?
Well … there are a variety of opinions. Some theologians think that what seems dramatically offensive to us today would not have been anywhere near as controversial then. That’s definitely possible. The excellent Tom Wright argues that this may be ‘teasing banter’ based on conflicting cultures as ‘Jews often thought of Gentiles as “dogs”, and what Gentiles said about Jews was usually just as uncomplimentary.’ It’s worth noting that, while we might take offense at this, the Syrophoenician woman clearly doesn’t. She doesn’t bat an eyelid. She perseveres in her pursuit of healing for her daughter. She comes at Jesus head on and in a way that is particularly profound when taken in the context of the chapter as a whole.
Mark kicks off Chapter 7 with religious leaders coming to Jesus and interrogating him about why he doesn’t do a better job of upholding and perpetuating a system of differentiation between the clean and the unclean. They want to know why his disciples aren’t more diligent about washing their hands. They want a God who is obsessive and judgmental as they are.
They want him to obey their definitions of clean and unclean. Of insider and outsider. Of holy and unholy.
The Syrophoenician woman, however, does the opposite.
She asks him to deny the system.
She wants him to break the rules.
She demands that he deconstruct the hierarchy.
The chapter begins with the insiders who don’t get it …
And ends with the outsider who does.
It’s precisely for this reason that her words have been immortalised. In the Church of Ireland (and other denominations), her words have become part of the 'Prayer of Humble Access’ during Communion Services:
We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.
But you are the same Lord,
whose nature is always to have mercy.
It’s things like this that I find so stunning about the Gospels. Jesus denounces the Pharisees and religious leaders as hypocrites but celebrates the woman they would have rejected as unclean and impure. Instead of being dismissed, her defiance becomes part of centuries of devotion.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.