From The Heart

Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman

Sermon for July 18, 2010, Mark 7:14-30

If today’s news media existed in biblical times, Jesus would be in a mess of trouble for the way he insults a Gentile woman and her sick child in this morning’s  text:

Celebrity news programs like E!News and TMZ would have released recordings of Jesus’ rant: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”


Mainstream news outlets would have in-depth coverage on the historical implications of this encounter, of the rocky racial divisions between Jews and Gentiles; of how a Greek woman of Syrophenician origin living in Canaan (thus a Canaanite) was considered unclean because of vile religious practices like worshipping idols and marrying people of other faiths.

The NAAGP, The National Association for the Advancement of Greek People, would be accusing Jesus of racism. And the Judean Tea Party would fire back and say the Greeks are being ridiculous.

Syrophenician women’s rights activists would denounce Jesus as a sexist. And Whoopi Goldberg, moderator of the coastal Mediterranean talk show The View would defend Jesus, claiming that he’s a “bone-head” but not a racist or sexist, and then launch into her own tirade against those who disagree with her opinion.

Late night comedian Jay Leno, during a live broadcast of The Tonight Show on the Galilean shore, would make cheesy jokes about Jesus’ trouble like: “It was so hot in Galilee today that Jesus called Al Sharpton just to get a cold shoulder.”

And psychology experts would write blog posts and grant interviews with controversial news pundits, explaining that Jesus’ problem is not that he’s racist or sexist but narcissistic.

This image of Jesus—who deems the Greek-Syrophonecian woman from Canaan and her daughter as dogs, animals unworthy of spiritual food or healing—has always been difficult to stomach. Many believers—scholars and preachers included—squirm when they read this troubling passage, which is found only in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.

In this story where we hear Jesus speak poorly of women, our anxiety is amplified even more by the dominant male culture that surrounds us. Everywhere we turn, there’s another news report about a movie star, athlete or politician who has verbally and/or physically abused and/or cheated on their wife or girlfriend or mother of their child.

And if it’s not celebrities like Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods, Jesse James and John Edwards, it’s the Vatican declaring that the ordination of women is a crime against Catholicism; or the Anglican Church of England fighting over whether clergywomen should become bishops; or our own Presbyterian Church (USA) who ordains women as elders and pastors but refuses to grant ordination to Directors of Christian Education, many of whom are women with advanced degrees.

These acts of misogyny cause us to shake our heads and wonder why.  And when we see Jesus acting in a similar way we stumble in our frustration and confusion. Jesus, in this particular moment, is so unlike the Jesus we read about in the rest of the four gospels— the prophetic Jesus who rebukes only the self-righteous religious authorities; and the loving Jesus who embraces all people regardless of their race, creed, culture, economic status and gender.

This Jesus who insults the Gentile woman and her daughter is vastly different from the Jesus we encounter earlier in Mark’s Gospel—the merciful Jesus who cures the Gerasene demoniac, heals a hemorrhaging woman, restores the life of Jairus’ daughter, and feeds the hungry multitudes, all without a moment’s thought.

Now to be fair, the writer of Mark’s Gospel does say that Jesus had retreated into solitude in an effort to get some downtime from his busy ministry when the woman comes begging for his attention. And a more detailed account in Matthew’s Gospel states that “a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But Jesus did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’”

Alright, so the woman begged, shouted and pleaded for help. It would be fair, even, to say that she pestered Jesus.  And in both gospel accounts, she knelt in front of Jesus and gazed up at him to make her request known.  It seems then that she literally got in Jesus’ face.  Who can blame her? The woman’s child is being ravaged by a demon and she is convinced that the only person who can help her is Jesus.

Her conviction leads her to act in a way that is annoying to the disciples and Jesus, a tired man who is only trying to take a short nap after a hard days’ work.  But does the woman’s pushiness warrant such harshness from Jesus? Does it warrant the implication that she and her dying daughter are unfit to eat the bread of God’s chosen, the children of Israel? No…of course not.

Jesus’ admonishment of the woman can’t be excused, explained away  or rationalized in such a way that brings any satisfaction or comfort to us as readers. As a pastor friend said once when discussing this story, “Jesus is a jerk!” It’s true. Ugly, yes. But true. Many of us don’t want to say or even remotely think of  Jesus as anything other than our loving savior.  And yet it is as plain to see as the ink on the page: Jesus was insulting to someone in need.

Numerous interpreters of the story go to great lengths to rationalize this image of Jesus as anything other than a louse. Some people have argued that Jesus was just tired and having a bad day since his conversation with the woman comes after an intense argument with the Pharisees.  Many others conclude that Jesus is cleverly testing the faith of the disciples or the woman in an attempt to show them that God’s grace is available for all—Jew and Gentile alike.

Frances Taylor Gench, professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary, observes that such a test, however would “render Jesus a hypocrite, one whose speech and action are inconsistent.” Jesus, she says, “denounces hypocrisy so vigorously that one is hard-pressed to find the“testing” theory persuasive.”[1]


We don’t need to look any further for an example of Jesus’ forceful denouncements of religious hypocrisy than the beginning of chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. The Pharisees have gathered around Jesus and his disciples, some of whom are eating a meal. Noticing that the disciples are eating food with unwashed hands, the Pharisees immediately question the breaking of several Jewish purification rules. And Jesus responds:


“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition…You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”


After scolding the Pharisees, Jesus turns to the crowd and says:


“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile,”


Later, after leaving the crowd and entering a nearby house, the puzzled disciples confess that they still don’t understand Jesus’ message. So he says to them:

Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out in to the sewer? It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”


Sara Miles, in her new book Jesus Freak, [2]provides some insight to modern believers who may also be confused by Jesus’ talk of what is clean and what defiles. She writes:

“Jesus has just finished talking about religious practices, giving a wise and deep reading of the law that rejects the purity codes in favor of lived integrity. It’s not how you wash your hands that pleases God, he’s taught them. If you want to know God, the point is what’s in your heart, not following a technical set of rules. Of course, Jesus isn’t making this stuff up out of nowhere…Jesus is being fundamentally Jewish, echoing Moses, for example, with his emphasis on experienced grace over law. He’s quoting David and the psalmists, who constantly remind their people that God wants a changed heart, not ritual sacrifice.”

Jesus knows intimately of God’s ways and acts according to what he teaches about God. So it would seem unlikely that Jesus would intentionally act against those teachings just to test the faith of the disciples or the Syrophonecian woman. It’s doubtful, then, that in this morning’s text Jesus is being a hypocrite to prove a point. But we are still left with a hard question:  Why did Jesus act in such a hurtful way to this woman?

I think Jesus simply makes a mistake. He erred. He messed up. He drops the ball. He failed. He didn’t adhere to his own teaching. Jesus had one day, one incident in his life where he was caught, as the author Sharon Ringe suggests,“with his compassion down.” [3]The mistake doesn’t make him a hypocrite or a charlatan, just human. The mistake makes Jesus fully human and in no way makes him any less than fully divine. If Jesus can laugh, cry, hunger, hurt, bleed and become angry, then he can make at least one mistake.

But here is what’s truly remarkable about the story: no sooner than does Jesus make a mistake, the Syrophonecian woman, the religious outsider, answers the insult by boldly saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The woman’s declaration has a profound impact on Jesus who then says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” The woman returns home to find her daughter healed and lying on the bed, the demon gone.

The story, though, says author Sara Miles, is not about the daughter’s healing as much as it is about the healing of Jesus: Jesus, through God’s grace is healed of his racism by the Canaanite woman. Jesus is healed, by an abominable outsider.[4] New Testament professor Brian K. Blount puts it this way[5]:

“She is exactly what Jesus is, a transformer…She takes his response, stands up to what that response means, and then turns the response upside down and inside out…Mark kept this story of the Syrophonecian woman in his Gospel because he wanted us to holler for transformation the way that woman hollered for the transformation of her daughter’s life situation, even when all the signals say that you ought to shut up, give up, and go home. If that woman could stand up to Jesus, I think Jesus was telling us, we ought to be able to stand up to anybody else or anything else on this planet.”


The Syrophonecian woman stands up and speaks from the heart, speaks for transformation that can only come from the love that God pours into human hearts. The woman doesn’t get angry at Jesus or hurl an insult back at him. She doesn’t punch, claw or spit at Jesus nor does she try to drag him to her home to heal her daughter. The woman doesn’t slander God or try to kill Jesus for calling her and her daughter dogs.

Nor does Jesus get angry, pitch a fit or stomp off to stew over the only woman who has ever changed his mind about anything!  Sharon Ringe observes once more that the woman’s reply to Jesus’ insult “has the effect of enabling Jesus to see the situation in a different way.” She writes:


That new perspective appears to free Jesus to respond, to heal, to become again the channel of God’s redeeming presence in that situation…The woman’s wit, her sharp retort, was indeed her gift to Jesus—a gift that enabled his gift of healing in turn, her ministry that opened up the possibility of his.”

That new perspective also brings us face-to-face with Jesus’ humanity and our own—a visible reminder that if Jesus can learn from his one mistake and be changed by it, than we can too.  From both Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman we can learn what it means to be holy, says the Rev. Gary Charles, the pastor of Central Presbyterian in Atlanta[6]:

“To be holy means we’ve got to reevaluate what is important and who is important. To be holy, in the way Christ makes us holy, will open the church, open us, to those people. For in Christ, the streets we walk and the roads on which we drive are filled with those people with whom you and I have everything in common—everything that finally matters.”

In Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne shares a story about an encounter he and a friend had with a Philadelphia woman who, like the Syrophonecian, was an outcast[7]:

“Michelle and I headed out to get a loaf of bread. We walked underneath the El tracks just a block from our house, a strip notorious for its prostitution and drug trafficking, where the air is thick with tears and struggle. We walked past an alley, and tucked inside was a woman, tattered, cold, and on crutches. She approached me, asking if I wanted her services. Our hearts sank, but we scurried on to get our bread. Then we headed quickly home, nodding at the woman as we passed. When we got home and opened the bread, we noticed the bag had a large gash in the side and the bread had gone bad. We would have to go back, and we both knew what that meant. We would have to walk by that woman again. We walked by the alley and saw her in there crying, shivering. We got our bread, and as we saw her yet again, we could not just pass her by. We stopped and told her we cared for her, that she was precious, worth more than a few bucks for tricks on the avenue. We explained that we had a home that was a safe place to get warm and have a snack. So she stumbled onto her crutches and came home with us. As soon as we entered the house, she started weeping hysterically. Michelle held her as she wept. When she had gained her composure, she said, ‘You all are Christians, aren’t you?’ Michelle and I looked at each other, startled. We had said nothing about God or Jesus, and our house doesn’t have a cross in the window, a neon “Jesus saves” sign, or even a little Christian fish on the wall. She said, “I know that you are Christians because you shine.”


Just as Jesus shunned the Syrophenician woman, Shane and Michelle insulted the prostitute by initially deeming her as unworthy of their help and even their bread. On their first trip to and from the store they sidestepped her as if it was a smelly, mangy dog in their path. But on the second return trip, after swapping out the moldy bread for a fresh loaf, they took the woman home.  And just as the Syrophenician woman enabled Jesus to “see the situation in a different way (and) become again the channel of God’s redeeming presence,” the prostitute enabled Shane and Michelle to see their encounter in a different way…enabled them to see that they were called to be holy and to shine from the heart.

We are also called to shine from the heart in everything we do. It is all that simple and it is all that hard. We will make mistakes. Sometimes evil things will come from our hearts, things that will defile us and others like deceit, envy, slander and pride. But if we can stop just a moment in our encounters to face and hear the other with whom we deem unworthy. If we can make a better attempt every day to shine from the heart, we will begin to cross the boundaries that divide us and bear witness to the powerful and inclusive presence of God’s love.


[1] Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels by Frances Taylor Gench, 2004

[2] Jesus Freak by Sara Miles, 2010

[3] Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels by Frances Taylor Gench, 2004

[4] Jesus Freak by Sara Miles, 2010

[5] Preaching Mark in Two Voices by Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, 2002

[6] Preaching Mark in Two Voices by Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, 2002

[7] The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne, 2004


One thought on “From The Heart”

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