The gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 14 in Year B is Mark 7.24-37, which includes the episode of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman that often brings readers up short, containing as it does what appears to be a rather shocking insult. Jesus is seeking to withdraw from public attention, needing some time for rest and recuperation, but (as characteristic of his portayal in Mark’s gospel) he is unable to keep his presence secret. A woman approaches him to ask for deliverance for her daughter and (Mark having emphasised her pagan gentile credentials), Jesus appears to insult her with a racial slur by calling her a ‘dog’. Yet her stubborn faith persists, and her clever response to Jesus’ ‘insult’ persuades him to act, so her daughter is delivered and healed.
There seems to be quite a strong trend in ‘progressive’ readings of this text to draw a particular point from this episode: Jesus was in fact fallible and racist; the woman taught him something by her response; he changed and moved on from his narrow, exclusive view; and so we should be willing to do the same. Here is one example, which sees mainstream readings of this texts as ‘workarounds’ which are avoiding the awkward reality that we find in the text:
It’s one of the most unsettling passages in the New Testament. This isn’t the Jesus Christians like to think about. This is Jesus apparently insulting and dehumanizing a desperate woman seeking the health of her family. This is Jesus writing Gentiles off as second-tier citizens…Jesus’ statement was full of prejudice and ethnocentrism.
This story calls us to confront Jesus’ humanity. Being human means being embedded in a culture. It means growing up with a certain worldview. It means inheriting traditions and language and biases—biases that can be wrongheaded and hurtful and alienating. Biases like the exclusion of Gentiles from the community of faith and the circle of those deserving compassion…
You see, Jesus doesn’t cling to his prejudice. He listens…Jesus listens. And he changes his mind…The hero of this story is not Jesus, but the Syrophoenician woman…Jesus had prejudices from his community that were magnified by his insulation from those who could challenge his views, but he listens when those views are challenged. He concedes his erroneous ethnocentrism and turns divine compassion toward all people everywhere. Jesus shows us in this story that inheriting bias is inevitable, but holding onto it is a choice.
There is no end to the wonderful ironies in this reading, not least that it is actually Mark, the writer of the gospel, who is the real hero, since he can see more clearly than Jesus did at the time the importance of this lesson. We need to pause to recognise which ‘ethnocentric’ and racist community Jesus belongs to here, whose ingrained prejudices he inherits. And it is not too difficult to read the agenda of this commentator: conservative Christians are like the ignorant, prejudiced Jesus at the beginning of the story, but progressive Christians like me are like the enlightened Jesus at the end of the story. The goal here is less for us to be like Jesus so much as to be like the commentator. We can perhaps forgive this approach, knowing that the author is a third-year undergraduate in law (not theology) at Harvard. But others take a similar line:
Jesus uttered an ethnic slur. To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child…Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism…
Rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.
This, I think, is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman. It teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Like many of us today, Jesus would have been reared into a prejudiced worldview.
So don’t tell me you aren’t prejudiced or don’t exercise your position of power through the lens of your prejudice. Even Jesus did that.
The more I think about it, the more alarming this reading is. Apart from its extraordinary historical ignorance (Jewish culture was in a position of power and dominance over against Graeco-Roman pagan culture—really?!), the writer appears entirely unaware of his dangerous characterisation of Jewish first-century culture as racist, effectively likening Jesus the Jew to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. An editorial note at the end of the piece suggests that writer (ordained in the Episcopal Church in the US) is aware of some of the difficulties here. But he doesn’t seem aware of his assumption that Jesus’ humanity implies Jesus’ prejudice and sin, or that that might have been debated by the early church, or that it contradicts some explicit claims of the NT about Jesus (‘tempted like us, but without sin’ Heb 4.15), or that knowing that Jesus lived within a particular time and culture need not imply that Jesus was trapped in that time and culture.
A rather witty post from a Catholic priest picks up some of the problems here:
Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I heard some theologian or other say that in the Gospel a few weeks ago the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter ended up teaching Jesus to be more tolerant. Is this possible that Jesus was a narrow-minded bigot who had to learn a thing or two from a Lebanese lady? Please help!
Kay Nanite [see Matt 15.22]
I wouldn’t worry too much. Whoever said this must be just a pop theologian. They come and go like the fins on a sixties’ Buick. If he’s Fr. WOW! today, he’ll probably be Fr. Who? tomorrow… I don’t mean to sound fussy, but the reason I call the fellow a pop theologian is that he can’t be much of scholar. He hasn’t read the text. Pop theologians always assume that their opinion is unquestionable, so they never question it themselves…
Jesus left the throne He shared with His Father, taking off the prerogatives of divinity like a garment which He left on the heavenly throne. He humbled himself for love of His Father and for love of us. He never ceased to be God, the Son of God. He never ceased to be the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. He never ceased to be perfect, since the perfection of the God is sacrificial love. In his humanity, Jesus certainly learned. The creator of the world learned carpentry form St. Joseph and Jesus, the Word of God learned Aramaic on His Blessed Mother’s lap. But he did not learn to be less racist from a Canaanite woman. He did not learn moral truth from anyone. He was and is moral truth. The only instruction that Jesus needed was the Father’s voice, and this He always heard clearly, despite what you may have heard to the contrary.
This final comment is perhaps jumping too quickly from text to theology, so let’s spend a few moments with the text itself. First, as Ben Witherington notes in his socio-rhetorical commentary (Eerdmans, 2001, p 231), this passage is indeed challenging—so much so that it is ‘nearly impossible’ to imagine that the story was invented by Mark’s mostly gentile community. In other words, this passage helps to address a challenge from a previous generation, that the gospel stories are unreliable historically and largely a creation of the early Christian community.
But (as R T France highlights in his excellent NIGTC commentary), the episode also exhibits many connections with early and following parts of Mark. The episode begins in Mark 7.24 with the phrase ‘he rose and went from that place’, a phrase that first occurred in Mark 1.35 (though the parallel is obscured in some English translations). In both cases Jesus is seeking solitude as a prelude to the widening of his missions into new regions. Secondly, it is a feature of this early part of Mark that Jesus is moving beyond and then back into Jewish territory, which is part of the force of the eight occurrences of Jesus ‘crossing the lake’ (an aspect of Mark’s ‘fishy’ gospel in which, probably under the influence of Peter as his eye-witness source, Mark gives prominent attention to fishing, boats, and sea crossings). Thirdly and more particularly, Jesus has already been involved in deliverance ministry amongst non-Jewish pagans, in healing the Gerasene demoniac. If the woman is teaching Jesus something about traversing ethnic boundaries, it appears that neither Jesus nor the woman (nor apparently Mark) has read the episode from two chapters early. Or perhaps it is just the ‘progressive’ commentators who have forgotten to do so…
In fact, this episode fits with a number of themes in this section of Mark. ‘Bread’ is a repeated theme, first occurring in the feeding of the five thousand in Mark 6.35–44, then recurring in the feeding of the four thousand in Mark 8.1–10, as well as featuring in Jesus warning to the disciples about the Pharisees, highlighting the disciples’ own lack of understanding, in Mark 8.14–21. In each place, bread stands for the blessings of the Messiah’s ministry, first to his own people the Jews and then (secondly) to the Gentiles. The two feeding episodes function as (if you will pardon the pun) a sandwich to the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.
So when we read the text carefully, and read it in the context of the wider arc of Mark’s narrative, what do we learn?
Misunderstandings of the pericope spring largely from the failure to read it as a whole. It is a dialogue within which the individual sayings function only as part of the whole, and are not intended to carry the weight of independent exegesis on their own. The whole encounter builds up to the totally positive conclusion of verses 29 to 30, while the preceding dialogue serves to underline the radical nature of this new stage in Jesus’s ministry into which he has allowed himself to be ‘persuaded’ by the woman’s realism and wit. He appears like a wise teacher who allows, and indeed incites, his pupil to mount a victorious argument against the foil of his own reluctance. He functions as what in a different context might be called a ‘devil’s advocate’, and is not ‘disappointed’ to be defeated in argument. As a result the reader is left more vividly aware of the reality of the problem of Jew-gentile relations, and of the importance of the step Jesus here takes to overcome it. (France, p 296).
It is worth noting here that the core issue—that of the nature of the gospel including both Jew and Gentile—remains as forceful as ever, but without having to mangle the text and turn Jesus into a bigoted racist to make the point. It turns out that Mark is a rather more compelling interpreter of Jesus’ ministry that a number of 21st-century readers. And in this careful reading, it is neither Jesus nor the woman who are the ‘hero’ in contrast to the failure and obstinacy of the other, but both who are important and rounded characters in the narrative. Jesus’ encounters with individuals are never a zero-sum game.
Some similar points are made in a much more detailed narrative-critical study of the episode by David Rhoads (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), pp. 343-375):
The episode of the Syrophoenician woman fits tightly into the overall story, particularly in relation to the presentation of the Kingdom of God. The establishment of God’s rule over the world is the force which drives the whole plot of the narrative. Here are four ways in which this episode relates to the kingdom of God in Mark.
Rhoads highlights the way in which the woman’s response is a mirrored foil to Jesus, cleverly continuing the riddle that he offers her.
In her response, the Syrophoenician woman extends Jesus’ riddle. She does not oppose what Jesus has said. Rather, she develops the scenario of Jesus’ allegory so that she and her daughter have a place in it…Thus, in her response, the Syrophoenician woman not only stays within the Jewish perspective of Jesus’ riddle; she even refers to the Jewish children with a term of endearment.
It is perhaps worth noting how this pattern of ‘to the Jew first, then to the Gentile’ (Romans 1.16) might have been critically important if Mark’s gospel was written in the context of Rome, where relations between Jew and gentile Christian might have been tense.
When we interpret the episode in light of the themes of the whole story, we are also able to see more clearly the rhetorical impact this story may have had on an ancient audience as a boundary-crossing narrative.
And there are further points worth noting, some of detail and others of the broader context. First, Jesus calls the woman a κυνάριον, a pet, house or lap dog, who is part of the family, and not a κύων, a wild street dog. The first term occurs only here and in the parallel in Matt 15.26–27; the second occurs in the other well-known references, Matt 7.6, Luke 16.21, Phil 3.2, 2 Pet 2.22 and Rev 22.15, and can have the metaphorical meaning of prostitute.
Secondly, although the woman is identified explicitly by Mark as a ‘gentile’ (literally, ‘a Greek’), she does not appear to be of low social status, and might well have seen herself as socially superior to Jesus, a Jew. Her status might be indicated by the fact that her daughter is lying on a κλίνη, which is sometimes translated as ‘couch’, though the word is used flexibly (for example, in Luke 5.18, though not in Mark 2.4), so I am not sure this is decisive.
Thirdly, we need to pay attention to the community context in which Jesus is operating. Colin Edwards commented on a previous posting of this analysis:
Kenneth Bailey does a good job in explaining that Jesus is a setting that is community in action (as opposed to individualistic), and that Jesus usually has the disciples and his community to the fore of his attention. Therefore Bailey argues that Jesus is working with the woman to have her help him teach the watching disciples that the kingdom is for all. He doesn’t need pursuading but his disciples and watching community do. This interaction is an object lesson that helps pursuade and teach them.
And Andrew Symes notes the importance of this in the parallel in Matthew 15:
If Mark’s version is an abbreviation of Matthew 15:21-28, then Matthew’s version helps with the interpretation, because it shows the disciples seeing the woman as annoying, and trying to get Jesus to send her away. Is it too fanciful to imagine him making the comments about dogs looking at the disciples with a raised eyebrow, inviting them to agree with his pretend-racist and misogynistic assessment, and then winking at the woman, who comes out with her brilliant line about crumbs from the table?
Again in Matthew’s version, Jesus prefaces his announcement of healing with “woman, you have great faith”. Jesus honours a foreign woman and heals her daughter at a distance; he is showing up his disciples for xenophobia, lack of compassion and lack of faith; at the same time he demonstrates the intention of the kingdom for racial inclusivity and the blessing of all nations based around faith in Christ. All in an exchange which would have lasted less than a minute. The disciples come out badly, and someone can perhaps enlighten me as to why Mark’s account isn’t as clear as Matthew’s, but Jesus remains the perfect Lord and Saviour, preaching and demonstrating the kingdom in a very human setting.
I think the answer to the last question might be found in Matthew’s strongly Jewish perspective, which makes the lesson even more important.
Finally, Jesus’ approach here fits well with God’s dealings with his people, as Daniel Boehm commented previously:
To me it seems that in this passage Jesus uses a similar pedagogical method to Jahweh allowing/challenging Abraham (Gen 18:22-33) and Moses (Ex 32:7-14; Num 14:5-20) to be “obnoxious” and persistent intercessors. It seems at first reading that their patience and mercy is greater than God’s, and yet it is God stretching and shaping them to stand in the gap between himself and his people…
In this I see a connection to Lk 11:5-24 and Lk 18:1-8 where God allows himself to be compared to rather unpleasant chracters, because as we intercede we wrestle with (our image of) God. Again, not to ‘convince’ him to be merciful but to train us to trust in his justice and mercy against all odds. To me it would be one of the most joyful moments if one of my children told me – “Dad, I know you better than that.” … reminding me of who I aspire to be.
Does all this mean that Jesus is never ‘learning and growing’ in the accounts in the gospels? After all, isn’t that part of what it means to be human? Jesus was clearly not omniscient (‘no-one knows the hour, not even the Son’ Matt 24.36) and that was part of his finitude as fully human in the incarnation. But if ‘in him the fulness of the godhead dwelt bodily’ then I think we are getting into serious problems if we think he didn’t understand God’s purposes for humanity, and in particular if he was limited in his understanding by a certain kind of Jewish ethnocentricity which would equate to what we could consider ‘racism’. Apart from another else, it questions Jesus’ own understanding of the OT, which includes some very clear critiques of such a narrow view.
Besides, a careful attention to what the text actually says here offers no grounds for believing that Jesus was ignorant and racist, and that this incident taught him something about the kingdom of God that he did not already know.
It is, perhaps, worth asking why the ‘progressive’ readings of the story are so popular, given that they don’t actually pay attention to the details of the text, and given that they raise such serious theological problems in the understanding of the humanity of Jesus? Perhaps they are simply the manifestation of ignorance—of lack of awareness of lack of willingness to engage with scholars like R T France. Again, there is an irony writ large in commentating on a passage like this about boundary crossing if commentators are not willing to cross a few boundaries, to engage with theologians from other traditions, themselves. But such views are broadcast very effectively by social media, and take root in shallow soil where the reading of good commentaries by church leaders is less and less common.
But there is perhaps also a more explicit agenda—to challenge ‘orthodox’ understandings of who Jesus is, by taking the ‘risky’ step of thinking that the Jesus we find in the New Testament isn’t actually a model for us, but is frail, ignorant and sinful too. This then means that the teaching of the New Testament is not binding on us, but is part of the ‘trajectory’ of development which continues through history, so that we, now, represent the pinnacle of revelation, and our own understandings reveal the true wisdom of God.
Sadly, this ‘gospel’ doesn’t actually turn out to be very persuasive. As one comment expressed is on the second blog quoted above:
If I didn’t already have nothing but utter contempt for Christ, the bible and Christianity this exposure of Christ’s racism and bigotry surely would have rocked my world view.
If we are going to draw the crowds, perhaps we need to pay more attention to the real Jesus of the gospels.
If you would like to learn more about how to read the New Testament well, why not pick up Exploring the New Testament which I have contributed to. It explores issues of background, context, content and interpretation for the letters of the NT including the Book of Revelation.
(A previous, shorter version of this was posted in 2018. See also the commentary on the parallel passage in Matt 15.)