Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
(Mark 7: 24-30)
At my last call in New York City, I was responsible for a men’s shelter in the basement of the church, along with a Thursday night meal that fed over 150 people each week. Homeless work in the big apple is nonstop. My dog, Sadie, and I would walk along Madison Avenue each evening and we would see cardboard boxes cut apart and maneuvered in a way so an individual or even a family had a shelter for the night in a shop entrance way, where inside there were hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing and high above, million-dollar apartments. Those same individuals, who I got to know over time, would come by the church on Thursdays to keep warm in the winter, cool in the summer and enjoy a hot meal.
It would go without saying that there were always stranglers who would arrive late. We tried to set boundaries. We tried to say the kitchen is closed at this time, try not to come late. But the kingdom of God would burst from its seams every single time. Whether it was me or another volunteer, we would find something for these individuals to eat. There was always, always enough. And whatever we gave to our neighbor, it was always enough for them as well. Just when we tried to regulate God’s reign, God’s kingdom among our humanly selves, God has other things to say, reminding us of abundance. Every child of God had something to eat those evenings, including the last crumbs from the table. Our Syrophoenician woman will remind us of that this morning. Our story is a story of God’s reign bursting at the seams. It’s full of surprises, sass, and a conversion but not of the character you might think. This story will keep us on our toes.
Leading up to our passage, Jesus has fed 5000 people in Galilee, a region of Jews and then he baffles the disciple’s minds by walking on water, again on the sea of Galilee, surrounded by Jews. And then right before this passage, he blows the Pharisee’s minds by saying all food is clean and yes, all people are clean too. These stories are emerging in the gospel of Mark as the church slowly integrates with Jews and Gentiles. They are working through the question of who truly belongs in this new church of radical ideas?
So now, in our passage, Jesus is traveling in the region of Tyre, Gentile soil. A city often represented as an enemy to the Jews. Tyre enjoyed a strong economy and often, imported bread and wheat from Galilee. And as Alan Culpepper writes, “in times of crisis or famine, the prosperous Tyreans were able, literally, to buy bread off of the tables of the Jews.” So Jews were raised to not trust or even like the Tyreans. And so the woman we are about to be introduced to is not poor or an outcast in this region, in fact she represents a dominant, oppressive group. Jesus is there in Tyre anyways and when he arrives, he enters a house, it’s unknown if it’s a gentile’s home or a Jewish home. Either way, Jesus wants to remain hidden. But Jesus, a man spreading radical ideas, can’t remain hidden for long. Immediately, a word Mark loves to use in order to encourage a quickness in the story, immediately, an unnamed woman comes to Jesus, falls to his feet and begs for him to cast out a possessed, unclean Spirit from her daughter’s body. This woman is described as a gentile, Greek, and Syrophoenician. She is so clearly identified and set apart from who Jesus chooses to perform miracles for, that our reader’s ears can’t help but perk up. Her daughter seems to not be with her and so already the Syrophoenician’s faith is at the forefront of the story, even if she hasn’t named it. She trusts that Jesus can cure from afar. And this is when things get good!
Jesus brutally tells her that he is here for the Jews and she is a Gentile. He exclaims, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” There is a lot to unpack here. The children he is referring to are Jews, his people in Galilee. And Jesus just called this woman and her people in Tyre, dogs. Preachers, scholars, theologians they are divided on if this is an insult or not. It’s fair to say that Jesus doesn’t hold back when he wants his words heard. He’s been known to flip tables, insult the Pharisees by calling them brood of vipers, fools, hypocrites. And yet, it’s this passage that divides the masses. Many would like to think that Jesus responded to this woman with a twinkle in his eye, unintentionally rude, testing the woman’s faith. He cannot be calling her a dog. It’s certainly not an insult. Jesus would not do that. And while we’re never know the tone of Jesus’s voice, there is cultural context we can pull from. It’s a harsh word he used and it actually translates to little dog or doggie. There’s a long tradition of calling gentiles dogs in those days. You see, in ancient Jewish tradition, dogs are not lovable pets, especially in the way we love our pups today. They were not a part of the Jewish family, but instead seen as scavengers, animals that ate the leftovers of unclean food. You see how this connects to the passages right before this one. Eugene Boring writes about this cultural context, “Jews might throw leftover food out to be consumed by wild dogs, but would never have dogs “under the table” during the meal” like the Syrophoenician implies. But in the gentile, Greek world, the dogs were much more a part of the family and rested under the tables hoping for crumbs. Dogs were a part of the gentile life. And so for Jesus to compare her and her people to dogs is degrading in how they live their life.
And so it’s harsh and it’s hard to think that our beloved Jesus would do such a thing. But this where we’re reminded of what we believe. Jesus is both human and divine. Jesus wept and saved. Jesus cried out in physical and emotional pain, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” and then was resurrected from the dead. To say Jesus would never say these words to this woman is to deny his humanity. But don’t worry the divine is coming, it’s right around the corner in this passage.
The Syrophoenician doesn’t respond as if she’s insulted. She doesn’t say, “don’t call me a dog!” She immediately addresses him as Kyrios, Lord, the only person in the gospel of Mark to do so. She has accepted his authority and then pushes back against him. This is such a good story. She says boldly and with confidence, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus is caught in his own words. He may be there for Jews first and gentiles second, but this woman is reminding him that even they deserve the bread of life as much as anyone.
In the Smyth and Helwys commentary on Mark, the author, Alan Culpepper, writes about an interaction he observed around a table with other scholars. Martin Hengel, a professor and historian of religion talked about his time as a child in Nazi Germany. He said he father’s factory had been seized by the Nazis and he was sent to the eastern front to serve as an anti-aircraft gunner for the German army. Looking at the man across from him, he stated that he did not know the atrocities against the Jewish people and others until after the war had ended. The man that sat across from him was the Jewish professor Shemaryahu Talmon, a renowned scholar who sat at the forefront of the studies of the dead sea scrolls. A German and a Jew telling very different stories of their childhood. Talmon told his story next. He grew in Frankfurt, Germany and remembered people ridiculing them as they walked down the street. They would walk in groups to school and put the girls in the middle to protect them as much as possible. Eventually, they were taken to a concentration camp in Poland. And he remembered polish miners near the camp. Talmon described them as “simple hard-working people who were called “Bibel Lesern” because they had grown up reading the Bible and had little formal education. Up until that point, Talmon thought all Christians were taught to hate the Jews until, the Bibel Lersern minors “began to slip across the lines and into the [concentration] camp at night to bring the Jewish prisoners bread from their own tables.” The Polish minors, Christians who read our story today, they “too believed that “even the little dogs” should get the crumbs that fell from their tables.” Everyone deserves the bread of life.
It goes without saying, the Syrophoenician woman’s faith radiates from her. Imagine the courage it took for her to push back against Jesus, who she saw as Lord. Martin Luther, a theologian I never would have expected to quote for this passage, he says, “she catches Christ with his own words. He compares her to a dog, she concedes it, and asks nothing more than that he let her be a dog….Where will Christ now take refuge? He is caught.” She takes the insult and says, it doesn’t matter what you call me or us in this region of Tyre, we also deserve the good news you are sharing these days. We deserve the salvation and the love and the radical compassion. And Luther continues to writes, “[she clings] in her confidence to the good news she had heard…and never gives up.” Her courage and even wit, convinces Jesus that God’s love and mercy is not limited to only the Jews, but to all people. And so, who was converted that day? Jesus’s attitude to the Gentiles, it is never the same again. Jesus reverses his stance, heals the daughter from a far and sends the woman on her way. Maybe even seeing her again the following week when he breaks bread and feeds 4000 gentile people in the region of Trye, embodying what he has just learned that all people deserve the bread of life. What Jesus had done for the 5000 Jewish people across the Sea of Galilee, just a chapter before this, he does it again for the 4000 Gentile people in Tyre. Everyone is first in line to God all because of a woman who spoke out from the depths of her faith, trusting who God is and who God loves. I’ll end with another Martin Luther quote. My goodness. He writes, “But, oh, how painful it is to nature and reason, that this woman should strip herself and forsake all that she experienced, and cling alone to God’s bare Word, until she experienced the contrary. May God help us in time of need and of death to possess like courage and faith!”
 R. Alan Culpepper, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Mark (Macon: Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc., 2007), 239.
 M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 212.
 Boring, 214.
 Culpepper, 249.
 William C. Placher, Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 105, Kindle Edition.
 Placher, 106.