A Syrophoenician Woman and Jesus a Jewish Man: Mark 7:24-30 (Matthew 15:21-28)
Presuming that readers have read the text for this encounter, to note Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s book titled But She Said1 takes on further meaning. That title quotes verse 28 from Mark’s account. When Jesus responded to the woman’s request for healing for her daughter with a caustic comment about the “children (Jews) being fed first, before the “dogs,” (Gentiles), the text follows with: “But she said . . .” The simplicity of Schussler Fiorenza’s choice for a book title catches a reader off-guard. For a book about interpreting scripture, the phrase acknowledges that a woman had spoken. No hint appears of her dramatic confronting, countering content or how it, so strikingly, continued Jesus’ theme. No hint anticipates Jesus’ changed mind or his changed approach to ministry because of what she said. But Schussler Fiorenza knows. And Schussler Fiorenza with intent alerts readers to how the woman “represents the biblical-theological voice of women which has been excluded, repressed, or marginalized throughout Christian discourse.”2
Rachel Conrad Wahlberg3 decades ago alerted me to this woman character, this undaunting pillar, a patient but persistent mother-theologian. Wahlberg’s accounts of adulterous men, an audacious woman, the uterus image, critical sisters, and more bring scriptures to life. Features of the story about “Justa” and her daughter (Bernice), names given to them by extracanonical tradition, Pseudo-Clementine Homilies II, puzzle readers. They wonder what to do with the text’s “dog” language and Jesus’ use of it, how to assess the woman’s ability to bear such insult.
Further questions emerge regarding interreligious respect. How might one religion justify “dogged” dis-respect toward another? Need one faith resort to negating, name-calling another in order to “commend” its own faith? What history of disdain had Israel or the Jews developed toward those who differed from them? What major revolution Jesus faced—to change his attitudes and practice before prodding the Twelve, long biased! Lessons lie dormant in such texts, waiting to shape “ministry” anew for the future.
How will Christians be prepared to meet the bright Justa whom we might “write off,” hardly notice, accept, or comprehend? What taboos need we be rid of in order to pay attention when attitude miracles present themselves? Will we repent in order to let modern Justas speak, or will we persist to crucify the Learner who sadly reports to the One God that “they know not what they do”?
Perhaps the story should be reviewed. In order to get rest, Jesus went into a house in the “outer” region of Tyre. With his reputation known, a Greek-speaking, Gentile woman sought him out on behalf of her daughter who was distressed by a “demon.” Jesus’ reply to her request that he cast it out stated that Jews were to get such ‘bread’ or ministry first. To give to Gentiles (“dogs”) what was meant for Jews (children of God) would not be fair he suggests. Accepting the imagery, the unnamed woman countered: “Even dogs eat the children’s crumbs that fall.” For this word, because of what she said, Jesus assured her that the “demon” had left her daughter. She found that fact indeed to be true on returning home.
This discussion tells Mark’s version, the shorter, therefore earlier, one according to bible scholars. Features vary in the two accounts. Mark’s story takes place in a house (whose is never clear). Matthew’s report includes disciples with more conversation, including more expression of Justa’s faith alongside Jewish disciples’ disdain. While Mark’s audience was primarily Gentile, Matthew wrote to both Jewish and Gentile Christians. To address that combination entailed more tension, due to the heritage of Jewish favor. Why the other synoptic writer, Luke, failed to incorporate this story (or anything from Mark 6:45-9:50) begs questions. Did he wish to avoid stories about strong women? Did he disapprove of the “dog” reference to Gentiles? Was he unprepared to accept or witness to Jesus’ shift to include Gentiles? Then too, might God’s plan to include people of all nations be broader than we today wish to accommodate?
Some commentary writers probe how the cure took place, how it left the child exhausted on her bed. Others seem driven to debate the crucial issue of change, of accepting people long-ostracized. That Jesus admitted the profound persistence and Wisdom of a woman desperate about her child can be tough for us to accept. Another point of departure might be the meaning of demon: just what did “possession” entail? Was an “unclean spirit” primarily a “disorder of the mind?” Other writers wish to determine just how “diminutive” or large the dogs (kunaria) referred to were, whether they were wild or domestic! As if getting such facts clear might keep Jesus’ caustic remark from being that—caustic. How unready believers can be to owning that Jesus grew in insight.
That Justa encouraged Jesus to expand the boundaries of his mission corresponds with calls today for Christians to live more inclusively. “Her persistent faith breaks through the theological boundaries of Jesus’ mission,” suggests Donald Senior.4 Alicia Craig Faxon concludes with how the Canaanite woman’s faith in Jesus transcended the boundaries that he knew:
This encounter with her may have changed his understanding of his mission completely. Through her he recognized that the traditional view of the Messiah was too narrow. By her courage, intelligence, and persistence, she enlarged the dimensions of his vision.5
These introductory paragraphs to a text and story conclude with two items: a quote from New Testament professor Sharon Ringe and Thomas John Carlisle’s poem that voices daughter (Bernice’s) thought. From Ringe:
I learned how the church has adapted the story to its ecclesiastical needs and, more generally, how we who are the insiders of the church and the privileged of society work to domesticate the gospel to our point of view and to protect the Christ who is familiar and safe from the Christ who offends us.6
At last I learned/the risk my mother took/in challenging/the foreigner/ whose word had power/to heal the mind/and heart./ I like to think/that I inherited/her spark and spunk/her skill in disputation/her shrewd sharp agile wit/to speak the winning word. /I was the one/to prompt the raconteur/to set the story straight. /I ought to know!7
“A Woman’s Dogged Faith”
Mark 7:24-30 (Mt. 15:21-28), Reading for 3
First produced at Assembly Mennonite Church/Campus, 1996
Printed in “Poiema” Western Theological Seminary
Student Council Writings, 1996; my third year of DMin study
Read during worship when I preached, 8th St. Mennonite, 2018
(To convey chaos, readers will overlap each other’s lines.)
Jesus left Genesaret
Jesus left Genesaret, to head for Tyre and Sidon
Headed for Tyre
From the Sea of Galilee headed due northwest
Toward the powerful urban center of Tyre
Tyre the center.
Conflict lo-o-med ever-larger between Jews and Gentiles.
Between Gentiles and Jews, more conflict
Were scared of Jewish aggression.
To Tyre Jesus thought he would retire.
Retire in Tyre.
Oh, to retire in Tyre (whisper)
Ah . . . to rest
How he yearned to rest.
To avoid the crowd
Teacher Jesus wanted most that no one spot him.
Find him out.
Was how he felt within his head,
his dizzy head, the torment buzzed
“Help me!” . . . “Heal my . . .!”
“Oh, that I could see!”
The crowd he fled
Intent to rest
This time a woman
Nameless woman no claim to fame
Without a name. She came
No name but with a child
Poor child possessed by demon.
A child possessed.
Two females these
Each without a name.
No name, though later lore called the mom Justa
Just – a
Just a woman from the streets of Tyre
Who cried in vain.
Cried in vain for child possessed.
This Gentile woman of the region of Tyre,
Approached Jesus when just-a-bout to rest.
She interrupted him.
She called out, shouted:
“Have mercy on me!”
“Mercy! Mercy, Son of David.”
Bowing at his feet,
Down at his feet, those aching feet.
She asked Jesus
To cast the unclean spirit from her dear child.
Cast it out!
To this he said,
“Let the children be fed first.”
Children. He meant the Jews. First the Jews
Refusing to hear, he played a riddle
Right in the middle, a subtle riddle.
Not fair, not fair! Jews first.
He must be fair to the Jews
“To take what belongs to Jews and
throw it to the dogs.” (Gentiles)
Not fair to throw
To “throw” to those unclean Gentiles
Which means to heal or offer salvation.
Cannot be done.
Nor dare Jesus’ harshness be denied.
He sided with Jewish contempt—
“dogs,” those “outside.”
To give to the dogs, those Gentiles
What is foremost for the children
Gentiles out/Jews in. Jesus’ rejection prompts Just-a
With a riddle of her own.
She created a “proverb of her own.”
She bears God’s word
Word to the one called Son
“But she said . . .”
The voiceless one, hated by righteous “Jews” . . .
She up and spoke.
Her response came ‘round,
Sound theology, plus profound.
“Yes, sir.” With you I’ll be polite. “Yes, sir.”
But even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Even the Gentiles (dogs) eat crumbs dropped
Under the table by Jews (children).”
So saying, the woman rebuffed Jesus
His view of God, too narrow
Bent by tradition; held to in fear.
Jesus’ refusal to hear
Because of who she was,
Failed in that moment to convey the
breadth of God’s inclusion.
Her mild appeal of faith,
Deep faith, inward knowing;
Her faith woke Jesus up,
To the boundary he had blessed.
How the appeal peeled layers of tradition.
The woman’s spark sparked his change.
She disputed his reason.
She outwitted his alibi.
She set the story straight.
He said to her:
Because of your shrewd wit,
Your witty words enable you to go.
Your daughter is freed, Healed.
He healed after saying that he would not.
God’s Good News
Will not be forever limited.
BIBLIOGRAPHY – (not appearing in above footnotes)
“Lost Things” Luke 15:3-32
Leader read first 2 lines in each stanza; all the 3 lines that follow]
“Lost things” invite us to see God.
For, word pictures reveal Divine forgiveness.
The shepherd searching for one of a hundred sheep depicts God.
The woman hunting for her lost coin models God.
The father welcoming back a ‘lost’ son reveals God.
Pharisees critiqued Jesus for including those whom they chose to ignore.
His trio of parables offer his critics forgiveness too.
In God’s sight, all are worthy.
In God’s sight, those who despise others need to repent.
In God’s sight, those “sure” of righteousness deserve caution.
The godlike shepherd strove to keep alert.
She or he redirected sheep that wandered.
A lamb could nibble without looking up, and drift off.
A lamb had no instinct to find the herd.
A lamb off course lacked safety, being defenseless.
The godlike woman searched, to regain her coin.
Having lost a tenth of her power at the marketplace:
She brought a lamp, to penetrate darkness.
She swept thoroughly, not halfheartedly.
She, with friends and angels, rejoiced—her fortune found.
In the third story, a family learns how God waits—to offer love.
Penitent people meet God’s welcome and inclusion.
The vagrant son learns that life with hogs degrades.
The elder son calls for justice, being loyal in form if not depth.
The patient father offers: position—a robe; power—a ring, and freedom—new shoes.
In like manner, Jesus offers new direction to the religious elite.
The choice was theirs and is ours:
To continue to disdain or exclude certain folk;
To worship God, while being self-righteous;
To see God anew through
A shepherd’s keen eye;
A woman’s intent to survive;
A father’s patient and lavish spirit.
Diary of a Woman with a Debilitating Blood Disease
Ahebwa’s Journal Excerpts – (Imagine that she lives in Uganda.)8
APRIL 20. Who will listen? I’m just Ahebwa, the woman with the strange disease. What have I done to deserve this long agony? Why was I born? For what good did I marry? Who could expect him to stay with me, in my condition? All the tears that have flowed into my cot over this wretched flow of blood could create a pool. I simply can’t endure much longer like this—drained.
MAY 11 Blood. Shades of redness. Blood—the stuff of life. But for me, death in life. Every day, as present as breath. Why not one or the other? I wonder . . . what’s worse than dis-ease? An unclean body makes it useless. Ahebwa—sociable but always held at arms’ length. Willing to work in the fields, but farmers won’t let me harvest the groundnuts or millet or sweet potatoes. My blood defiles soil,
JUNE 8 I used to think that this would quit. Dreams break into long nights, chasing the stars and with them my pain. Then I wake up and know—nothing has changed. How long? Who knows? Time matters not for Ahebwa. Day follows night; dusk precedes dawn. I hardly know which leads into the other. Twelve years of days and twelve years of nights.
After one dream, I thought that the right doctor had come. The medicine woman prescribed a new mixture. No need to chant with this one. The traditional herbs seem to have lost their power with Ahebwa. Each time that I muster the energy to contact a more distant medicine woman, I’m disappointed. And shamed . . . for thinking that a cure might be found.
JUNE 18 Last evening, when walking near the village’s main tree, I paused in the shadows and listened to the men. Word traveled about a man known to heal, with a mixture of compassion and harsh expectation. As the men sipped their chai (milk tea), little did they realize how I, Ahebwa, longed to meet that Healer. I’ll eavesdrop again . . . then weigh the risks of asking my neighbor—the one neighbor who doesn’t ignore me—for more details. This Healer may be no more than another dream.
JULY 2 How I long to go to the place of worship! But people know about Ahebwa. I don’t want to defile the sacred, but I can hardly remember the different rituals and the cowry shells. The chickens sacrificed on my behalf would make a flock! But God appears not to have heard their dying clucks. At least no healing has followed. That a flicker of hope remains kindled in my breast is a miracle, must be a Divine spark.
JULY 13 I’m unclean. Unworthy. Why should I expect anyone to greet me on the path? I walk when others will not be around. Stares used to hurt. Children’s conversations—based on what they hear from adults—no longer intrude my thoughts. How I enjoyed the nieces and nephews who bounced on my lap. But now they disperse, their faces glancing sideways in fear. Just what is friendship for Ahebwa?
JULY 29 (Early morning) What’s the noise? Half the village moves by my hut, carrying lanterns. They chatter excitedly. Maybe if I put my cot in front of the doorway, I’ll hear more . . . The Healer! Yes, that’s what they said. They’re going to see him. Rather than lie here thinking that it’s useless, I’m going. Even if I only touch his garment—a corner of his outer cloth—some power may come to me.
(Midday) I stop to eat bananas and groundnut stew. What an odd feeling I have—like inner peace. Fear has evaporated with the rising sun. A desire to just get close to the Healer spurs me on. Oh, they’re moving again. From the sounds, he must be just around the bend, near the next village.
(A little later) What a crowd! I haven’t been this close to people for years. At least my own village people won’t notice me. Now, I’m not going to delay the Healer—just touch him in passing. But I do think that this will make a difference. I’m going to be well again. Imagine!
Oh, that must be him. The child next to him seems sick; I won’t slow him down. But I must get closer. Thank goodness, he doesn’t notice me. But people do make getting next to him hard. There, if I slip between those two . . . This will make me whole again. There, I did it!
God of Israel! What relief. My hemorrhage quit. Just like that. Am I losing my mind too? What a moment! Let me get out of here and hide until I get myself pulled together.
What’s that? The Healer insists that everyone stop. “Who touched him,” he asks. Those next to him laugh. His question seems absurd, with so many people around.
But I touched him. And I experienced his power. I’m no longer the same Ahebwa. Can he tell that fact? If so, there’s probably no choice but to confess. He’s asking again. I only meant to touch. But he wants this to be more public. ‘Healer, I come with trust, yet fear deep inside. With gratitude I’ll tell my story . . .’
“Go in peace.” That’s what he concluded. With affection, he called me his daughter. Even when he knew about my blood, he didn’t think that he had been defiled. He denounced legal details that separate people.
He credited my faith. Imagine, Ahebwa’s faith! He gave me the blessing “Be free from your affliction.” Oh, to be free, to go in peace. To be whole and worthy again. What a day! How can I let others know about the Healer? Perhaps I’ll share my journal. Perhaps Ahebwa’s story will alert others to true peace.
“One Accused of Adultery” John 7:53-8:11 (a Poem)9
This account about forgiveness has caused controversy through centuries of biblical translation. Was this story part of John’s gospel or not? Not sure, we do know that Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman’s sexual activity and his condemnation of a double standard for women and men, is consistent with his broader ministry. Will the double standard continue?
Nameless, a woman without identity,
you appear, dragged by religious accusers.
Scared plus scarred, with reputation marred
you come: defenseless, an easy target for abusers.
Interrupting the Teacher—seated, early dawn
among a crowd gathered to begin a festive day;
your captors shrewd, intent to slander both you and Him
charge: “This woman . . . caught in the act. What do you say?”
There, in the Court of Women,
a pawn, with fate to be decided
by a Stranger, himself suspect for actions shocking,
toward wanton sins bold (thought by some misguided).
Those presenting you distort the truth.
Pharisees, noted for precision with the Code,
suggest stoning, the expected for such a woman,
ignoring whether anyone should share the load.
Now who would dare to think a man involved?
Adultery, as with all double standards, difficult to ban,
uniquely to be charged the “weaker sex.”
Delaying a reply, the Teacher doodled,
writing, who knows what, into the ground.
With finger deft no calligraphy created.
Then, having pondered, without gavel near to pound,
He exposes the gravity of the judicial case.
He faults them for charging without scrutiny of self—
“Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone.”
Then bending to scratch the dust, left each man to himself.
Forced by such effrontery, dismayed by turn of tide,
self-righteousness began to leave, not qualified to throw.
Beaten in their own intrigue by One prepared to pardon
lone figure: humiliated, deserted, yet destined to grow.
Discovering you were left alone, the Teacher gently
proffered: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Shamed more than deserved, you heard the freeing judgment.
Accepted, you felt redeemed, to your inner core.
Vulnerable, known for both wounds and healing—
your case dismissed. No scarlet “A” upon your breast.
But of the men, those come to do you harm,
did ever they repent? Did ever they apology request?
Mary of Magdala, “Apostle to the Apostles”
Known as one of several believers named Mary, Mary Magdalene traveled with the Jewish Jesus during his several years of ministry. Mary, presumably from a place called Magdala, was identified as a disciple, leader, and healer. Legend, not scripture, has charged her with being a penitent sinner. More will follow about male jealousy and resistance to her leadership. For Christians who honor saints, her feast day has been designated as July 22. A great deal has been written10 about Mary Magdalene due to her prominence as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection.
An account of Mary Magdalene’s early involvement after Jesus’ resurrection appears in all four Gospels.11 Luke’s post-resurrection account names Mary Magdalene, Joanna (wife of Chuza a high-ranking official in Herod’s cabinet), and Mary the mother of James as three who went to the tomb intent to attend to the body with spices and oils. While they had followed Joseph of Arimathea to “watch how the body was laid” in the tomb, they had feared repercussion from opponents of Jesus had they done the usual women’s ritual at that time. Repeatedly not believed by the disciples when told of their discovery at the tomb, Peter went to check for himself.
Mark’s account notes Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as those who met an angel at the tomb. Commissioned by the angel to tell the disciples that “Jesus goes ahead to Galilee where they should go to meet him,” they fled in fear saying nothing. In Matthew’s gospel Mary Magdalene and another Mary find that either an earthquake or angel had rolled the entry stone away. Along with fearful guards, the women are cautioned by an angel not to be afraid. Not there because already raised, Jesus could be worshiped elsewhere, they were to tell the disciples.
John’s account reports that Mary Magdalene alone arrived at the tomb. Running to tell Peter and the “beloved” (John) that “They have taken him,” she knew not where, those two men raced to find out. On looking into the tomb, John believes in resurrection and Peter notes the cloth wrappings. Staying on, Mary Magdalene is asked by a presumed gardener: “Why do you weep?” Her reply: “I know not where they’ve taken him, but if you tell me where, I’ll take him from there.” When the figure kindly addresses her “Mary,” she recognizes him and with surprise exclaims: “Rabbouni/Teacher!” Aware that she wished to greet him further, he cautioned: “Don’t hold or embrace me; I’ve not yet ascended to God. But go and tell my disciples.” She gladly witnessed to them: “I have seen the Lord!”
Gnostic gospels include accounts that were not accepted for the New Testament canon. Many were written between the late first and fourth centuries, in part to counter the Church’s becoming more institutionalized with a hierarchy of male bishops, priests, and deacons. As Luke in Acts emphasized male apostles spreading Christ’s message, Paul seems unready to credit Mary Magdalene as the first post-resurrection witness. He names Peter as the first. Whereas early generations after Christ’s death practiced more egalitarian worship patterns, by the second century the African Church Father Tertullian echoed the non-Pauline writer of I Timothy: women were not to speak in church, not to teach, baptize, or offer the eucharist as a priest. But among thriving, early second century Gnostic Christians in Egypt no such discrimination existed.
Gnostic gospels include those of Thomas, Peter, and Philip plus Pistis Sophia and the Gospel of Mary of Magdala. The Gospel of Peter is the earliest account of the Passion separate from the synoptics. Within the Gospel of Thomas Mary Magdalene’s prominent roles include disciple, visionary known also for esoteric revelations, and mediator. There, Peter is quoted: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Discussion appears of her resembling males by transcending her feminine self, by being spiritual and asexual. Jesus’ close relationship with Mary Magdalene appears in the Gospel of Philip. Noted for how she expounds Jesus’ words, disciples ask him: “Why do you love her more than all of us?” Philip is quoted by Esther DeBoer in The Mary Magdalene Cover-Up as saying: “My Master, we cannot endure this woman who gets in our way and does not let any of us speak; she talks all the time.” Writer Susan Haskins credits Peter as having said much the same to which Jesus responds: “Anyone who is inspired should not hesitate to speak.”
Within these Gnostic gospels, the longest account about Mary Magdalene appears in Pistis Sophia. It includes this statement from Jesus: “Mary, blessed one, whom I will complete in all the mysteries of the height, speak openly, your heart is more directed to the Kingdom of Heaven than all your brothers.” Chief among women disciples and the first witness to the resurrection, Mary reveals salvation knowledge, knowledge being the meaning of gnosis.12 She also admits fear of Peter because of his dislike (hate) for women. Their disputes centered on whether women could rightly prophesy and preach, an issue that Peter failed to “get.”
Even though no complete copy of the Gospel of Mary of Magdala exists, details from it follow, thanks in part to Professor Karen King’s extensive research along with Susan Haskins’s writing. Written during the early second century this Gospel disappeared for 1500 years before a single Coptic fragment, of a 5th century manuscript, was found in 1896. Two other Greek fragments appeared in the twentieth century. The Coptic fragment picks up in a discussion between the Savior (term used instead of Jesus) and disciples post-resurrection. Mary Magdalene comforts the disciples who are fearful of going out to preach to Gentiles as commanded. In response to Peter’s asking her to report details from her private exchange with Jesus, she tells of a personal vision about prophecy. Andrew expresses disbelief that the Savior could have talked with her, in that strange way. Peter objects to the idea that the Savior might have “conveyed revelation through a woman when men had been available.” To that comment from “hot-tempered” Peter, Levi responds: “You all should believe her. The Savior’s knowledge of her is completely reliable; that’s why he loved her more than us. We should be ashamed.” Again, Mary weeps. That her colleagues become jealous and angry or prove to be ignorant of truth troubles her.
So why might Mary Magdalene have been defamed, have been described with seven demons, have been charged with sexual freedoms? Not that readers of Dan Brown’s The DaVince Code or singers of Jesus Christ Superstar find reliable solutions. As Karen King states: “Authority is not to be based on whether from a man or woman. . . but on spiritual achievement. Those who oppose women’s spiritual leadership do so out of false pride, jealousy, lack of understanding, spiritual immaturity and contentiousness.”13 Haskins observes that the orthodox church never accorded Mary Magdalene due leadership, strength of vision, or comprehension of the Savior’s teaching as excelling Peter’s.
Her role of “Apostle to the Apostles” has gradually been claimed during more recent decades. What to make of the perspective that as goddesses fell victim to destruction by cults driven to monotheism so traces of nature deities gave way to a later story of “a Christian god who was slain and rose from the dead who then was found by a goddess in the garden of Gethsemane?”14 How does Gnostic importance given to Mary of Magdala speak to today’s Church, if it does?
Breneman, Janet M. “Jesus’ Friendship with Mary Magdalene,” Mission Focus, 19/1, March 1991, 1-3.
Deal, Tom. “Jesus and Mary of Magdala: Christ Model for a New Age,” Brethren Life and Thought, 36, Fall 1991, 280-83.
Pearson, Birger A. “Did Jesus Marry?” Bible Review, Spring 2005, 32-39, 47.
Schaberg, Jane. “How Mary Magdalene Became a Whore,” Bible Review. 8/5, Oct. 1992, 31-37, 51.