One of Jesus’ most jarring statements occurs in the story of the Syrophoenician woman, Mark 7:24-27:
And from there [Jesus] arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
This saying of Jesus, spoken as it is to a poor, vulnerable woman with a suffering, oppressed little girl, sounds uncharacteristically harsh. Not only does it seem to reflect a nationalistic, even racist, attitude to God’s blessing (God’s blessing is for his children, not for Syrophoenicians), it’s couched in the most derogatory terms imaginable. (When Jesus mentions “dogs”, he means dirty little mongrels, not adorable Labrador puppies.)
Jesus is, of course, reflecting a biblical pattern. The gospel is for the Jew first and then for the Greek (Rom 1:16), and at this stage in the unfolding plan of God before Jesus’ death and resurrection, the gospel had not yet been sent out to all nations (Matt 28:19-20). But not even that fact explains the severity of Jesus’ initial answer. At the very least, Jesus could have been a bit more sensitive! Isn’t Jesus’ Father the one who cares for the oppressed, the outsider and the vulnerable? What’s going on?
Some people have pointed out that there is an important Old Testament background element to this story. The woman isn’t just described as a Gentile; Mark is careful to tell us that she is a Syrophoenician, a resident of Tyre and Sidon. This should remind us of the time when the great prophet Elijah visited this very same area, provided bread for a desperately poor widow and then brought her son to life from the dead (1 Kgs 17:8-24). But if you compare Jesus with Elijah, it actually makes the problem worse: Jesus’ initial response to his Syrophoenician acquaintance is much more severe and insensitive than Elijah’s unhesitated willingness to provide bread for the widow and heal her son.
However, there was another very significant Syrophoenician woman in the life of Elijah: Jezebel. Jezebel was a Sidonian woman who had married Ahab, king of Israel. Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel was a significant factor in the apostasy and eventual downfall of his own royal house, and indeed, the entire nation of Israel. Through Jezebel, Baal worship was introduced to Israel (1 Kgs 16:31-33, 21:25-26). Jezebel was the driving force behind the wholesale slaughter of the prophets of God (1 Kgs 18:4, 13). Indeed, Jezebel tried to assassinate Elijah himself (1 Kgs 19:2). Jezebel arranged the cold-blooded murder of a man just to get hold of his property (1 Kgs 21:1-16). Finally, God’s word came through Elijah and predicted that dogs would come and eat Jezebel’s flesh (1 Kgs 21:23-24). Jezebel remained forevermore an object lesson for Israel of the disastrous consequences of consorting with the surrounding nations—especially those corrupt Sidonian Baal-worshippers.
So here in Mark 7, with these Old Testament stories in mind, what are we to think when this Syrophoenician woman approaches the king and teacher of Israel for help with a demon? Are we to recall immediately the vulnerable, poverty-stricken Sidonian widow of Elijah’s day, who was in desperate need of bread and life for her child? Or should we remember the oppressive, murderous, proud Sidonian woman Jezebel, who was committed to worshipping false gods, who was an enemy of God’s word, and who turned Israel and her king away from God?
Jesus’ answer is indeed harsh, but he is reflecting, in a nutshell, the tumultuous and ambiguous relationship between Israel and her idolatrous Syrophoenician neighbours. Bread and dogs: perhaps there is a question behind his statement—something like, “Well, your daughter has a demon, so what kind of Syrophoenician are you? Are you like the humble, desperate widow, or are you like the proud idol-worshipping Jezebel?”
In one sense, Jesus’ answer to the Syrophoenician woman is a way of righting the wrongs of Israel’s history. Through Jesus, we can see that God is blessing his people; no longer will Israel’s Sidonian enemies take the kingdom away from God’s children.
Yet there is more than that. For when we see the depth of the enmity between Israel and the Sidonians, which forms the backdrop to Jesus’ initial statement, we can understand the depth of the radical and gracious nature of God’s blessings through Jesus. When the Syrophoenician woman demonstrates that she is no Jezebel—when she admits her humility before Israel’s king and teacher—when she begs for mercy—we see that even a former enemy can receive the deliverance and blessing that belongs to God’s children:
But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. (Mark 7:28-30)