So, here in Mark, we have what seems like a pretty unflattering portrait of Jesus, one in which he essentially refers to a desperate woman as a dog. Now, if you’re at all like me,you probably don’t prefer to see God incarnate doing this to anyone, but it may be especially uncomfortable to see him doing it—not to put too fine a point on it—to a desperate Syrian.
What difference does her Syrianness make, anyway? Well, unlike in Matthew’s version of this story, where the woman is simply called a Canaanite, Mark is more specific—she’s Syrophoenician. That means she’s a member of a Hellenistic, Greek-speaking ethnic group within the Canaanite population. And as if that detail weren’t enough to make clear what Mark is trying to communicate, he underlines it by telling us explicitly: “the woman was a Gentile.” She is not Hebrew. She’s a pagan who stands completely outside the nation. Unlike even the despised Samaritans, her people were never God’s people. She’s a total outsider. But she is also a desperate mother with a daughter who’s tormented by an unclean spirit. Having heard tell of this teacher passing through town who seems to be able to handle such situations, she finds him, prostrates herself before him, and begs him to heal her daughter. And Jesus’ response is to tell her he’s not there for her. He’s on a mission, a mission to the children of Israel, and to help her would be like the master of the house feeding his own children’s food to the dogs. The healing he brings is for his own people, not for her. But this does not stop her. After all, she’s on a mission, too. She accepts the insult and tries again: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And she prevails. Jesus tells her that her daughter has been made well. The demon has been cast out. #ShePersisted.
It’s really easy for Jesus to come off here as ungenerous at best, and as, well, kind of bigoted and awful at worst. And certainly also as rude and terribly insulting. But there is something important here that Mark is trying to get us to see. What does Mark want us to perceive about God? And about Jesus’ relationship to God?
To answer that, I’m going to take what might seem like a detour. But follow me for a bit and we’ll come right back around to Mark. Think back to the story of Abraham negotiating with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Respectfully but boldly, Abraham talks God down from a wrathfulness bent on destroying entire towns wholesale, and gets God to promise not to destroy the Cities of the Plain if even fifty righteous people could be found there. And then pressing the point, eventually whittling God down by fives and tens to agreeing to spare the city for only ten righteous people. Of course, we all know there turned out to be no such people in Sodom and so both it and Gomorrah were incinerated for their violence and injustices. But the point is, God listened to Abraham. Abraham pled a case. And God listened.
Later, God listens to Moses, as well. Moses begs God not to send him to deal with Pharaoh because of his stutter, and so God agrees to have Aaron be the spokesperson for Operation Exodus. When God threatens to destroy the people for worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses begs for God to relent, which God does. Moses tells God that managing the people in the wilderness after the Exodus is too much and begs to let him die, so God takes some of the spirit he had laid on Moses and transfers it to seventy other leaders able to help him. Moses pled a number of cases. And God listened.
Hannah, childless for so long, begged God for a son and promised she would dedicate the child to God’s service. And she conceived and gave birth to the great prophet Samuel, who anointed Saul and then David king over Israel. Hannah pled a case. And God listened.
These are only illustrative examples. There are others. Suffice it to say that by the time of Jesus, there was a tradition of narratives depicting God as one who listens. Who can be persuaded. And who responds with blessing after the struggle. Isn’t this precisely what we see in Jacob wrestling with the “angel”? He wrestles with this heavenly figure for an entire night and refuses to let him go until after being blessed. Jacob receives that blessing, along with a new name: Israel, which means “he who contends with God.” And he fathers the twelve patriarchs, giving rise to the Israelite nation, an entire people named “the ones who contend with God.” This God expects us to contend with, to importune, and to persist with Godself. And this God has been revealed as willing to listen and to bless us when we do those things.
Mark’s purpose in depicting Jesus as speaking sharply to the Syrophoenician woman is best read in that light. This episode repeats a familiar pattern. This story is used by Mark to identify Jesus with God in a powerful way. Jesus responds to being contended with by a person in some kind of urgent need, the way God was seen to do in the scriptures. It’s this, not the “children and dogs” business, that is the real heart of what is happening, here. That’s why it follows hot on the heels of a set of episodes in which Jesus upbraids the Sadducees and Pharisees for their punctilious observation of the Jewish law, which nevertheless leaves them unrighteous, while this explicitly non-Jewish woman is rewarded for going toe-to-toe with Jesus. Also, in Mark, unlike in Matthew, where Jesus tells the woman that her faith has effected the release of her daughter from the demon, Mark’s Jesus tells her that it is “for saying that”—that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs—that she will be able to return home to a daughter free of the evil spirit. It is through her contending with him, through her importuning him for healing the way the widow importunes the unjust judge for justice till she gets it, through her persistence, that she occasions the exorcism. Because this is just what God desires of the people God has made and loves. God is waiting to be contended with. Prepared to be wrestled with. And ready to bless.
That is the central point of the psalm for this evening, too. God promises to bless those who respect God and walk in the ways of God. And while the psalm concludes with a desire for peace to be on Israel, the nation that contends with God, given that this Syrophoenician woman explicitly has no connection to that nation, Mark is prodding us to notice how the people of God has begun to widen beyond the borders of the Israelite nation. Not completely, of course. After all, Mark’s Jesus does tell the woman that he needs to attend to his “children,” which clearly indicates Israel. But note—he says that he needs to do that first. First. Jesus needs to restore Israel because it is through Israel that God has promised to bless the nations. But the blessing does not stop with Israel. And the Syrophoenician woman, because she contends with God, is allowed to receive that blessing, ahead of time so to speak, having humbled herself before a power she recognizes is salvific, even if she doesn’t comprehend the full extent of it. A pagan. A pagan is blessed as if she were a Jew. Without any requirement to convert. Without any statement of faith. Just because she was asking for healing for someone out of love. God hears that cry. God is persuaded. God responds. And God blesses.
We miss the point of the story of the Syrophoenician woman if we focus on the content of the exchange between her and Jesus and miss its pattern, its shape. Mark uses an old pattern and applies it to Jesus to identify him with the divine. And he shows us how God’s blessing begins to extend the borders we think confine it, even to include those who we supposed were on the outside. God recognizes who God’s own people are, whether they are Israelite or not. They are those who humbly strive with God, even in ways they don’t fully understand. They are those who contend with the God who welcomes the struggle. They are those who persist in claiming God’s fervent desire to lovingly shower them with abundant life.
Strive. Contend. Persist. And be blessed.