About four years ago, my wife and I were getting married and asked my dad, a minister, to do the service. Seemed easy enough, until the Friday night rehearsal. You know, it’s supposed to be a pretty celebratory, carefree, enjoyable experience. But, pops was about as nerved out as I’ve seen. He was whirling around the rehearsal, bombarding us all with “do’s” and “don’ts” for the upcoming service; he spent like 25 minutes on the consequences of having chewing gum or cell phones or my groomsmen giving me a bro-hug during the processional. He went so far as to warn me and my dudes that he’d done a wedding before where the night of the rehearsal the whole groom’s party got into a pretty serious car accident, so we better beware doing anything stupid. Some of that is pretty sound advice, granted. And every wedding rehearsal has it’s stresses and/or rule “nazis.” But this was my dad.
I can understand how he had the combined pressure/anxiety of groom’s father, officiating minister, and host pastor. But, still, our bridal party included some of the people I love and respect most on earth, and I didn’t want this particular version of my dad to be their first or only experience of him. Deservedly, I’m proud of my dad, his stout faith and good heart; he’s real good at cutting loose and having fun, and I would’ve loved for this, my tightest circle of friends, to see that. Instead, to this day I’m afraid some of them picture him as a frantic crazy-man.
It’s not cool when a situation doesn’t accurately reflect a person we love. Not only because of our own embarassment, but because it sucks knowing that others are missing out on what is an amazing person. Some of those feelings are exactly what springs up in me when I initially read the episode of a Syrophoenician woman who appears to be being named-called by what sounds like a callous, stone-cold Jesus.
Read Mark 7:24-31 here.
Bad impression. For those of us already firmly loyal to Jesus, it’s frustrating to see such a seemingly out-of-character moment. We call him “Lord” and profess him as God in the flesh who is pure Love, but then it’s as if he demeans this woman over her ethnic/faith background. His behavior can leave us uncomfortable, or embarrassed, even ashamed and frustrated. And what if this is someone’s only experience of Christ? For people already skeptical or even oppositional to the Christian gospel, this story confirms what they’ve been shouting all along –- Jesus was just another imperfect person. In fact, the way he treats this poor lady, Jesus looks a lot more like some of those typical churchy followers of his they’re familiar with. Close-minded, judgmental, bigoted, self-righteous. “Christian.”
Still others of us gloss over this story, or skip completely.
But here we are with it, and I think a lot is at stake. Like, whether or not we get to know Jesus’ true heart. Do we let our preconceived notions decide what to do with this one? Do we pretend like it never happened, or use it as ammo to deconstruct what we see as false religion? Either way, let’s not just bail out and walk away. Like the Syrophoenician woman, let’s stick around and see what on earth is up.
Most preachers/teachers on Mark 7:24-31 give us one of two explanations on this one. One one hand, they say that the woman was a great example of self-confidence, or even a kind of holy defiance, before God. As in, she represents how we should all respond when God seems to snub or overlook us. We should never take no for an answer. We should be demanding of what we deserve. And if we do those things, so they say, then we’ll be rewarded by God who is testing us.
On the other hand, I’ve heard that this lady represented the exact opposite. Some say that her incredible lowliness is our example. As in, Jesus calls her a dog, but it’s to see if she’s willing to be humble, even humiliated, for what she wants. And if she wants it bad enough, she’ll come crawling on her belly hoping for a speck of mercy from the mighty Christ. As in, we need to all be ready to endure anything/everything as God tests us, even with cruelty, to see if we’re worthy of some sort of blessing.
Personally, both of those theories seem off-the-mark. They both readily admit that Jesus was being intentionally oppressive to the Syrophoenician woman, as a test. And we walk away not knowing if Jesus is testing an extreme defiance or extreme humility. Is there room for both, or neither, or something in between? It feels to me like more is going on here than it seems, so maybe we need to zoom out a little bit.
More than words…
The story reminds me of something of Peter Rollins’ I read recently, as he cites a Jewish philosopher. When it comes to communication, he says, there are two pieces that are always at work: the content of the message, AND the way that it gets transmitted. Rollins claims that Western culture often prizes the thing being said over the act of the saying, and the result is that we miss out on the fullness of a given message. That’s especially true with Jesus. We always need to look at the fullness of what he communicates, as best we can, beyond just what’s quotable. So, in this case, what is the real context between him and the Syrophoenician woman?
Well, I think the context is large. The gospel writers identify this woman by her ethnicity rather than even her name because the heart of this story is about cultural identity. It’s about how an emerging and powerful Jewish rabbi would interact with a foreign woman. It’s about how the Jewish Messiah would or would not connect with other people groups. It’s about what kind of preference God gave the Hebrews, and why, and what it meant for the rest of us.
After all, throughout Scripture, it looks like God has picked his favorites, right? Starting with Abram, father of the Semitic peoples, there’s a unique connection going on that the other kids don’t have with God the Father. It’s called covenant. And, more than just favoritism, a covenant is a bond between two parties that intertwines their fates, and demands something of both. So for God to choose the Hebrews for the covenant, it’s a special status. Really, for God to freely bind himself to humans (and them to him) at all, is wild and looks irrational. What could we contribute to the deal? But Christian orthodoxy teaches that all of history really points to God working towards this kind of intimacy with us, ever since we thrashed the holy intimacy of the Garden. So, through Old testament and New, from the first moment, God was working at reconciling all things. In other words, with Abram, and his offspring the Jews, the covenant was about redemption. And NOT just redemption for the Jews. Here’s the exact wording —
The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
It’s good news for Abraham’s kids, no doubt, but pay attention. The Hebrews were blessed in order to be a blessing. The same theme shows up again centuries later when the Israelites are really taking on their own identity. With Moses at the helm, leading the people out of Egypt towards their land and nationhood, this is God’s declaration to the Jews —
“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
Covenant still in effect, check. Treasured possession, nice. But there’s also this bit about being priests. For Israel, the priests were those few who were selected out of the whole nation to handle the most holy things of God. When it came to sacrifice, intercession, and God’s house, the priests were charged with both an honor and a grave responsibility. They navigated the connection between God and humans, and helped uphold the covenant. The priests were revered and certainly “favorites” of a sort. But they also put their lives on the line every day because God’s holiness, when taken lightly, is no joke. Haven’t you ever seen the end of The Raiders of the Lost Ark? Not good (watch below).
Priests were differentiated from everyone else not for their own glory, but to serve righteously. They weren’t living the high life above the people, they were held to a greater account by God. And what the priests were for the whole nation of Israel, that’s what the Jews were to be for the rest of the world. A blessing, chosen and set apart, but not so that they would be exalted over other culture groups. Rather, their glory rested in their humility to serve all others. Their blessedness rested on the extent to which they blessed others.
The covenant with Abram was always pointing to one ultimate event — the arrival of the Messiah and his saving work on earth. The primary way the Jews were going to be blessed, and to bless all nations, was by serving as the surrogate to God-in-the-flesh. It was their greatest honor, and would also become a great responsibility and/or stumbling block for them, as Jesus said. It was why most of Jesus’ ministry on earth was located among the Jews. On many small occasions in many of the gospels, Jesus does and says things to indicate that he came to save the whole earth.
But he was also clear over and over that the way for God to move through redemptive/covenant history was to reveal himself first to this particular people. This particular people who should’ve been most prepared, over centuries, for the coming Messiah. This particular people whom God had been teaching and grooming and preserving, over centuries, until the time was right to redeem all creation through them. This particular people that God had actually been the “hardest” on at different points of history, holding them accountable to the covenant so that they would be a capable vessel to usher in Immanuel. I think it was important for God to let the Jews know that, even though they’d screwed up over and over again as his special priestly people, even though they’d broken covenant repeatedly, God was still going to work this great blessing through them. And so Jesus ministered to the Jews first.
Some of you say it’s still picking favorites. But, let’s remember what exactly the Jews were the first to be invited into — the Church. They were the first to hear the Gospel, which was a gospel of self-denial, sacrifice, and following Jesus even to the death. They were being invited to be the first to lay down their own lives and serve. Sure, they experienced signs and miracles and healings, and that’s what the Syrophoenician woman was interested in. But those were just precursors to the real invitation: to claim Jesus as Lord and King, Savior and Redeemer. And these were the very claims that put every Christian in harm’s way.
The new covenant
I think Jesus seemed to put off the Syrophoenician woman, a non-Jew, not out of insult but to communicate to her his short-term priority. He had a limited clock on earth, and intended to start a ministry among the Jews that would fulfill the covenant and usher in something new. He implies that her people will also receive the blessing of the Messiah soon enough, and I think his ultimate decision to heal her daughter was a foreshadowing of it. Judging by her reply, the woman seemed to understand some part of Jesus’ mission, with a good measure of both humility and expectation.
How do we know Jesus felt this way? How do we know he wasn’t just slurring her after all? Because, shortly after, just before Jesus headed to the cross, we hear some of his last explanations for the events that were unfolding —
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. (Mark 14:22-24)
By the sacrifice that was about to take place at the cross, Jesus was going to initiate a new covenant that would be open to all people by grace. It was a turning point in redemptive history, because now the promise to Abram was coming to completion. Now the Jews’ role as “blessed and chosen” was being fulfilled. Now all people would have the chance to be covenant people.
Elsewhere, Scripture describes the new covenant this way —
“…with your blood you purchased men and women for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)
It means that, today, every follower of Jesus is like a priest on earth, to serve and be a blessing to all others, so that they might believe and follow. And guess which people group was one of the first to hear that news? The Syrophoenicians. We understand that the disciples, the Church, carried on Jesus’ ministry in all of that territory, and in this woman’s on land. Her people would be some of the first to have a chance to hear the gospel, and to choose to be baptized and to follow, and to receive the very Spirit of God.
So, however we understand Jesus’ language here, we MUST take a good and wide look at the greater story unfolding. We have to keep in mind the scope of not only Jesus’ word-choice but how it was being said, and what it implied. We have to admire this woman’s balance of humility, outspokenness, and insight, that she seemed to have some understanding of what Jesus’ intentions and priorities were. We have to admire that she still put her faith in him. And she was not disappointed.
Thanks be to God. And thanks be to God that the same opportunity is available to us, so many “Gentiles.” That we, by faith, can be included among God’s chosen people. That we can be a kind of priesthood to the Almighty. That we can be the redeemed in the great covenant. Thanks be to God.