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Is being faithful more about maintaining tradition or openness to change? That’s what we talked about last week. In this week’s continuing read of Mark we encounter a wildly difficult story; one that is completely unique in the Second Testament. Jesus seems to be racist, [curious blog post on Jesus as not color-blind] rejecting the woman entreating him for help, who is known only by her race and need.
In the previous story Jesus was verbally wrestling with the pharsisees about being a good Jew, being clean versus unclean, righteous or polluted by Gentile (non-Jewish) things and people. He has traveled with his disciples from Jewish lands to the Gentile land of Tyre and its environs. This is the first time that he has returned to Gentile lands since being asked to leave by the people of the Deacapolis after exorcising the Gerasesne Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). Tyre was the main urban center near Galilee, to which the majority of the agricultural production of Galilee went while the Jewish peasants often went hungry.
It’s in this setting of political imperialism, racial superiority and economic oppression that this foreign born woman entreats Jesus for help. The text insists upon her ethnicity. She is not necessarily Greek, but is definitely Gentile, syrophoenician: most likely of Phoenecian descent from around the area of what we now call Syria. She’s not an immigrant – remember Jesus is the one out of his element. And she is still able to recognize the power, authority and saving kindness of Jesus who she address as Lord (kryie in Greek, which can mean “sir” or “lord”). Is she simply being respectful, or does she recognize Jesus as more than just a wise man?
Curiously Jesus seems to reject her request. He’s enthocentric, seemingly racist. God’s mission, for which he came, is first and foremost for the Jews. They alone have a privileged place in God’s plan of salvation. In this world the Jews seem to come last, but in what God is doing they’ll be the first. But the woman doesn’t acquiesce. She doesn’t rant and criticize Jesus for his seemingly “un-politcal correctness.” Rather she continues to plead her case.
We miss the sous-entendre of the text because in our canine-loving society dogs are generally well-loved, thought of as cute and desireable; members of a loving master-dog relationship. But the OT or Jewish tradition generally things negatively about dogs. They’re the wild, scavenger sort of dogs who lived outside of cities and ate carrion. They’re the opposite of our current domesticated parts of a family. And to call someone a dog is an insult, one tainted with ethnic undertones, pointing to the necessity of separation to avoid pollution and being tainted. (for examples of this see 1 Samuel 17:43 and Isaiah 56:10-11, Revelations 22:15 & Exodus 22:31)
The persistence of this foreign woman, who comes self-abased on her knees our of respect to Jesus, pays off . “She accomplishes her rhetorical coup by entering Jesus’ metaphor, taking up the canine image that he has used agist her and subtly shifting it to her own advantage.”* She takes Jesus’ word and bases her plea upon it. She transforms the “street” dog of the metaphor into a domestic dog residing inside the house. She seems – she alone in the New Testament – to convince and convict Jesus to change his mind, to acquiese to her request, to win an argument with Jesus. Things don’t seem to go as planned, or according to the expected plan.
Questions for Going Deeper:
*(Quote from Joel Markus in Mark. The Anchor Bible, p. 470)