They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. Mark 7:37
Mark’s gospel account of Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman shows Jesus in a very unflattering light. No matter how one interprets Jesus’ behavior in this encounter it is problematic, whether one focuses on the “Incarnate God” aspect of Jesus’ nature or that of a divinely guided human. I think it is true that for most of us our understanding of the two natures of Jesus often results in an internal conflict. Either we need Jesus’ divinity to be predominate or we focus on his human likeness to ourselves. It seems contradictory to expect him to be both wholly human and wholly divine. The writer of the letter to the Hebrew’s tells us that Jesus was tempted like we are in every way but did not sin. But one of the defining aspects of our humanity is our tendency to sin. For we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It doesn’t seem logical that Jesus could have been truly, fully human and yet did not sin…even a little bit. Perhaps the truth of this lies somewhere in the understanding of just what constitutes a sin.
If we are honest with ourselves Jesus’ behavior with the Syrophoenician woman may fall short of sin but it wasn’t particularly nice. Here we have a glimpse of a tired, frustrated Jesus trying very hard to take some time away to rest but because of his growing notoriety, he cannot just go unnoticed. The woman hears that Jesus is there and comes seeking help for her sick daughter. The writer is intentional in letting us know that the woman is Syrophoenician. This description tells us some significant things…she is a stranger to this place….she is not Jewish…she is by all accounts an outcast who should not have been approaching a Jewish man for any reason….and yet she did.
She would have been fully aware of her social status (or lack thereof), as would Jesus. Both the culture of the Jewish people and that of the Roman oppressors were highly structured and restrictive. The social norms were such that the people at different levels of society did not mingle and did not engage with one another unless absolutely necessary. When they did there were expectations as to how and when people of higher rank were addressed. The interesting thing is that we have other accounts where Jesus paid no attention to societal expectation and engaged with people that were considered completely unacceptable….even non-Jews. Why Mark gives us this story of Jesus seeming to see and treat this woman as “other” is a puzzle.
Some have interpreted Jesus behavior as him testing the woman’s faith…but that is inconsistent with other accounts of him healing people who did not ask for it or did not voice any confession of faith. Others have suggested that he was using this as a teaching moment for those who observed it but this also does not seem consistent with Jesus’ character. Using a mother’s distress over her sick daughter as a means to educate his disciples denies her inherent dignity and essentially uses her as the means for another’s spiritual growth.
One of my priest friends in a Facebook post yesterday wrote that we should focus on the woman’s experience of Jesus’ healing of her daughter rather than trying to analyze Jesus’ behavior and that because we know that Jesus was God and God is love if we see him in any light but this we have misunderstood. While I appreciate his faith and agree that the woman’s experience is important I think we do a disservice to the humanity of Jesus if we just skip over the parts that make us uncomfortable.
The truth is we do not know why Jesus was so brusque and dismissive of the woman’s request. Was he just too exhausted to be nice? Was it some sort of automatic response to fall back on the unsettling but culturally acceptable bigotry of his people who saw themselves as “chosen” and everyone else as less? This would not have been considered sin under Jewish Law even if to most folks it is at the very least discourteous.
Jesus is still early in his ministry here and I tend to think he was still learning about who he was and what he was called to do. There are times when he isn’t quite ready for what God asks of him. We saw this first in the wedding at Cana when Jesus’ mother pushed him to miraculously make wine from water. Jesus insisted that he wasn’t ready…that his time had not come…but his mother insisted and it turns out Jesus was ready…and that it was exactly the right time for a miracle.
Just a bit later here in Mark we see Jesus trying to keep those who witnessed his healing of a deaf man from being so public with their praise and testimony. But we read that the more he ordered them the more they proclaimed it. We get this sense of Jesus’ trying hard to control this situation but because human beings are predictably uncontrollable having no success. Mark shows us a man who is not quite ready to deal with the reality of who he is and what he has been called by God to do. While this may not seem particularly divine it is certainly a very human response as was his behavior toward the Syrophoenician woman.
When she asks him to heal her daughter Jesus says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is rude no matter how one reads it. If we accept that Jesus’ was stating something he believed then we see two things…the first is that he understood his mission to be solely to the people of Israel and the second …he is very insulting to a desperate woman. But at this point, the woman reveals her depth of wisdom and her humility. When she responds “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”, she is making a powerful confession of faith…faith that Jesus is indeed divine and has the power to heal her child and that even the scraps from God’s table of mercy are enough to bring healing and wholeness to the one she loves. Jesus is so impressed with her response that he heals her daughter immediately..remotely. His power is such he does not even have to be in the same place but healed her from a distance.
I can’t help but think that perhaps Mark included this story to remind us that Jesus was indeed truly human like all of us…a human being who in a moment of exhaustion and frustration did not show his best self but instead was rude and short tempered but in the face of the woman’s grace and patience rose to the occasion and in the process learned something about himself and about God’s purpose for his life. There are no other incidents like this recorded and Jesus would eventually begin to speak in broader terms about God’s loving intentions for humanity.
I am a big fan of science fiction and in the Matrix movies from several years ago, there is a scene early on when Neo…the Christ figure…is asked a question by one of Morpheus’ crewmembers. Cypher, who later turns out to be a traitor, asks Neo….”So, did he tell you why he did it? Why you’re here? Neo nods. Cypher goes on…”You’re here to save the world. What do you say to that?” At the point in his ministry when Jesus met the Syrophoenician woman, I am not sure he was ready or able to face the implications of the fact that he had been sent to save the world…to rescue humanity from itself.
I think if we are truthful most of us would admit that we are not really comfortable with totally human Jesus. The implication is that if Jesus is too much like us at some point God is going to expect us to be more like Jesus. To that, I say….”yeah”. We have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and have arisen as new creatures…Christ-like creatures given the mission to carry the love of God into the world. We don’t get to use the tired old excuse that “I’m not Jesus” thinking somehow that makes it acceptable for us to live into our worst inclinations.
We are to strive for holiness of life, which is only possible if we let love rule our hearts and our minds prompting us to act in ways that are yes…like Jesus. Like my friend, Father Chris said…Jesus is God and God is love so where Jesus is love is. I would like to expand that a little to include us…we are the children of God, created by love to be love in the world. We are the brothers and sisters of Jesus and the disciples of Christ…reborn in the waters of baptism…raised to be the conduits of God’s love. God became what we are that we might become what he his. Let us go forth and be love.