The Syrophoenician Woman: Advocate of the Nations
If Israel has priority in eating the bread of the word of God, how can Jesus simultaneously feed the Gentiles? The Syrophoenician woman has a good idea.
Reading: Mark 7:24-30
The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:
In the beginning of Mark’s gospel, when Jesus first speaks, he says, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Here, Mark focuses the purpose of Jesus’s mission on evoking an internal response in the hearts of his hearers. Over the course of the gospel leading up to our reading tonight, he is slowly unbinding the external observances of the Jewish people.
There’s the account of Him being touched by the woman with the flow of blood and him not becoming ritually unclean thereby, but rather healing her. He touches a corpse, and it comes to life, and he remains clean. He gives new meaning to the Sabbath. And, in the passage just preceding the one that we’ve heard, he argues that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles, but rather what goes out; Mark notes that Jesus thereby renders all food clean.
Now, when the Jewish people balk at this, he cites a passage in Isaiah against them for their hardness of heart, for having eyes which do not see, and for being stupefied in some way by their attachment to human customs. What follows in the prophet Isaiah is significant for our passage tonight. We read, “Therefore, behold, I will again do marvellous things with this people, wonderful and marvellous, and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.”
In this transition from the declaration of all food clean to the Syrophoenician woman, there is a parallel with Peter in Acts – with Peter’s vision, which declares all these things to be clean – slay and eat. Then, right after, Peter experiences the fruits of the Spirit in the life of Cornelius and his family, and he is confirmed that God’s word is meant for these Gentiles as well. And so Mark, perhaps through a Petrine influence, mimics Acts here. We meet the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter is possessed, coming to Jesus and begging him to cast the demon out. But what’s interesting is that he first does not respond favourably to her request. He, in some way, challenges her. And what does he say? “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Now, in the Jewish culture of the time, dogs are not something that you have in your house. They’re not something that is clean. They might guard your property, you might use them to shepherd sheep, or hunt, perhaps. But to have them in your house is something foreign. It is not in accordance with Israelite purity laws. So, in his imagery, he imagines taking the food off of the table away from the children and throwing it outside to the dogs that roam in the night. And he says that is not right.
In her response, she agrees. She says, Yes, Lord. You’re right. But, using the imagery from her own people – from the Gentile people – where there isn’t this distinction between clean and unclean, where dogs are welcomed in and can eat somehow with the children, she retains the truth of the Lord’s statement and retains a unity in the image. She situates the dogs beneath the table, eating at the same time as the children. But yet there’s an order. The children are eating and, as they eat, crumbs fall, and so the dogs can lap up the crumbs.
According to how Mark is building up the gospel, the strict lines of distinction between peoples are falling away. There’s still an order – it’s still important that God revealed Himself to the Israelite people and set them up as witnesses so that, through them, he might save the Gentiles. But yet, he wants to save the Gentiles. And so why does our Lord respond, at last, favourably to this woman? It’s because she has an insight into this dynamic of Providence, this broadening of God’s mercy to include all peoples, to have his spirit poured out onto all flesh.
Again, going back to the beginning of Mark, why does he affirm her insight? Because she shows evidence of this internal act of faith. Somehow, through God’s mysterious love and Providence, the word was sown in her heart and has sprung up – a word that was not received so kindly by the Pharisees and the scribes, which even his Twelve Apostles did not receive fully. Just a few passages ago, when they’re out on the water and the ship is in a storm, they cry out. And when Jesus walks to them over the water and says, “I am. Do not be afraid”, they are dumbfounded. And it says, “They did not understand when our Lord multiplied the loaves, because their hearts were hardened.” But yet, here is this Gentile woman who shows this deep faith. Why this deep faith? Why a true faith? Because she acknowledges that the true God is the God of the Israelite people, that God reveals Himself within the context of a dynamic relationship with this people. And so his true identity can only be known through this people. So when she affirms, “Yes, Lord, yes, the crumbs must fall from the children’s hands.” She acknowledges, “With you, God is hidden with you is the God of Israel. But yet this God is meant for all.”
Along with her faith, she mentions the crumb. This is most important because it shows the devotedness of her love for our Lord. One of the images throughout the Old Testament of the dogs is that they are ravenous. They go around at night, searching for something to eat because they’re not satisfied. This is why we have the proverb of them returning to their vomit to eat, returning to their sin, because their appetites cannot be filled. And so they search and search and return to the same thing to go to others, searching. But when this woman says of the word, of the bread that Jesus offers, “Only a crumb, do I ask.” She acknowledges that in Him is the God of Israel – in the bread he offers, is what truly satisfies. What made her perhaps – the Gentile people, perhaps – like a dog, ravenous in appetite is their idolatry, searching and searching for the truth and for the good, but failing, finding themselves in error. She turns from being like a dog in that way to becoming much more like a child, sitting at that same table day after day, eating that same bread, because the bread is good.
And so our Lord affirms her request and answers it. And, importantly, her daughter is healed. Further, in the context, – I mentioned the multiplication of loaves before – shortly after this passage, there’s another multiplication of the loaves in a Gentile region. So in some way, through her faith, she brings the children of the Gentiles who partake in the life of Israel, to join in the glory of Jerusalem.
What we can learn from her example, then, is that, when we turn to our Lord with an undivided heart, that is, not one which grows weary in this life and returns to old ways of coping with the harsh reality of existence, returning to old ways of sin or patterns of thought, but rather turns to seek true satisfaction where it can be found which is in our Lord – that then we can accept for ourselves, God’s salvation and not only for ourselves, but somehow, through the mystery of God’s providence accept also for others God’s salvation. So that we, turning from dogs to children, might be liberal in scattering crumbs on the floor for others.
Image: The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ – Jean Germain Drouais. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: link