Jesus is confronted by an Indigenous woman and her people are included in the Kingdom

Sunday, September 05, 2021

To start with it is important to have an overview of the nature of Mark’s Gospel. 

1.Part one: For Mark Jesu’s ministry was in Galilee which is a multicultural society.  From a Jewish perspective we know that from Nathaniel’s remark in Jn 1:46 “Can anything good come out of Nazareth (in Galilee)”

2.Part two: Today’s Gospel marks the end of Jesus’ special ministry to the People of Israel.  Today’s reading is the pivotal movement from a ministry to Jews to a ministry to Gentiles all because of being challenged by a local indigenous person. Chapters 7&8

3.From Chapter 9 on Jesus moves to a confrontation with the authorities in Jerusalem.

The Syrophoenicians are from Syria Phoenicia, (Mk 7:26). Syria was the name of the Roman province that included parts of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel. The Phoenicians were an ancient Semitic people related to the Biblical Canaanites, who inhabited city states throughout the Mediterranean. One of their population centres was Tyre, the site of today’s reading.  Tyre is a coastal city in present-day Lebanon, about twelve miles north of the border with Israel. 

Both geographically and ethnically, the Syrophoenician woman represents a local indigenous person who would have been looked down upon by both the Jews and Gentiles. As a Syrophoenician woman she would have been considered as being triple disadvantaged. She was a woman, an indigenous person, poor and yet it is this encounter that, in the scheme of Mark’s Gospel, shifts Jesus’ ministry from the Jews to the Gentiles.

The context is Jesus is hiding in a house in Tyre hoping that nobody knows where he is.  Yet this local indigenous woman knows not only where he is but who he is, a local wandering charismatic healer and so she fronts up and kneels at the feet of Jesus and implores him to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon. Although we are not told exactly how the demon affected her daughter, we can probably guess from other stories about demon-possessed people that it made her act in bizarre and anti-social ways. While we cannot know exactly what Jesus was thinking, it is clear that when approached by this Syrophoenician woman, Jesu’s immediate response is to put limits of his mission by a call to serve his own people. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus begins by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).


The story of the Syrophoenician woman raises some difficult questions about how we interpret and understand Jesu’s ministry. In this account, 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 represents a challenge, for it looks out of character as Jesus seems to be hesitant to heal and the words that he used, would by today’s standard, seem offensive, to refer to her and her people as dogs. 

In the Bible “dogs” (literally “little dogs”) have a negative association in the Hebrew  (Ps 22:16 The dogs are all around me, the company of evil doers encircle me), and Rabbinic literature, alludes to the ferocious wild dogs in the Mediterranean world. In the New Testament they are also associated with impurity  and otherness (Rev 22:15). So here “dogs” refers to “undesirable outsiders”.

Yet it is the Syrophoenician Woman, an Indigenous woman, who Mark uses as the person who by confronting Jesus moves him to include all people, especially the marginalised, in the Kingdom. The story probably indicates that women and indigenous people were part of the earliest communities around Jesus and the early church.

 

The response to this challenge is an almost an immediate change in position and direction in the ministry of Jesus.  He heals the woman’s daughter at her own home. After this passage the gospel moves to Jesus performing miracles for Gentiles in Gentile lands, with Jesus moving through Gentile territory until Ch 8:10, and culminates in the second feeding of 4,000 a Gentile crowd – doing the same thing he had previously done for the Jewish crowd – giving them bread and extending the mission of salvation to include them.   Also “They brought to him a deaf man who also had an impediment in his speech, and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32). Suddenly this man is able to hear and communicate with those around him. Not only is he physically healed, he is also included in this community.


The take away message for me is a vision of a radically inclusive church and community where we listen to the voices of people on the margins of society, such as the homeless, people with disabilities, those experiencing mental health issues and our GLTBI communities. While the church has been at the forefront of ministering to and with these groups we are also at the forefront of including GLTBI and Indigenous people as leaders. I was there at the formation of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in Townsville in 1997 and was on the staff of the Assembly Commission for Mission when they affirmed the Rev Dr Dorothy McRae-McMahon as the first lesbian Director for Mission. 


In the Uniting Church we offer every opportunity for leadership from women, GLTBI, Indigenous people and divorced members to be leaders. The Syrophoenician woman, to me, offers insight into the attitude required for women and others who not only want to be leaders in our church but gives permission for their insightful critiques which highlight areas for improvements even if these arguments might be seen as confronting. We and all Christian leaders need to strive to call for a more inclusive community that truly brings about the fullness of the Kingdom of God. In this way we model for the wider society the same need for inclusion and offer space for the outsider’s view to be heard, considered, and incorporated. It challenges our church to make space for leaders who currently sit on the ‘outside’, in order to fulfil its goal of prophetic leadership and fully embrace the paradigm put forward by the Syrophoenician woman.  Hopefully without having to ask for crumbs.


QUESTIONS:

1. How can we pay close attention to this ‘Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin’ and acknowledge her resilience, her willingness to go up against seemingly insurmountable odds for the sake her family and her people.

2. How can we be open to new opportunities for ministry to the indigenous people in our community?

3. What risks might we take, what barriers might we transcend, what world views might we also change if we were sent out by that kind of love?

4. How can we be persistent in this endeavour?

5. What does it mean to change our mind about mission?

 

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