The Syrophonecian Woman: Talking Back to God

Sermon Given September 5, 2021

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I wonder who this Syrophonecian woman was. We know that her household included her and her daughter. Was that it? Or were there others? Did she have a husband or was she the one in charge of the household? Was she rich? Was she poor? We don’t really know. All we know is that she was bold and didn’t take no for an answer. Whatever her condition in life, she was a matriarch who knew how to maneuver in a patriarchal world. And she has an encounter with Jesus that baffles many, that makes us examine and explore who Jesus was in new ways. She sheds light on the interplay between humanity and divinity within Jesus in ways that challenge our traditions about who Jesus was. 

She comes to Jesus at a moment when he’s just trying to get away. He’s taking some vacation time, going to a house in Tyre for some time off. He had some followers from this region, so he was not unknown, but he still hoped to be off the radar, to be unrecognized, to simply take off his mantle of responsibility and just be. Maybe he was trying to take off the weight of Messiahship for a while and simply be Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph. But that’s not to be. No sooner had he set down his walking staff than this woman comes to him, falls at his feet, and begs him to heal her daughter.

And Jesus rebuffs her. He leaves me wondering, “Was this a bad day?” The words ring harsh. He says, “At the family table, the children are fed first. We shouldn’t take their food and give it to dogs.” The imagery is startling. There’s no way that feels genuine to me to work around his comment. He called a woman a dog. He didn’t call her a human. He used a racial slur and cut her down. All this because she wants healing for her daughter. That stings. That doesn’t feel like love. 

To try to say that he was testing her, that he was going to do it anyway but just wanted to throw that out there doesn’t feel any less harsh, in fact it makes me question Jesus’ character even more than if I just let his words stand. Because what kind of guy tries to test a woman in deep distress, making her prove herself when he was going to do what she asked anyway? 

I don’t think we can try to wash away Jesus’ words. They are plain, and they are here not only in the Gospel of Mark, but the Gospel of Matthew as well. He called a woman a dog. Which brings me to wonder, why did the Gospel writers, men who sifted through many different stories of Jesus and picked the highlight reel choose this story? Why did it last if Jesus is so harsh?

 I can’t help but believe that it’s not because of him, it’s because of her. This Gentile woman picks up the Divine tradition of talking back to God and calling God out. This is a tradition that is well documented in our Old Testament, but downplayed in our Christian tradition. Still, there are well known stories that embrace this tradition. 

The first story I think of is the story of Abraham challenging God when God tells him that Sodom will be destroyed. Abraham says to God, “Wait a moment, aren’t you just? Will you really kill innocent people along with the guilty? What if there are fifty innocent people? Or fourty five? Or forty?…” Eventually he gets God down to ten righteous people. If there were ten righteous people in Sodom, the city would not have been destroyed. At the beginning of the conversation, God seemed set to just blast the whole place, but Abraham called God out. Abraham changed the narrative. Less than ten righteous people lived in Sodom, and were saved by an angel, Sodom was still destroyed. But God had a conversation with Abraham about all that was to take place and took Abraham’s opinions seriously.

I think of Moses, who challenged and debated with God while standing in front of the burning bush, working out an arrangement for how in the world he would free the Israelites when he had a speech impediment and didn’t want to stand before Pharaoh. Aaron and his descendants were blessed because Moses refused to be the sole spokesperson. There’s the story of Jacob wrestling with God, literally fighting God, challenging the divine, and in the end he walks away blessed, but not unharmed, as he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. There’s Job who called out God over and over again, declaring that he wanted answers for his unjust treatment. There’s God’s conversations with Jonah, where they go back and forth over saving Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want to go, and freely bantered back and forth with God. The list continues with more and more people who weren’t afraid to stand in front of God and say, “Really? I don’t think so.”

So this Gentile woman comes to Jesus and joins this tradition, this fearless crew that stood up to God and were blessed, not smited. She takes Jesus’ words and twists them to her gain. Even in the midst of her distress, she’s able to use her skills of manipulating the patriarchy to get what she needs. She says, “Ah yes, the children need their food, but have you ever been at a table with kids, Lord? The dogs under their table get the scraps that fall to the floor. There’s plenty for all.” Jesus, who doesn’t regularly dine with toddlers, realizes that his imagery and his beliefs are wrong. There’s no need to prioritize one group over another. There’s plenty at the table for all to be fed. Just ask the dogs at the family table who get their fill as kids throw their food all over the place. This mother knows kids, and she knows her kid. She may be called a dog, but she’s going to take what she gets and use it for the healing of her daughter. And I’d like to think that part of the reason why her story wasn’t thrown to the floor of the editing room of the Gospel writers, was because she continued to follow Jesus, continued to call him out and became an important conversation partner for Jesus. Even if she didn’t, Jesus was not the same after his conversation with her. He was changed because of their interaction. Maybe Jesus would have healed her daughter anyway, but I can’t help thinking that her comments clarified his mission to him and helped him better live into his divine nature while in a human body surrounded by rhetoric that denigrated the other. 

In fact, her influence is felt in the very next story. Jesus, we’re told, takes a trip further up into Gentile territory, wandering around for a bit, hopefully getting that much needed vacation. Then he comes back down into the Decapolis, a region of ten cities on the predominantly Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee. He is brought a man to heal, and while we aren’t told that the man is a Gentile, there is conjecture that Jesus mimicked pagan healing methods in this encounter, one which differs greatly from the simple touch or declaration of healing that has been common in his ministry until this time. He very well could have used the tradition that the man was familiar with to provide healing. Jesus has learned how Gentiles do things and is showing respect for their traditions. They are no longer dogs,no longer below him. They are treated as human. 

That brings us to the questions that are really at the heart of much distress about this text. The questions are: Is God inerrant? Does God never make mistakes? Or even: Did Jesus sin? Commentators will bend over backwards to try and explain away Jesus calling this woman a dog, will try to work around the plain text, making excuses like, “He called her a puppy, he was reducing the Jewish slur about Gentiles” or “He was using her as an example”, when I don’t think the text supports that. Jesus clearly shows the common prejudices of his time. He uses the language Jewish people used for Gentiles. He was influenced by systemic racism. We can’t ignore that. We can’t wash that away. In fact, we don’t need to try to do that. 

The tradition of calling God out also relies on a God that sometimes needs help to get it right. It holds onto the idea of God as someone who is good and just, but also needs feedback, needs to be in communication with others. This is not an inerrant God in the way theologians later propped God up to be. This tradition holds that sometimes God needs us, that our conversations with God really do matter, especially in those moments when we are calling God out. That’s a kind of scary thought. But this is true for every other relationship in our lives, so what if it’s also true for our relationship with God? 

We are in a constant feedback loop with each other. We learn and grow in community. Certainly we need parents and leaders and people who know more. We need God who knows the most. But those parents and leaders also learn and grow through their interactions with children and constituents. It’s not a situation where the one on top has all the answers and the ones underneath obey. The ones in leadership have more trust and hopefully more knowledge, but they need to be in relationship with those they are leading, they need to hear when their decisions cause pain, they need to be called out at times. What if God is that kind of leader instead of being inerrant? You may call it heresy, others call it process theology. 

You can make your own decisions about the inerrancy of God. There’s not a cut and dry line where you either believe in it or you don’t. There are different theologies about it and different ways of understanding what it means. The beauty of the Episcopal tradition is you can hold any of these positions and be fully welcomed and embraced in our church. But I invite you to not just hold any doctrine blindly. Challenge and examine what you believe and why. There are scriptures that support it and scriptures that don’t. Different biblical authors have different opinions. 

No matter what you believe, it’s clear from this text that okay to think and feel like God is wrong sometimes. The Syrophonecian woman definitely felt that way. She spoke up, she made it clear what she needed and that she wasn’t going to be let down. She reminded Jesus of who he was and what he was called to do. And in reward, not only was her daughter healed, but she is remembered and honored, even two thousand years later. 

So if you need to call God out, call God out. Never be afraid to build that relationship by speaking your mind and listening for a reply. Maybe, just maybe, you are even helping God by doing so.