We have a fascinating text today from Mark’s Gospel. It tells about the only occasion
in the Christian scriptures where someone argued with Jesus and won.
Jesus was apparently trying to take a vacation. He’d left Jewish territory and gone
down to the coastal town of Tyre for a little Mediterranean time off. He went to a
house where he tried to stay out of sight . . . but he was unsuccessful. Word got out
that he was in town.
A woman from Syrophoenicia – a Greek-speaking Gentile – had a little daughter with
an unclean spirit. (I’m sure that many of us have had a similar experience of our
child having an unclean spirit.) Nonetheless, it’s a pretty vague diagnosis (this
unclean spirit) that could mean anything from demon possession to attention deficit
disorder to a contentious nature to having a chronically dirty room. In the ancient
world, those may have all been interchangeable . . . since there was no
understanding of psychology.
But the important factor here was that the woman was not a Jew.
The focus of the text is on the exchange. The woman begs Jesus to heal her
daughter. We might expect kind, loving, compassionate Jesus to immediately fulfill
But he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food
and throw it to the dogs.”
The children, of course are the children of Israel. Jesus understands that he’s called to
serve the Jews. He’s not going to waste their food on one like her . . . a Gentile dog . . .
a female, Gentile dog.
Now don’t imagine here that Jesus is talking about the family pet. “Dog” means those
disgusting scavengers that live in the streets, living off garbage.
But the woman is not to be put off. Without missing a beat she replies, “Sir, even the
dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus says, “For saying that, you
may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
A common interpretation of this text is that Jesus changed his mind . . . and he
realized that his calling was broader than just to the people of Israel. The Messiah is
called to bring Good News to all humanity—not just to his own kindred, country,
But given that Jesus has already performed a healing of a Gentile two chapters
earlier (the story of the demoniac of the tombs back in chapter 5), the rude response
to the woman seems out of place if Mark’s only interest in this story was to
emphasize the universal nature of the Gospel.
The first part of this seventh chapter is about the hypocrisy of the scribes and
Pharisees who criticized Jesus for ignoring the law by allowing his disciples to eat
without the required ritual hand washing. Jesus pointed out that many of them took
money that was needed to care for elderly parents and gave it instead as their tithes
to the temple. Then they told the poor parents, “Sorry, but we had to do God’s work
He then quoted the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their
hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me . . . .” It is hypocrisy of the highest
order to use your religion and it’s rules to avoid meeting the neighbors’ (or the
And just a few verses later Mark has Jesus hear himself say, “Let the children be fed
first, for it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “My
religious obligation to feed my own people requires that I not waste the food on
Gentile dogs,” he says. And the woman’s response confronts Jesus with his own
Could the story of the Syrophoenician woman be more about the conversion of Jesus
than about a miracle healing? Or better stated, is this story about the healing of Jesus
from a kind of close-mindedness?
Context is everything here. The story of the woman is followed immediately by this
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon
towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. (In short,
Jesus was still in Gentile territory.)
They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his
speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him in
private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he
spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed
and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately
his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
Whatever else these stories may be about—miracles and healings of Gentiles—they
are primarily about Jesus. Jesus, in his humanity, was clearly able to live and love so
deeply, that he was in touch with the divinity within himself and in others. When the
Syrophoenician woman confronted Jesus with her pain and the hurt of her child, she
exposed Jesus’ own hypocrisy. And he saw in her the same humanity possessed by
his own people as well as the image of divinity that infuses all living beings. Jesus
As he said to the deaf man, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened.”
We’re presented here with Ephphatha Theology. This’s an understanding that
divinity can, and does, infuse all of life.
What are the implications for you and me?
We’re living in very difficult times . . . a time of uncertainty, of fear, of anxiety. We’re
daily exposed to the latest tragedies – at home and abroad. We have genocide in
some countries and wars that seem to have no end. This week was the image of a
dead Syrian child washed up on a Greek beach. New viruses and old diseases
threaten our existence. The environment is threatened.
The natural tendency is to hunker down, to close ourselves off from others, to cut
ties with the stranger, to refuse to hear the point of view of those who disagree with
us. Too often we are closed to one another.
The message from Mark is clear. If Jesus Christ could be confronted with his
hypocrisy—with his close-mindedness, then we as his people are asked to do the
same. Be open.
Be open to the other. Be open to other points of view. Be ready to accept that
divinity and humanity can be present in the stranger, present in the other point of
When Jesus was rude, he repented. He turned around. He blessed the one who
confronted him. He opened himself to her. As with so many other biblical texts, the
clear implication is, “Go and do likewise.”