Healing of the Syrophoenician Woman’s Daughter, 2021
7.25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his [Jesus’s] feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
We say that God comes to us through one another. It is through finding the holiness in our encounters that we come to know ourselves and God better (often through what challenges us and teaches us). When we surrender to the power of forgiveness and empathy for others we will come to know the power of Love that leads to greater wholeness for ourselves and society.
And so, our story of Jesus’ healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter is controversial because he initially responds to her in a very ugly way. He scandalizes us with a phrase that equates this woman, her people, and her precious child to a mangy dog.
Whenever something challenges us or pushes our boundaries we have an opportunity to live into the moment, rather than resist: we grow. In fact any ecologist will tell you that it is on the boundaries where we often find the most biodiversity, the most competition, and the most growth.
We also know that Jesus teaches us in ways that strike us as paradoxical, contradictory and confrontational. It is part of his teaching style.
What is lost in translation for the modern reader, is that equating this woman to a dog is a reference to the rabbinic phrase of Jesus’ time that, “to eat with an idolater is to eat with a dog”. He is using the pharisees’ argument against her. This is not his argument. In fact at the time of her healing he has been in constant debate with the pharisees about the rules of idolatry specifically in the context of food.
Food (and ways of eating) is the main vehicle used to convey these messages about the boundaries between people, and the reign of God. The story is offered within the context of food; where food is used as a point of issue; where the pharisees continually attack Jesus and the disciples for how they handle food. It happens in the context of feeding the multitudes; and Jesus’ metaphor of “the bread of life.”
His rebuke of the woman strikes at the heart of his previous reprimands to the pharisees. He is making the point again this time by scandalizing us with such an ugly dismissal. It smacks us:
“…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,[h] even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Her response in the form of faith, and in speaking the plain truth back to this twisted metaphor doubly smacks us. By doing so we are asked to consider what is really going on here. Perhaps we feel empathy. “Anyone with ears to hear listen!” Perhaps it really is our human rules that create boundaries and create outcasts. This is a moment in which an underserved person with no voice in the community speaks up, startles us with her claim to the healing power of God.
7.29 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.
This is a moment in which the person of need, the person stuck on the opposite side of the border in scarcity, competition, and oppression is afforded a voice to proclaim the truth. Those in authority are not the ones to teach us most clearly about the reality of the Kingdom of God. The voices of the oppressed are needed to help shed light on the rules that have been set in place to confine, restrict and hinder growth. It is a human pattern that continues to today. Can we look hard and fast at some of the human laws that have set boundaries, hinder love of neighbor, hinder flourishing? Here in the U.S. and around the world?
Human rules create othering, “outcasts” and “idolaters.”
God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit open us up: terrify us with the truth, scandalize us with our own failings, and heal us though forgiveness and love.