Many agree that the story of the Syrophoenician woman is one of the toughest passages to interpret in the Bible. In the account, Jesus meets a Gentile woman in the region of Tyre who begs Jesus to heal her daughter from possession by a demon. Jesus responds by saying, “First let the children eat all they want…for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (Mark 7:27).
The woman wisely replies “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). Jesus commends the woman for her response and heals the woman’s daughter.
The exchange presents an exegetical challenge, for it seems out of Jesus’ character to be hesitant to heal and to acknowledge this in such a seemingly offensive manner. Indeed, in the entirety of the Gospel accounts Jesus never refuses a single healing, for Jew or for Gentile. Furthermore, Mark’s Gospel is clearly directed at Gentile audiences—Mark writes in Greek and explains Semitic phrases to the reader. So, Mark was intending his Gentile audience to read and understand this story; he’s not seeking to offend them by it.
I’ve come across a number of commentaries on the story of the Syrophoenician woman over the years that have failed to fully satisfy, but as I’ve read through Mark again recently, I was struck by something obvious. Whatever is going on, Jesus is certainly not saying that he cannot or should not heal this woman’s daughter or heal Gentiles. This story is not about who deserves healing and who doesn’t.
How do we know that?
Well, in Mark chapter 5 Jesus travels to Gentile lands in the region of the Decapolis (Gerasenes / Gadarenes) and heals a man possessed with an evil spirit. That this is Gentile territory is further underscored by the herd of pigs mentioned in the story (swine, of course, were considered unclean and not eaten by Jews).
Furthermore, after the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus goes back to the region of the Decapolis, back deeper into Gentile territory, to conduct more healings among non-Jews. Interestingly, even the feeding of the 4000 in Mark chapter 8 appears to have been among the Gentiles, for afterward Jesus crosses over the sea in a boat and yet again encounters the Pharisees, now apparently back in Jewish territory.
There’s enough evidence here from Mark’s Gospel alone, not to mention the other Gospel accounts, to remind us that Jesus is not adverse to healing Gentiles. Indeed, the Old Testament prophets which Jesus so often referred to indicated that God’s plan for salvation extended to the Gentiles and Jesus echos that with his final words to the disciples reflected in the “Great Commission.”
So how do we account for Jesus’ seemingly peculiar interaction with this one Gentile woman?
The story itself is so brief it’s hard for any scholar or layman to make a definitive conclusion (and we may never know all angles of this passage, particularly as we’re so far removed culturally from the original context), but it’s clear that Jesus is engaging the woman’s thought process. She knows that the Jews and the Gentile tribes are separate people groups that have faced ethnic tensions for centuries (look back to the stories of Isaiah and Jezebel, also a Syrophoenician woman, for just one account).
Like the Samaritan woman at the well who talks of worshipping her version of god on the mountain in Samaria, I’ve wondered if Jesus is probing for whether the Syrophoenician woman also sees god as a tribal deity, and attempts to move her forward in belief to a larger God. After all, the Baal of Jezebel was the sort of tribal, ethno-derived deity that dominated the ancient middle east.
The idea of a tribal God—one who prefers a certain people group—is even today very powerful. This is why we still see two countries, two ethnic groups, or even two people who both claim Jesus as Lord, yet hate each other. Each is self-focused and has crafted a tribal god who views their group as preferential.
This story in Mark is one of the many places in the New Testament where Jesus probes a person’s concept of God and subtly introduces the idea of something larger, in this case a universal God, one that is for all people. Take just one additional provocative example from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18:35-19:10) where there is a close juxtaposition of Jesus redeeming both a beggar and a rich man, both the oppressed and the oppressor (see Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes)—another shocker that challenges the reader’s understanding of what God is like. The Bible has so many of these stories.
This is what it comes down to—confrontation with Jesus is often about challenging us to put aside the small and me-focused god we have fashioned and awake to something larger.
I do believe that at least some of the provocations we face (though certainly not all) are for this very reason. I know this has been the case with me and my own illness.
The story of the Syrophoenician woman has a lot of layers, many of which I have not addressed. But one thing is clear to me from Mark’s Gospel—Jesus is not hesitant, reluctant, or in any way refusing to heal the Gentile woman’s daughter. This story is not about a physical healing; it’s about a spiritual one. With her wise words, the Gentile woman shows that she rejects the idea of a narrow tribal deity and she desires this Jesus from a foreign land. That’s a bold move, to step into a larger worldview, and Mark’s Gentile readers would have found in her a model for their own response to the good news of Jesus. Like her, they would be able to say, “Yes, indeed, this can be for me also.”