The encounter between Jesus and the woman of Syrophoenician origin unsettles us. Jesus has left the normal sphere of his ministry. He has come away from Galilee and entered the region around the city of Tyre. He has stepped outside of the land of Israel, the land given to and occupied by God’s chosen people. What he finds is that his fame has preceded him. Even here the crowds press round him. And it is out of this crowd that the woman steps. She like so many others needs help from Jesus. Her daughter is being held captive by what Mark refers to an unclean spirit. Perhaps modern thinking would diagnose the girl’s problem differently, but it is clear that she is in need. Whilst she lies helpless at home, here mother seeks healing from Jesus. But, and this is what unsettles us, Jesus tries to rebuff her and he does so in the harshest of tones.
“Let the children be fed first for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.“
I think we would all recognise that if anyone were spoken to, around the church, in this manner, they would never darken our doors again. If a minister were to speak like this to anyone curious about Christianity or Jesus or anything we do the inquiry would last long and the inquirer would be looking somewhere else, or would have given up on their question altogether. One thing we definitely try our utmost to do is never give offence like this.
What is remarkable of course it that the woman persists. And her persistence draws attention to her faith. Unlike the people who we might know, who may have been treated likes this, the woman is not turned away by the negative reception she has received. Which raises the question of the depth and strength of her faith. Where does such faith come from? Her faith appears to be the product of two dimensions, two things lead her to this kind of determination: The depth of her need, and the strength of Jesus’ reputation.
It is clear that at the outset the woman is motivated by her need, or rather the need of her daughter. So often we are more powerfully motivated by the needs of those we love, than by our own needs. We would do almost anything within our power to relieve the suffering of our love one, whereas we might suffer in silence ourselves. This woman’s need is as profound as we could imagine, she is motivated by the helpless condition of her child. We recognise that she would go to almost any length to resolve her daughter’s situation. Of course the other dimension is essential, Jesus’ reputation. Jesus has a growing reputation as the answer, the solution, to situations like hers. One of the reasons Mark tells this story is to demonstrate Jesus’ growing reputation. News of what he can do is spreading. Already it seems his reputation has reached beyond the borders of Israel and is spreading among the gentiles, even among people traditionally hostile to Israel and her God. One of the challenges we face in bringing people to faith is that we don’t have such fertile ground to work on. Jesus perhaps remains a well known figure, though perhaps only in the vaguest terms. But the mention of his name does not seem to have the power to attract in the way it once did. He does not have the reputation as the answer to people’s problem that he once did. It is often noted that even when people have what might be called spiritual problem, or spiritual questions around us, it is now seldom that they turn to the church for the answers.
Of course the woman’s faith, or indeed anyone’s faith could be viewed negatively. There is simply an absence of alternatives for her. She is powerfully motivated by the needs of her daughter, and has either exhausted all the possible alternatives, or simply has felt she has nowhere else to turn. Her faith, like many people’s might have the appearance of “wishfulness.” Jesus has to be the answer, so she convinces herself that he is. Such conviction, and the determination that goes with it can be powerfully real. But it can also be misplaced. There are no shortage of people who have thrown themselves at the feet of any number of saviours and have been disappointed. To a certain extent there is no way for the woman to know ahead of time whether or not she is so absolutely committed to the right thing. This of course is why it it is faith and not certainty. Mark’s point in telling us this story, obviously, is to show us first of all that the woman’s faith is not misplaced. Marks wants to demonstrated that Jesus’ growing reputation is fully deserved.
Which brings us to Jesus’ initial response to the woman’s appeal. His harsh rebuff of this Gentile woman certainly makes it appear that her faith, commitment, determination, is misdirected. It seems Jesus does indeed deserve his reputation as Saviour. What he does among God’s people is real. And our conviction on that subject can remain as sure as it was for Mark. But, from what he says, he is Israel’s saviour. God is Israel’s God. That is not to say that any other God is available, just that God’s concern is partial. What Jesus suggests in what he says first to the woman, is that God’s interest is partial his concern is available only to the people he has chosen. Which is fine as long as you are sure that you are the chosen people, but an unhappy situation and bad news for everyone else. The Israelites of Jesus’ day tended to take the view that other people, that is the Gentiles, needed to look elsewhere than Israel’s God for salvation. There may, or may not, be a god who is as powerful and as committed as God is to Israel for every other nation under the sun. So there may, or may not, be answer to Gentiles’ problems, a Gentile saviour. Though in reality the Israelites were reasonably convinced that no such other God exists
Yet in the face of such assumptions the woman persists. Does she in fact recognise that there is no other real God, that the only God there is, is the God of Israel. This is not an unheard of conclusion for people to reach in that time and place, as the steady trickle of converts to Judaism illustrated Such conversions follow exactly that kind of recognition of the partiality of God’s concern, only for Israel. But the woman doesn’t quite share that opinion. She doesn’t seem to think that she has to become Jewish in order to have access to Israel’s God. It is clear that she believes that contact directly with Jesus is going to give her access to the only true and living God. And she is convinced that through Jesus, God has the power to save her daughter, and her, from the situation which the unclean spirit has created for them both. Israel’s God is the only God available, and the way to that God, even for Gentiles is Jesus. As Gentiles, who have put our faith in Jesus for exactly that reason, we can see that the woman’s faith is not misdirected or misplaced. What the Syropoenician woman presents us with is a model, an example worthy of imitation, of more or less fully formed Christian faith: There is only one God, and it’s Israel’s God, and Jesus is his true and complete representative. And it is that faith to which Jesus responds:
“For saying that, you may go, the demon has left your daughter.”
Which leaves us still with the question of why Jesus spoke so harshly to begin with? And did he change his mind? And if he did, what changed it? This passage is difficult because it runs against so much of what we hold to be true about God and about Jesus, insight that we have gained from just about every passage of the Bible except this one. Jesus’ initial response seems to suggest that there is a limited supply of God’s grace and power. Something we know to be untrue. Jesus speaks as if God’s concern were like bread. There is just so much. If there were some given away there wouldn’t be enough for those for whom it is intended. Or at the very least this manner of speaking reflects hierarchical social thinking: where some deserve more and better before others receive less based on some arbitrary measures of status. Again we know this to be untrue of Jesus, everywhere else he demonstrates egalitarianism and inclusivity in his dealings with people. Jesus words here run against what we perceive from the larger picture we have of Jesus’ mission.
Curiously the woman doesn’t challenge the assumptions implicit in Jesus’ harsh words to her. She doesn’t deny or disagree with what Jesus has said to her. She doesn’t challenge that world view where some are more deserving than other or where God’s love is generally limited to a chosen in group. She more or less says: “Ok we’re dogs, but even dogs get to eat scraps.”
Jesus does in fact stand in a tradition that was always present in Israel, a tradition represented by prophets like Amos and Isaiah. It is an inclusive, even universal tradition, that says, yes there is only one God, and it is Israel’s God, but ultimately that God is available to all people. The problem with faith, which is so often motivated by need, the kind of faith that drives people towards God because there is no other solution to their problems, the problem with faith like that is it does too easily become wishfulness. The God we might cling to in those circumstances might be nothing more than a projection of our longing. We run the risk of creating a God in our own image, a God that is the answer to the problem we have. Jesus’ extraordinarily harsh word pushes our faith away from that.
What he forces the Syrophoenician woman, and us to recognise, is not the partiality of God, but God’s particularity. The real God is a God in particular, not a God in general. The true and living God, the God who can actually save, is not the God which human imagination and human longing can conjure for itself. God is not the God which philosophy makes up that anyone can believe in. The real God is the central character in his own story. The story which is told in Israel’s history. There is a table at which the children sit, and where they are fed bread. The first step towards recognising the real God is accepting that that is the case. Gentiles do not have to become Jewish, the people Mark originally wrote for were already clear on this. Nonetheless there is a recognition that the only God there is to talk about is Israel’s God. And this is what Jesus finds worthy in the Syrophoenician woman’s faith. Her persistent conviction that what she needs is Israel’s God and that Jesus is the way to that God. There is no access to God without Israel’s story. But what what the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician demonstrates for us is that God is available to us all, by placing our trust in Jesus.
Faith in the Particular God by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0