This original article was written by Rebecca Hall, a member of Leadership for Mission program.
The story of the Syrophoenician woman in the gospel of Mark is one which acts as a significant turning point in the ministry of Mark’s Jesus, where Jesus’ mission and ministry expands to those outside of the Israelite family. By offering a critical interpretation of this passage in Mark’s gospel readers can see how the story is draws on themes throughout Mark’s gospel to craft a message for the early church about how Gentiles in the community should be treated. Further reflection shows how this passage can be applied to today’s church and offers insights to the tools required for women’s leadership.
The story of the Syrophoenician Woman takes place after two significant events within Mark’s gospel. The first is the feeding of the 5000 within what is commonly accepted to be Jewish territory. The second event of note is Jesus’ subsequent dispute with the Pharisees and teaching to the disciples about what does and does not make a body unclean. This is of significance as it indicates to a Markan audience that boundaries between Gentiles and Jews – which could be largely drawn by what each consumed - are beginning to be removed. Indeed the actions of Jesus after this passage – healing of further Gentile characters and ultimately the feeding of 4000 in Gentile territory - mark this episode’s placement as significant it signals a turning point in the ministry of Jesus with clear implications for Mark’s readers.
The opening phrase “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre” (7:24, NRSV) places this story within a Gentile city where both Gentiles and Jews lived, although Jews often as an oppressed minority. This indicates to a Markan audience that Jesus has entered unfriendly and possibly hostile territory, and also sets up the later interaction with the local woman. Placing the episode within a house is significant in Mark’s gospel as it is often an indicator that healing, teaching, or controversy is about to take place, although ironically in this case Jesus will be taught by a Gentile woman. Donahue further argues that, for Mark’s readers, this setting could be representative of their own communities and community life.
Mark then goes on to tell readers that Jesus is attempting to remain hidden within Gentile territory. Ultimately he is unsuccessful in doing so and is approached by “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” who begs him to heal her daughter (who is not with her) of unclean spirits. By double identifying the woman as a Gentile, and then a Syrophoenician Mark makes clear to his audience that this is a woman emphatically on the outside of Jesus’ current ministry. She is not Jewish and would be considered unclean, linking back to the teachings about what is considered clean and unclean just prior, and such an identification may bring to the fore all the regional prejudices which lay between Gentiles and Israelites at the time of Mark’s writing.
As the story continues the woman’s request for her daughter to be healed is harshly responded to “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27). As previously mentioned the identity of the woman as Syrophoenician partially sets the scene for this response. Within the region “dog” was a common slur used when referring to Gentile people. At a shallow level this could be read as simply as an insulting rebuke. However, in doing so, the full allegorical implications put forth by Mark, along with his deeper theological argument would be ignored. At the root of this statement is salvation theology, Jesus argues that his mission is first and foremost for the children of God, the Jews. That it is not fair to take what is intended for them and give it to the Gentiles. Only once they have been fed, or satisfied, is it for the Gentiles. Rhoades and Culpepper agree that this use of the word “first” makes space for a future Gentile mission, and as such Jesus is not denying the healing request outright but rather arguing that the woman must wait her turn and not “take the children’s food”.
Understanding this passage cannot take place without placing it within the overall narrative being developed by Mark. The reader is aware that Mark has used the same verb already to describe the feeding of the 5000, showing in fact Israel has already been “fed and satisfied” (6:42) and this theme, where bread and salvation are equated, is developed cleverly in this episode through the woman’s response. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:28). With this response the Gentile woman becomes a paradigm for the believing Gentile. To Jesus’ claim that salvation is foremost for the children of Israel the woman locates and exploits the only loophole available to her. Firstly she accepts her designation as a dog, taking advantage of the language used by Jesus. By using the diminutive form of “dog”, she positions herself and her daughter in the less threatening position of “pups” or, given that she is immersed in Greek culture, potentially the lapdogs . Furthermore she agrees that as a Gentile she has no rank or priority in this mission, she asks only to feed off of the crumbs which fall from the table as Israel is fed. Allegorically, she asks that Jesus not turn away from his mission to the Jewish people, but, asks that the overabundance of God be shared with the Gentiles too. As this comes quickly after the Markan audience has heard of the 12 baskets of food leftover from the feeding of the 5000 and continues with the themes of feeding, it works well to show that there are in fact crumbs to share. She has extended the metaphor thrown at her to make space for her and her daughter, and in turn Gentile people, in Jesus’ mission of salvation .
The response to this challenge is an almost immediate change in position and direction in the ministry of Jesus. He heals the girl; though briefly, the manner in which this is done must be commented on. The location of the woman’s daughter, being at her own home instead of with the woman illustrates quite clearly for Mark’s audience the desperation of a faithful mother: she has left her daughter alone to rush out and seek healing. While Donahue proposes that the distance of the daughter in fact also heightens Jesus’ power, this does not adequately take into account the sociocultural threads that have run throughout the passage. In contrast, Moloney suggests that it is in fact symbolic of the Gentiles whose salvation has been “far away” until this point, and more appropriately fits with the fact that until Mark 7:33 Jesus is yet to touch a Gentile to perform a healing. After this passage the gospel moves to Jesus’ performing miracles for Gentiles in Gentile lands, with Jesus moving through Gentile territory until 8:10, and feeding a Gentile crowd – doing the same thing he had previously done only for the Jewish people – giving them bread and extending the mission of salvation to include them.
In this passage, Mark continues themes of purity and feeding that have been growing in his gospel which feed into the overarching theme of discipleship. The pivotal nature of this passage take on board the metaphor offered in the prior feeding of the Israelites as the offering of the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and weaves in the statement regarding cleanliness to offer a new paradigm for discipleship. The hearers of Mark’s gospel are reminded that Israel has been satisfied, that Mark, through Jesus, is declaring a new way of looking at what classifies peoples as clean (it is not what one eats but what one thinks and does), and finally sweeps away the barriers between Gentiles and Jews through this woman’s clever challenge. With this comes space for the Gentile believer to be part of the early Christian community. Though there is disagreement about who the author(s) of Mark may have been and therefore, who the intended audience is, most commentators agree that this could be addressing debate existing in the early Christian communities about who the “children of God” are. Through this story Mark can be seen to be making a clear point about to removing the boundaries between Jew and Gentile believers. Indeed, the Syrophoenician woman is another faithful supplicant who seems to understand the message being shared more clearly than the disciples. It can be argued that within this passage Mark moves readers to overcome the hostility, shared at the start by Jesus, which may be limiting views as to who can be considered God’s child – Gentiles are given a place at the table too.
This is a message which is not out of place in today’s society and church. This story tells of a woman on the outside who Mark uses to challenge and radically shift the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry and, in turn, the early church’s view on who is included in “children of God”. In turn it provides, for me, a vision of a radically inclusive society and church. Within the Western catholic church we are increasingly hearing from those who stand outside of our community that they do not feel welcome. In society the marginalised are often people experiencing homeless, people with disabilities, and those experiencing mental health issues. While the church has been often at the forefront of ministering to those groups over the last 15 years it has become increasingly evident that our divorced, LGBT, and female members often feel excluded and disenfranchised by the church. Society cannot flourish and the church is unable fully accomplish the work of the gospels when parts of our community are separated from one another, and often not considered as worthy, or holy as the other “children of God”. The challenge of this story for today’s time is to take on board the criticisms being levelled and truly evaluate the traditions we hold onto in order to form a fully inclusive community that does not use tradition to build walls around itself. In the modern church this offers a profound opportunity for leadership from women, LGBT and divorced members as they are more frequently offered the chance to challenge the status quo and envision a new path forward for the entire community. The Syrophoenician woman, to me, offers insight into the tools required for women who want to be leaders in our church. Like her they need to be equipped and prepared to offer insightful critiques which highlight areas for improvement and be able to offer these arguments in terms that their counterparts will understand. While modern society cannot condone insult in any argument, the model of skilled persistence is one that all Christian leaders can strive to emulate as they call for a more inclusive community that truly brings about the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, it offers a model for the church to follow, offering 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.
The Syrophoenician woman in Mark’s gospel is a clear turning point in the ministry of Mark’s Jesus, moving him from an exclusively Jewish ministry to one that is inclusive of believing Gentiles. A critical interpretation of this passage shows how this story draws on themes throughout the overall narrative to potentially craft a message for the early Christian church about the definition of who was and was not considered a “child of God”. This is a message which can still be applied to today’s society and church and indeed offers insights into the opportunity for, and tool kit needed by women striving to be leaders in our church while also providing to the church a model for how to listen and adjust course in order to become a truly inclusive community.
Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom : A Theological Reading of Mark's Gospel. Australian ed. Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2008
Culpepper, R. Alan. Mark. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007
Donahue, John R., and Daniel J. Harrington. The Gospel of Mark. Sacra Pagina Series ; v. 2. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2005
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010
Moloney, Francis J. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012
Rhoads, David. "Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark: A Narrative-Critical Study." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62, no. 2 (1994)
Brendan A. Byrne, Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark's Gospel. Australian ed. (Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2008), 124; John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark. Sacra Pagina Series ; v. 2. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2005), 235
 Alan R. Culpepper, Mark. (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 240; David Rhoads, "Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark: A Narrative-Critical Study." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62, no. 2 (1994): 348
 Culpepper, Mark, 239; Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark. Sacra Pagina Series, 231
 Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark. Sacra Pagina Series, 232
 Culpepper, Mark, 239; Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark. Sacra Pagina Series, 233
 Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 147; Culpepper, Mark, 239;
 Moloney, The Gospel of Mark; A Commentary, 147
 Culpepper, Mark, 354; Rhoades, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark; A Narrative Critical Study”, 240
 Moloney, The Gospel of Mark; A Commentary, 147; Rhoades, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark; A Narrative Critical Study”,356
 Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel ,126; Culpepper, Mark, 240
 Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 126; Culpepper, Mark, 241; Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, 147
 Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 126; Culpepper, Mark, 241-242; Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, 148
 Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark. Sacra Pagina Series,235
 Moloney, The Gospel of Mark; A Commentary, 148
 Which could be interpreted as indicative of Jesus holding a traditional view towards Gentile’s cleanliness up to this point
 Culpepper, Mark, 242; Moloney, The Gospel of Mark; A Commentary,144; Rhoades, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark; A Narrative Critical Study”,347
 Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 126; Culpepper, Mark, 240-242; Rhoades, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark; A Narrative Critical Study”,259-260
 Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 127
 Culpepper, Mark, 239-242; Moloney, The Gospel of Mark; A Commentary, 146-147
 Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 127; Culpepper, Mark, 241; Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, 148
 Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 127; Culpepper, Mark, 241; Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary, 148; Rhoades, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman in Mark; A Narrative Critical Study”, 347
 Processes undertaken by the ACBC to gather information from the faithful as well as the currently ongoing process being undertaken to gather feedback for the 2020 Synod provide evidence of this willingness to, at least listen