For those accustomed to modern pictures depicting smiling Jesus and mild-mannered, freshly scrubbed Jesus, Mark’s account of Jesus’s exchange with the Syrophoenician woman does not compute. A woman begs for mercy, not for herself, but for her tormented child. Jesus responds by calling the woman a dog. Jesus seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.
Readers have tried a variety of interpretive strategies to explain away what appears to be Jesus’s blunt rudeness. He was just testing her, some say. He was being playful and meant “puppy,” others say.
Well, you can believe these readings if you want. To my mind the text simply doesn’t bear out any such rendering. Jesus speaks to this woman with a harshness that he expresses in response to no one else who seeks his healing and mercy.
That should be our first clue that Mark preserves this story as more than a report about healing and exorcism. Something else is going on. Jesus’s encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is more than a healing and exorcism story. It is an ethnic, cultural conflict story, and it sets the scene and provides the context for the healing story that follows.
The context of the episode provides a crucial clue. Jesus has entered the region around Tyre. The ancient Phoenician city of Tyre had a diverse population. Even though Herod the Great visited the city many times and erected marketplaces, porticoes, temples and the like in that city, the population was hostile toward Jews. During the revolt of 66 AD, the population of Tyre imprisoned and even killed Jews.
This is enemy territory. Jesus expects to be greeted with mistrust and hostility. And he’s acting like it.
Jesus is fully human. Yes, he is fully divine. But we must allow for the limitations of his humanity even as we acknowledge his full divinity.
Like all of us he lives in an ethnically diverse context with a history of back and forth injury and injustice. Grievances against each other are old and still very much alive, working actively to distort and to degrade relationships.
People see and respond to each other as members of a group: a social class, an economic class, an ethnic group, a political group. We do it in ways that are frequently invisible to us. And our social arrangements put some of us at an advantage and some of us at a disadvantage.
The turning point in the exchange comes with the woman’s clever and undeniably assertive rejoinder to Jesus. He’s called her a dog using the word for cur or stray or backyard mutt. Then she uses the Greek diminutive for pet dog—like an indoor or favored pup—to say, “Yes, but even pets at least get table scraps.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that her faith has made her daughter well. That’s not how Mark relates the incident. In his text, Jesus says, “I’ve made your daughter well because of what you just said to me.”
In other words, the woman’s words opened Jesus up. He had been previously closed to this woman and her daughter. He saw her as a Syrophoenician. Hearing her speak, hearing specifically what she said, opened him up to her and to others like her in a new way.
And so what did she say? Did she just best him in verbal jousting? No, she said something like this:
“You think of me in a way that I simply won’t accept. I can’t change your mind about me, but I’m not going to wear the label you have for me, either. For you, I’m a second thought, a nuisance, a problem to be solved. But let me tell you something, Mister. I matter. My life matters. My daughter’s life matters. Our humanity deserves respect, a respect that you’re not giving.”
Jesus leads us in all sorts of ways. In this passage, Jesus leads us as peacemakers. Peace has to start somewhere. And it will always start when someone has the courage to be the first listener. To listen to the grievance that the other has against us.
That’s a vulnerable place to be. It’s difficult to listen to how someone else perceives us when that person has a grievance against us. Our first response is to rush to announce our own grievance against them. To name their faults. To say that we are not at fault in the way that they charge. Our first impulse is to defend ourselves.
And maybe what they have to say is not completely accurate. It probably isn’t. Just like us, they have a distorted view of the relationship and the broken world we inhabit together so uncomfortably.
But listening is the first step to reconciliation. And that is God’s mission. Right? Reconciliation.
Nobody ever said that reconciliation would be neat and comfortable. It’s messy. There are no solutions without remainder. And somebody is going to have to take the first step. Somebody is going have to be vulnerable enough to hear the other’s perspective. To see ourselves as those who have a grievance against us do.
Ouch! Some things are hard to hear.
Can this become reciprocal? I hope so. I genuinely believe so. Reconciliation is always reciprocal.
And so how does this jarring story set the stage and provide the context for a story about healing a deaf-speechless man? Listen to what Jesus does and says to heal him. First, he sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, spits on his fingers, and touches the man’s tongue. Then, Jesus says, “Be opened!”
Jesus restores the man’s hearing. And once the man can hear, he has a voice. To be an instrument of reconciliation is to be open, but in a very specific way. We are open—we are vulnerable—to hear. Then we find a healing voice.
We live in a world of tensions. Black and white, rich and poor view each other with suspicion and resentment. We express political differences in contemptuous tones that clearly disregard the dignity of those with whom we disagree.
This is our society. Our culture. Jesus has called us into this fractious place to do something about it. And it certainly isn’t like Jesus to suggest that we draw lines between us and them, between insiders and outsiders, between top and bottom of the heap.
Jesus came to bring reconciliation, and he’s working through us to accomplish his holy mission.
Other races, other classes, other political persuasions are not a problem to fix and certainly not a nuisance to eliminate. They are precious children of God. Our sisters and brothers.
And Jesus has shown us the path of reconciliation. It is the path of vulnerability, not the path of coercion and power, not the path of violence, whether that violence be verbal, economic, or physical.
Jesus told us with undeniable clarity that his way is the way of the cross, the way of vulnerability. Our purpose as followers of Jesus is to bring his peace to those who are far off and to those who are near, even at the cost of our own suffering.
Reconciling love is risky, often harrowing work. We frequently pass through suffering to arrive at forgiveness, restored trust, renewed affection, and mutual respect. But in Jesus, our way has already been paved and our destination secured.
This sermon was preached at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Sulphur, Louisiana.