There’s no way around it. I am a pastor’s wife. (I suppose I might also say that I have a pastor husband, but either way, my life is becoming deeply intertwined with the church). We have moved from the big city to a small town, to be an integral part of the life of the church. I’ve never lived in a small town. I’ve never been a pastor’s wife in this way. I am finding myself drawn more deeply toward spirituality in general, and Christianity in particular, in this new life phase. (If this seems obvious of a pastor’s wife, read early blog posts and note that I’ve had a long period of deconstruction of faith and have been to many a locale on the theological map). Christianity is calling me, perhaps necessarily (what can one do in a small town besides attend and participate in the life of your husband’s church?); perhaps because it is, itself, compelling.
The story of the Syrophoenician, or Canannite, woman is calling to me in particular. Coincidentally, Kevin preached on this very passage (Mark 7:24-30) the same morning I encountered it in the memoir I am reading. My mind continues to mull over it days later. In the story, the woman begs Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter to heal the child. Jesus is not from the same social group as this woman. His people conquered her people (the Canaanites) long, long ago, and they still look down on the Syrophoenicians with disgust. Jesus – son of God, right? – goes so far as to call this begging woman a “dog.” You filthy, disgusting, scavenging creature. Try to allow yourself to ponder that, Christians. It’s right there in the Bible. The woman is undeterred, however. “Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs,” she retorts. Andrea Lingle points out, “The Canaanite woman claimed her place at the table or under it.” And Jesus is moved by this. The woman’s child is healed by her faith.
Jesus is moved by the woman’s faith. Jesus actually moves his position, his beliefs, because of this woman who refused to back down and be seen as undeserving of the graces and healing he had to offer. Christians who need to see Jesus as always, only fully divine, never saying or doing anything questionable, will see this differently. They likely see Jesus as purposely testing the woman to get her to demonstrate her faith. They might downplay the fact that Jesus actually gave this woman a terrible insult. To me, this seems to be a case of making the story fit the pre-existing theology.
But let’s not sugarcoat things. Let the text speak. If we read the story and interpret it based on the context and what it actually seems to be saying – not interpreting it to try and squeeze a particular meaning out of it – Jesus seems to be prejudiced against this woman initially, but is moved by her insistence that she, too, belongs in the realm of grace. It seems that Jesus, a Jewish teacher, believed initially that he was here to minister to the Jews. He is here for the children of Israel. And then the beliefs he thought were certain shift. This woman will settle for crumbs, but she will not settle for less than that. And then Jesus’ eyes are opened and he sees that she too belongs. She receives full healing for her daughter because of her faithful insistence that healing is for her, for them, for everyone.
It is a significant divide we walk here. I am well aware of that. I acknowledge there are multiple ways to interpret this story. You may disagree with how I read it. It is an interpretation that is compelling to me.
If Jesus is only, fully divine, then he’s either “just testing” her, or he’s not really insulting her, or God thinks it’s okay to insult people like that. A solely divine Jesus would not need to be moved by this woman to give justice to all, would he?
A Jesus who is, who needs to be, moved by others is a Jesus who is also fully human. Catch your theological breath and just play with ideas here. As my pastor husband quoted in his sermon, Karl Barth says we need not try to reconcile two beliefs seemingly at odds to try and make one cohesive belief system. We can just hold them both up together and let the rest be a mystery. Jesus Christ, divine. Jesus Christ, fully human. Jesus, God’s agent, divine, full of mercy and grace. Jesus, human, forgetting sometimes that all meant all. Jesus discovering through an encounter with the “other” that he is here not just for some – for his own people – but to heal and reconcile the whole world together.
I find this to be deeply moving. I generally do not feel full of grace, though I believe grace profoundly belongs to all. I go to the sheriff’s office to get fingerprinted so I can minister and be a counselor to those who are hurting. A man walks in and willingly cuts in front of me and another woman who have been waiting for a ridiculously long time in an empty waiting area so he can get fingerprinted for his concealed carry permit. He reinforces stereotypes I have of people like him. He feels entitled to get what he wants despite the needs or rights of others, and he does not even know it. And I confess: I have some hate for him in my heart.
But I know Jesus’s gospel isn’t just for people like me, the kind do-gooders of the world (who still have secret hate in their hearts). His gospel is for gun-toting Make America Great Again hats, for bleeding heart liberals, for desperate immigrants crossing borders and crossing deserts under cover of night, for families with loved ones killed by illegal immigrant gang members. His gospel of reconciliation and grace is for Jews, Canaanites, and even Romans. His gospel is for Israel, Native Americans, and even the United States. And in this story of the Canaanite / Syrophoenician woman, I see Jesus making the profound discovery of this as well. Perhaps there is hope for all of us.