So, here’s the problem with copying out scripture a book at a time.  You bump into passages you’d rather avoid.  I’m in the gospels. (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible if you don’t have all the Christian lingo down just yet) These are the stories about Jesus while he was walking around this planet, being one of us, experiencing all that humanity has to offer, which is a mixed bag to say the least. I started in Matthew, and now I’m in Mark, and those just happen to be the two books of the four gospels that have a story commonly known as the “SyroPhoenician woman”. 

If you are familiar with this passage, you might already be feeling a little uncomfortable.  If you aren’t, I think I can get you there.  A condensed version of the two accounts of this event looks like this.  Jesus has been wandering the region around the Sea of Galilee in ancient Israel helping and healing people for a while now. People are coming to him from all over the place.  He is giving vision to blind people, making deaf people hear, lame people walk, healing leprosy, and casting out demons among other miraculous things.  Enter a woman from Syrian Phoenicia. Significant to the story is the fact that she is not from Israel and is not a Jew by faith. But she has a daughter who is sick in bed being tormented by a demon. Sorry, no details are given.  All I know is mom is desperate for help for her little girl.  She has been hearing about Jesus and she fully believes he can help her daughter.  She comes to him like so many before her.  He’s in a crowded place.  She pushes her way in and falls on the floor in front of him, begging for help. At first, he doesn’t even respond to her!  Clearly, she has been calling out for help for a little while because the disciples response is to say, “Lord, send her away.  She’s annoying us with all of her begging.”  And then Jesus looks at this woman and says, “I’m really here to help people from Isreal.  It would be wrong to give the children’s food to dogs.”  

It’s not just me, right?? This is not the kind of exchange we’re expecting between Jesus and a woman who desperately needs his help.  Like, even if he really was this rude, why is this the story that makes it into two separate accounts of Jesus’ life?  Jesus kindly and graciously healed hundreds, maybe thousands of people.  Why did two different story tellers feel the need to tell me about this one?  It’s not very flattering!  It’s not really the Jesus I have come to expect.  What is up with this? 

Stick with me now.  The story goes on.

The woman’s response is maybe a little surprising too.  She worships him.  She calls him Lord. AND she doesn’t back down.  She humbly says, “Ok, but we let the dogs eat the scraps the kids leave behind.” 

And suddenly Jesus’ whole approach is completely different.  He calls her a “dear woman.”  He gets excited about her answer.  Depending on the translation you can almost see him jump up from the table and point at her with pride and satisfaction, “That!  Look at that faith! That was a great answer! Well done!  That’s exactly right!  You get it!”  The story ends with her returning home to find her daughter resting peacefully, freed from the evil spirit. 

So, ya, it has a happy ending. Jesus calls her dear and heals her daughter.  

But what was the point of the uncomfortable exchange in the middle there? He called a desperate lady a dog!  Every time I read it, I feel like I’m missing something.  It just seems a little out of character for him. 

Now, I have believed in Jesus for a really long time, like well over four decades.  In that time, I have discovered that Jesus doesn’t always meet my expectations.  He says and does things that I probably would not have said or done.  He’s God.  I’m not.  His brain is bigger than mine.  So, when I bump into things in the Bible that confuse me, I have learned to assume that the problem is with me.  That may sound a little defeatist or lacking in self-assurance, but let’s consider the parties involved.  Party of the first part is God.  He knows everything, has power to do anything, and when he is describing his character to people, he literally self-identifies as love.  Party of the second part is Hope.  I know some things, a lot of things, but not even most things.  I can do stuff, a lot of stuff, but it’s astonishing how much stuff I can’t do.  Most people who know me would say I’m a nice person.  But the people who know me best can confirm that, while it is a goal of mine, I do not always exemplify love.  All that to say, it’s not self-deprecating to assume that if Jesus does something I wouldn’t do, he’s probably right and I’m probably not.

So, let’s return to Jesus saying something really kind of mean to a woman who is hurting and asking him to help.  I read this story and I think, “Hmm, I’m missing something.” I’ve even written a note in my “stuff to think harder about” journal to the effect of, what’s up with the SyroPhoenician woman? Was Jesus having his only recorded cranky day? 

This is a question I have wanted to dig into many times, and I finally did.  

Let me give you a word of advice in case you decide you want to dig into a story or passage of the Bible that is confusing to you.  Again, I have been at this for a long time.  I have learned a couple useful things.  Thank you for letting me pass them along.  

Start by praying.  Don’t be afraid to tell God he is confusing you.  He is aware, trust me, but it’s good to just be honest with yourself by being honest with him.  Ask him to help you understand him better.  I’m telling you, he loves that prayer.  It starts things off in the right posture.  You are looking at him recognizing that he is really smart, much smarter than you, and you know you’ll never know all he knows, but that he is worth getting to know and that’s what you’re asking for.  Then, read the story through a few times.  If there is more than one account of the story, read them all.  Then read around the story.  What is happening in the verses preceding it. Are we seeing a theme here?  If there are multiple accounts and they are both surrounded by the same stories, that’s significant.  Try to get right into the story.  Put yourself in the shoes of various characters.  Here’s the thing.  The stories in the Bible aren’t just there because the writer went, “Oh, ya, here’s a story for you.” The Bible is God’s biography.  He inspired people to tell each story that’s in there.  If it’s in there, it’s because God has something to tell us about himself in that story.  And often there is something we can learn about ourselves in those stories too. 

That’s how I approached this story.  And pretty quickly, I noticed a few things.  One thing was that a few chapters before Mark tells it, he mentions that crowds of people were coming to Jesus for help, and he explicitly mentions the region of Tyre, which is where this lady was from.  Relevant observation:  When Jesus told the woman that he had come to help people from Israel, that was a weird thing to say because he had helped people from her home town.  Now, it wasn’t the only time he mentioned that he came first for Israel, but if you read all of the stories in the gospels it is clear; Jesus came for everyone.  He commanded his followers to teach everyone.  It’s clear that the Jews were special, and he did approach them first, but he absolutely did not stop there.  He came for everyone.  

Another observation is that this event seems to occur very shortly after Jesus’ disciples come back from a mission trip.  Not long before this, Jesus put his disciples into pairs and sent them into the surrounding countryside with instructions to heal people and cast out demons.  A while later they come back together, and they are super excited to talk about all the miracles they had been able to perform. Relevant observation:  These boys had experience doing exactly what this woman needed.  

One final observation is that in both places where this story is told, it is told immediately following a discussion between Jesus and the religious leaders of the time.  They came to Jesus upset because they noticed that Jesus’ disciples were not following the pre-meal hand washing ritual that was part of their religious tradition.  Jesus responded by calling them out because, although they were making sure that they followed all those external traditions, they were doing things that completely ignored the spirit of the religious laws.  One of the “top ten” laws for the Jews was to honour their parents.  But these guys were publicly giving a whole bunch of money at the temple as though they were really generous, but then they weren’t helping their aging parents out.  And they were hiding behind this tradition that earned them respect while ignoring the actual law of God. Jesus was making the point to them and to his disciples that the way a person looks on the outside isn’t nearly as important as their heart.  A heart that worshipped and honoured God inside a person who forgot to wash their hands before dinner, was a heart that made God smile.  And a heart that obsessed about looking right on the outside without ever being right on the inside really had no value in God’s eyes.

Re-enter our dear SyroPhoenician woman.  The house is crowded, but don’t you think for a moment that Jesus didn’t see both her non-Israelite exterior and her worshipful heart.  When he at first doesn’t answer her, I think he was looking at his disciples.  He had just been talking about true purity.  I think he wanted them to see that it was in this woman.  She was exactly what he had just been talking about. And they had been casting demons out of people all week!  Was he waiting for one of them to step up and do what they knew they were commanded to do?  

Regardless, they didn’t.  They told Jesus to tell her to go away.  So, when Jesus uses the imagery of the children and the dogs, was he just saying out loud what he knew they were thinking?  Was he deliberately harsh so that her response would be even more clearly reflective of a heart that honoured him?  I really think this uncomfortable interaction was for the benefit of the disciples.  Jesus could simultaneously illustrate his point and demonstrate that his disciples’ hearts still needed work.  

I really think I’m on to something here because of the way he reacts to her response.  She is so humble.  She is still confident he can give her what she needs.  She will gratefully take the crumbs, and she isn’t afraid to say so.  

I’ve read this story in both gospels in a few different translations.  Jesus’ whole posture seems to change in that moment.  He praises her faith.  He honours her humility.  He gives her what she asked for.  When he addressed her, his words captured the attention of his disciples.  Of all the thousands of healings and conversations the gospel writers could have recorded, this one made it in twice.  One translation says he called her “dear woman”.  This is a meaningful title.  The only other place I can find it is when Jesus looks down from where he is dying on the cross at his precious grieving mother.  And he says, “Dear woman, here is your son.”  In that moment he is entrusting his mother to the care of one of his best friends.   He addressed this SyroPhoenician woman with the same term he would later use for his mother at one of the most painful moments of her life.  I’m telling you, he loved that woman.  He didn’t see a dog.  He saw someone as dear as his own mother on her hardest day.  

I have fresh eyes for this story.  I really don’t think it was Jesus on a cranky day.  I believe it was Jesus honouring a woman who would not normally have received honour by allowing her to be a lesson for his disciples. I also believe that in telling her story twice in scripture he was making sure that every person who ever read it would know that she was a remarkable woman of humble faith, whose need Jesus was delighted to meet.  

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