Jabbok Dawn

Tumbling in the Sand

The Syrophoenician Woman

The texts for Sunday, September 9, 2012 (Lection 23): Isaiah 35:4–7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1–10[11–13] 14–17; and Mark 7:24–37

“Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” – Mark 7: 26

I wonder if this story is more than it seems. I wonder if this story is more than an encounter between a woman and Jesus. Now, it certainly is a complex enough story when you look at it that way—a story about Jesus learning, a story about the full humanity of Jesus in addition to his divinity—and a story about the gospel being called out beyond itself, beyond the boundaries of old.

That’s perfectly huge and complex—I mean, for a minute, let’s just talk about how Jesus is some how entirely human and entirely God at the same time. What? That’s mysterious and un-explainable. Theologians have written volumes attempting to explain it. The Church has had major fights trying to parse that all out … but, it is the truth the Church professes again and again. Jesus is fully human. Jesus is fully God. Neither nature compromises or modifies the other. But neither are the natures separate from each other as though Jesus were two different “beings” (potentially at odds with one another) in one body. Jesus is still one.

Yeah, I’m thinking I might never really wrap my head around that—but I do like the idea that in Jesus somehow humanity and God are equal; and that in Jesus, we see not only God but also the fullness of what it is to be human. And, to be human is to learn. Perfection isn’t about getting it all right but about always growing and learning along the way. That is fully human. That is perfectly human.

But, in this story, I’m sort of caught up in wondering about that woman. In the cross, we are taught that God shows up where we don’t expect God to be—that God shows up on the cross, in death and suffering—in the despised and outcast. If that’s the case, in this story, does God show up in that woman? This mother pleading for her daughter? This outcast, despised, and yet crying out for mercy—not for herself but for her child? Like Jesus did on the cross? “Father, forgive them…!” It kind of makes me wonder, if in this story—like that one that Leo Tolstoy wrote about the old shoemaker who expected Jesus to come visit—God shows up, just not in the most recognizable form(s)—yes, in the story about the shoemaker, Jesus shows up again and again in different forms: as an old woman and young boy, as a very young child with her very young mother, as a poor man in need of shelter and care. Is that also the case in this story?

Yeah, that sounds a little heretical, I mean: God shows up incarnate in Jesus. Right? But, in this story, does God also show up as a mother begging for her child? Does God also show up as a woman not welcome at the table? Does God also show up as the outsider? I think so. And if that’s so, I think this story shows us a lot of things.

First of all, often we think we know where God is and this is a reminder that God comes in ways we don’t expect, that God shows up begging for mercy, that God shows up outside of our expectations. Secondly, how often are we like Jesus? How often as the Body of Christ—the Church—the place that God is supposed to be—stand there suggesting who gets to eat bread at the table while it is God’s self that is begging us to “Be Opened” to the grace falling, like crumbs from the table of children? And thirdly, how often do we forget that this woman is our mother? How often do we forget that we were not the first invited to the table and that God begged for crumbs for us and, in doing so, opened the very incarnate heart of God and welcomed us all to the feast?

9 comments on “The Syrophoenician Woman

  1. Greg Gardner
    September 9, 2012

    Hi. Can you tell me about the image /art in your post? The artist, title, etc? Thanks!


    • jabbokdawn
      September 9, 2012

      This is what I get for not doing my homework on a work of art in advance… 🙂 I found the image originally on this blog: http://debradeanmurphy.wordpress.com/2010/03/16/jesus-and-the-women/

      I did a little looking, though, and have discovered that the piece here is titled “Forgiveness” by the painter Thierry Ona. He was born in Algeria, but currently resides in France. There seem to be lots of places online that you can visit and purchase his beautiful work, which all has a similar North African influenced style to it.

      Thank you for asking!


      • Greg Gardner
        September 9, 2012

        Thank you much! I like Debra a lot. We trade messages on occasion. I will ask her what she knows about the work. Regarding your post, I find there is always more to these stories that what appears obvious. It seems that what one reads and receives from these stories much depend on one’s hermeneutic lens. I love and deeply value the acknowledgment and exploration of Jesus’ humanity, i.e. the “Scandal” as it’s called. Jesus, in all his carnality, is deeply important to the Incarnation and redemption, and something the Church too often ignores or is indifferent about. Keep at it!


  2. Denny Meyer
    September 9, 2012

    Like the thoughts – powerful images


  3. Greg Gardner
    September 11, 2012

    Lena, today I discovered this reflection on the the Syrophoenician woman and found it deeply challenging, if not shocking. Thought I would share it with you:



    • jabbokdawn
      September 11, 2012

      Greg, thanks for this!

      I very much appreciate this interpretation of the text. The last line of the post is particularly redeeming: “Having followed Jesus this far, perhaps we can do no better than he did, and that is to learn to listen to those with such different realities than mine and to let that new reality change my own reality – who I am and who I will become.”

      I think we find this shocking partly because of our ideas about perfection. We get the idea that Jesus has to be perfect in some sort of sense of perfect that is very Greek—the notion that perfection is unchanging, or mistake free—I don’t think that is perfection at all. That’s artificial. When I think of perfection I think of a living rose—in all stages, that rose is perfect. In bud, in blossom, as it gradually drops each petal. Perfect. We would never call an artificial rose perfect, but the natural one that changes and isn’t always “exact” is perfect.

      I also think that we find this shocking because we are so uncomfortable with race. We don’t want to admit, as the Avenue Q song goes, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Maybe if we got to where we could recognize that, we would be able to live up to the hope that David suggests in his last line.

      One last thought though—I have some problems with this interpretation of the text for a couple of reasons. First of all, We should quit trying to white-wash Jesus. Jesus was not white—nor were the Jewish people powerful. While Jewish people might have been taught to be proud of their people and “race”—they were pretty close to the bottom of the ladder in order of privilege. This syrophoenician woman might well have been wealthier (and more powerful, at least in the “racial” sense) than Jesus. After all, that region, while not as wealthy as it had been (thanks to a “minor” conflict with Alexander the Great), it still was the primary source for purple dye in the region—an extremely valuable product that made the region extremely wealthy. The comparison of a black woman coming to a white man should probably be reversed: it was more likely a white woman coming to a black man. Very different dynamics.

      The second thing, is that race is a very modern concept. Ethnicity, tribes, etc. were far more defining than race. I think we should always be careful ascribing modern concepts to ancient texts (and I know I do it all the time)—just being aware, if nothing else, that it’s never a “perfect” fit.

      Again, thanks for this!


    • jabbokdawn
      September 16, 2012

      Thanks Greg,
      Dr. Gafney was my Hebrew Bible professor in seminary. I very much enjoy her work.


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