This was another paper I wrote for my Gospel of Mark class… But truthfully, it’s the “cliffnotes” version of a revelation that impacted me in one of my very first classes, Biblical Customs and Cultures. Understanding the depth and nuance in Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophonecian woman changed my life and the way I looked at Scripture forever, and hopefully this brief essay gives you a taste.
As his story reaches its halfway mark, John-Mark spends Chapter 7 of his Gospel forcing his readers to expand their definition of the Kingdom. Already it has been proven that the coming Kingdom is not the earthly military overthrow that the Jews expect, nor will it be “hereditary,” so to speak; they must seize their “kronos time,” or leave others to reap the harvest. To add insult to injury, the stories in Chapter 7 clearly demonstrate that the Kingdom will include all people. By touching on controversial food laws and the critical issue of clean versus unclean (vs.1-23), John-Mark unabashedly records Jesus’ outrageous revelation: The Gentiles are welcome in the Kingdom.
Nowhere else in the Gospel is this principle better demonstrated than in the story of the Syrophoenician woman who begs Jesus to heal her demonized daughter (vs. 24-30). This story is shocking, scandalous, and entirely unique from Jesus’ other healing miracles, and with good reason. By healing a Gentile woman’s daughter, Jesus is proving the shocking and scandalous reality that the Gentiles can access God’s power and love.
But this story is unique for another reason. Namely, this woman stole from Jesus.
To understand the startling truth about this story, we need to review it through the filter of Mediterranean “honor and shame” culture. To a 1st Century Jewish reader, Jesus’ exchange with the woman violated several social boundaries. The woman had no right to speak to Jesus, both because she was a Gentile and because she was a woman. Jesus had no obligation to answer; in fact, His first response to her—which was no less than a cruel insult—was right and proper within their society.
But Jesus chooses to engage with her, and what follows is a cunning game of challenge-and-response. In the Mediterranean world, every exchange of words could be seen as a challenge to honor. How one responded to the challenge determined whether one gained or lost honor. This is why Jesus answers the way He does; the woman makes a request of Him, and He puts the ball back in her court with a cunning, if not belittling, response.
But the woman does not accept her defeat and withdraw like any other self-respecting woman would. She responds in kind with a crafty answer that gives evidence to her great faith. And in so doing she accomplishes something no one else in recorded Scripture has done: She wins the game.
Jesus played the game of challenge and response often. All of His interactions with the Pharisees and teachers of the law were public challenges to honor. In all other instances recorded in Scripture, Jesus wins the game. No one, much less a woman, has gotten the “last word” against Jesus—no one except this brave, rebellious, faith-driven mother. By mastering the exchange, she not only takes honor from Jesus, but also wins healing power for her daughter. Jesus gracefully accepts defeat, praises her, and fulfills her request.
Of course, Jesus never truly lost honor, but His preeminence makes this fascinating exchange no less remarkable. This woman violated every cultural rule to demand something she had no right to—to steal from God, as it were—and her request was granted. And as the Kingdom is being opened up to the Gentiles, John-Mark is clearly admonishing his readers to have the same boldness and tenacity, coupled with progressive cultural thought, as they reach for their own salvation.