Meeting Jesus: The Syrophoenician Woman


Meeting Jesus: The Syrophoenician Woman
A Message on Mark 7:24-30
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Aug. 18, 2019
By Doug Wintermute

Mark 7:24-30 (NRSV)

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

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As many of you know I am one of six kids. Whenever we would go to family get-togethers or even dinners with other families there wouldn’t be a table large enough to hold everybody so there would be multiple tables. There were the “kiddie tables” and the “adult tables.”

I can remember being at those kiddie tables and thinking that I would never be old enough to sit at the adult table. And then I eventually did get old enough to sit at the adult table and guess what: it wasn’t as much fun as the kiddie table and I wanted to go back to the kiddie table.

One of the great things about being a kid was being one of the first ones to go through the line and get our food. It’s a cultural thing and, for the most part, the kids got to go first.

It wasn’t always the case. I remember talking to several “old timers” who would talk about how the adult men went first, then the women, and then the children.

There’s an old song by the late country singer Little Jimmie Dickins called “Take An Ol’ Cold Tater and Wait.” In it he talks about as a child having to wait until the grown ups ate before he could. His mom would tell him to “take an ol’ cold tater and wait.” Here are some of the verses:

Well i thought that I would starve to death
Before my time would come
All that chicken they would eat
And just leave me the butt
The feet and neck were all that was left
Upon the china plate
It makes ya pretty darn weak
To take an old cold tater and wait

In the scripture we read today Jesus uses metaphorical language of eating and the order of eating to make a theological point.

Jesus is up in the region of Tyre. That city is located in what is now Lebanon. It was a seaport, and as such was a crossroads of trade and business in the first century. There were actually two cities: one on an island in the Mediterranean and then one on shore.

It was certainly not a Jewish-only kind of town. While technically within the borders of the land promised to the Jewish people, it was right on the border. It still is, actually, as it is just 12 miles north of the border between modern day Israel and Lebanon.

Many different religions were practiced there during Jesus time, including the worship of all the Greek gods the Roman Empire borrowed from the Greeks.

So why is Jesus there? I think it was because he was “Tyred.” (Groan. I know.) Jesus was tired. Word of his teachings and his healings had spread throughout Judea and Galilee and he had trouble going anywhere in those areas without being recognized.

The scripture today says he “went away” to the region of Tyre. He needed a break. Although he was completely God he was also completely human, and I think the human part of him was just flat worn out. He had to be exhausted.

Our scripture today even says, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”

Jesus was trying to go on vacation. He needed rest.

But it was not to be. Even people 300 miles north of Jerusalem had heard about Jesus. So the people came to him anyway.

One of these was what we call the “Syrophoenician Woman.” The big long fancy name is simply a description of where the woman was from. She was from the region of Phoenicia in the Roman province of Syria.

She was a Gentile, meaning not Jewish. Jesus and his disciples, remember, were Jewish, and Jesus was the Jewish messiah, who came to save the Jewish people. The Jews believed that Jesus came ONLY for the Jewish people, no one else. They thought they had the trademark and the copyright to Jesus.

And yet… here in Mark’s gospel is a Gentile woman, a heathen, who approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter who had an unclean spirit.

This would have been a very serious social faux pas. First of all women just didn’t walk up to men, especially men they didn’t know, and especially men of a different religion from them.

But she does. I imagine she is desperate. Her daughter is ill. She has probably already tried everything she knows how to make her better, but none of them have worked. Maybe this Jesus she has heard about can heal her daughter.

So she asks him. The scripture says that she “begged” him. Please. Pretty please.

Jesus’ response is… well… a surprise. It’s unexpected. It seems like he almost… well… insults her!

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Did Jesus just call her a dog? Did he just do that?

Now there is a wide variety of theological views Jesus response. I have read many of them in preparing for this message today. And some of them are way out there. WAAAAAAYY out there.

One of them even suggested that the Syrophoenician Woman was the one that taught Jesus a lesson. Sorry. I can’t go for that.

I don’t think there’s anyway of getting around the fact that Jesus gives her a biting commentary as an answer. The symbolism is that the “children” are the Jews, the children of Israel, and the “dogs” are everyone else. God favors the Jews. It’s tough luck for everyone else. The Jews get to sit at the “adult” table, while the Gentiles have to sit at the “kiddie” table and eat what’s leftover, the crumbs. If your not a “child” of Israel then you are a “dog.”

Now in our society we like dogs. We think of dogs like this. (Show photo.) This is Annie, our new dog. She’s a sweetie.

But in the first century dogs were perceived differently. They were thought of more like this. (Show photo.) The Bible is not friendly with dogs. Just the opposite. Dogs roamed the streets and ate dead things, carried diseases, and were not perceived as the furry, loveable pets that we think of today.

So to compare this woman’s people with dogs was truly an insult.

So why did Jesus do this? This isn’t the “happy-clappy” version of Jesus that we like to think of. His comment is biting, acerbic, almost smart-alec. It’s almost like telling her to “take an ol’ cold tater and wait.” But why?

I think we find the answer if we keep reading. The woman pushes back. She’s witty. She takes Jesus’ analogy and takes it even one step further. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Ouch! Tou·ché!

Jesus may be the messiah for the Jewish people, but even the Gentiles, the “dogs,” benefit from the presence of the messiah.

The woman is very shrewd. She doesn’t respond to an insult with another insult. Instead she plays out the metaphorical language. No, she isn’t Jewish. She doesn’t lie to make Jesus think she is. (He would know, anyway.) But in spite of that she is bold enough to ask Jesus to heal her daughter. It’s just one young girl, just a “crumb” of all the work that Jesus, the “bread of life,” is doing.

Jesus is impressed. He responds to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” By the time she gets home her daughter is indeed healed.

Now a lot of times when Jesus heals people he points out their their faith has made them well. The hemorrhaging woman, the 10 lepers, the blind beggar, the woman who washes his feet with her hair, all of these were told that their faith made them well.

But in the case of the scripture we read today, Jesus credits what the woman said with being the catalyst for the healing, not her faith. Was it the woman’s tenacity? Her boldness for bucking the social norms and walking right up to Jesus and asking–begging–him to heal her daughter? Was it her sharp witted answer? Or was it really her faith, even though Jesus didn’t say so?

I think it is probably a combination of all of those things.

So what can we get from this scripture that we can apply to our lives today?

I think one good lesson for us is that Jesus chooses who inherits the kingdom, we don’t. It’s easy for us as Christians, and even as United Methodists, to fall into a thought process that we are the “chosen ones.” We become like the Jewish people of the first century who thought they had an exclusive contract with the messiah.

There is a saying that we will be surprised who all we see in heaven. I think there is some truth to that. No, I don’t believe in universal salvation, the belief that everyone goes to heaven and nobody goes to hell. But I do think it’s important for us to remember that Jesus saves, we don’t. Our job as disciples is to make the introductions and let the Holy Spirit do its work.

Another thing I think we can learn from this scripture is to be bold in our faith. The Syrophoenician woman wasn’t Jewish, but that didn’t stop her. She wasn’t supposed to approach Jesus, but that didn’t stop her. She wasn’t supposed to initiate a conversation with Jesus, but that didn’t stop her. She crashed through all those societal walls to bow down at the feet of Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter.

What are we willing to do to bow down at the feet of Jesus? How bold are our prayers? Do we fail to pray bold prayers because we don’t want the disappointment we will feel if those prayers aren’t answered in a way we want them to?

School is starting soon, and in some districts it has already started. What would happen if the students and teachers at the schools in our area were bold in their faith. Not breaking any laws about separation of church and state, mind you, but being bold in living out what it means to be a Christian. How about having lunch with the classmate no one likes, not participating in gossip or rumors about others, putting others’ needs before our own, etc. What a huge difference we could make in our community.

As Christians that is what we are supposed to do. Listen to this scripture from 1 John 5:14-15: “And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.”

What if we prayed boldly, having the faith that nothing is impossible for God? And then what if we are willing to live out that faith boldly? It’s one thing to pray it, and it’s another to live it out. But just think how we could change the world!

So my challenge to you this week is to live boldly and be careful not to judge. Every time you see a dog this week remember the scripture we read from Mark’s Gospel and how Jesus came for all of humanity, not just a chosen few. And let us be bold in our prayers and in our faith so that we may be true disciples of Jesus Christ, making disciples and changing the world.

That’s a lot better than having to take an ol’ cold tater and wait.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


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