Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
“Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
After leaving the region of Tyre, Jesus went through Sidon toward the Galilee Sea through the region of the Ten Cities. Some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly speak, and they begged him to place his hand on the man for healing. Jesus took him away from the crowd by himself and put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. Looking into heaven, Jesus sighed deeply and said,“Ephphatha,” which means, “Open up.” At once, his ears opened, his twisted tongue was released, and he began to speak clearly.
Jesus gave the people strict orders not to tell anyone. But the more he tried to silence them, the more eagerly they shared the news. People were overcome with wonder, saying, “He does everything well! He even makes the deaf to hear and gives speech to those who can’t speak.”
The story of the Syrophoenician woman. Ugh...
This is an extremely troubling passage. It’s doesn’t fit our understanding of Jesus as a liberator and establisher of G_d’s Realm being a place of equality. In fact, Jesus seems to be down right rude and perhaps even a racist!
Many commentators, pastors, priests, and teachers, have done their best to paint Jesus in a good light regarding this encounter. They say things like, “Jesus was testing the woman,” or “Jesus was helping the woman to strengthen and expand her faith.” Even in those answers were true, that doesn’t explain his obvious racial slurs toward the Syrophoenician woman.
And I don’t think we should skirt the issue. This is recorded here and in Matthew. Some people will disregard a passage if it’s only found in one place. But the fact that it’s recorded in two places means we need to really look at and ourselves.
So, let me be quite clear.
Jesus used a racial slur in addressing the Syrophoenician woman.
That doesn’t mean he was a racist. It just means that he, too, was impacted by to the cultural mores of his day. But that doesn’t negate the fact that he used derogatory language when speaking to her. That’s just the way the Jewish culture was. If someone wasn’t Jewish, they were seen as “less than.” And some of those “less thans” were seen as less than human or non-human. Strike one.
Not only was she a Gentile (non-Jewish person), but she wasn’t male either. In that time and culture, even if you were Jewish, but you were female, you were still considered a “less than.” Women, in those days (and in some cultures today), were sees as slightly above non-humans. Strike two.
Her third strike is that she approached him! This was unheard of, even for Jews. Women didn’t approach men. If a man wanted to speak to a woman, he approached her. The other way around was not the norm, even for a queen.
So, all of this is working against her and in Jesus’ favor. He was a rabbi, male, and seen as the “chosen people of YHWH.” Even though they were being occupied by the Romans, they still saw themselves as better than everyone else. That is the position, the culture in which Jesus was raised. His response, then, would have been seen as normal.
But the story doesn’t end there. And this is crucial to the story and our story, especially those of us who are white males living in America. In a turn of events, the Syrophoenician woman confronts and exposes Jesus’ sexism and racism - “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
With her reply, Jesus sees the error of his ways and changes his mind. It’s the only time we see it happen.
When confronted with his own bias, Jesus has “ears to hear” and pays attention to what G_d is saying through the Syrophoenician woman. Herein lies the lesson. G_d speaks through all people, through all creation. We have to be walking with the Spirit of G_d to notice these speakings. We have to be listening for G_d’s voice whether it comes from a loved one or an enemy or nature or an internal sound, thin and quiet.
In the story before us, G_d is speaking to us about our own hidden - unrealized - prejudices. How do we act toward others? How do we act towards those whom our culture deems “less than”? Perhaps G_d is speaking through them. We will only know if we choose to set aside our own agendas and ideas and listen with our hearts.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC