In the selection from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, that is provided by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 7:24–37), we see encounters that Jesus has with two different people. The first is a woman who comes to Jesus, begging for his help (7:25–26). The second is a man who is brought to Jesus by some people who beg for him to help (7:32). The woman has a daughter who is gripped by “an unclean spirit” (7:25); the man is deaf and suffering from a speech impediment (7:32).
The response of Jesus is quite different in each scene. To the woman, he is curtly dismissive, inferring that she is but a dog under the table, begging for scraps (7:27). He appears not to want to engage with her. To the man, Jesus is immediately attentive; indeed, the actions he performs reflect the typical acts of a healer—he “put his fingers into his ears, spat, touched his tongue, and sighed” (7:33–34).
On touching and spitting during a healing, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/19/in-the-most-unlikely-way-touching-the-untouchable-john-9/
The second encounter leads swiftly to resolution; the man can immediately hear and speak (7:35). The amazement of the crowd that had witnessed the change in the man leads them to bear zealous witness to Jesus to anyone who will listen (7:36–37). It is a triumphant ending to a remarkable encounter.
Not so with the woman who had come, begging Jesus to cast the demon out of his daughter (7:26). The disdain expressed by Jesus towards the woman does not end the scene. On the contrary: it intensifies the interaction. The woman responds swiftly and courageously, pushing back against Jesus: “let the children be fed first” (7:28). She will not let him get away with such a demeaning remark!
The scene ends with Jesus admitting that the woman had bested him in this public interchange: “for this statement you may go your way” (7:29). Implicit in his admission of defeat is the recognition that he had overstepped the boundaries.
There’s a fine consideration of this encounter in a book by James McGrath which has recently been published. McGrath considers the many and varied ways that Jesus learnt from women during his life, including this striking scene. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/04/jesus-growing-learning-a-review-of-what-jesus-learned-from-women/
In her response to Jesus (“even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”, 7:28), the woman picks up on the language used by Jesus. The term “dog” was deliberately provocative, even demeaning. Some interpreters have wanted to claim that “dog” was a typical Jewish slander for Gentiles—but there is actually no evidence supporting this specific claim. Nevertheless, in general, we can sense that the words of Jesus would not have been heard by the woman as being very encouraging or supportive.
What we do see in the words of Jesus is a glimpse into the character of Jesus. He reflects his Jewish heritage and culture. His reference to “children” is widely taken to refer to his own people, the people of Israel. They saw themselves as the children of God (see Exod 3:10–11; 1 Kings 6:13; Ezra 3:1; Isa 45:11; Jer 32:30–32; Hos 1:10–11; Luke 1:16; Acts 7:23; 9:15). The contrast between “the children” at the table and “the dogs” underneath is clear. If Jesus is one of the children, eating at the table, then the woman is the dog under the table, begging. The inference is clear.
The matter of territory is important in these two particular stories. One is set in the region of Tyre (7:24), which is to the north-west of the Sea of Galilee, and just outside of Jewish territory. The other is set in the Decapolis (7:31), a predominantly Gentile region across on the eastern side of the River Jordan. Both scenes clearly bring Jesus into Gentile territory.
Earlier on, Jesus left Jewish territory by crossing to “the other side” on the east of the Sea of Galilee (4:35, 5:1). He returns to Israel by boat (5:21) before once again heading east to “the other side” (6:45), not too long before these two incidents are narrated. (He returns to Jewish territory once more at 8:13).
Interestingly, while he is in Jewish territory, after the first return crossing of the lake, Jesus feeds a crowd of more than 5,000 people (6:30–44). The account of this miracle has a strong Jewish flavour: there are allusions to the Old Testament, such as how the Lord shepherds and feeds his people in the desert (see Psalm 78:18–25 and Psalm 23 — note the “green grass”). The baskets used are kophinoi, small Jewish baskets. The relevant numbers are 5 (as in the books of the Pentateuch) and 12 (Tribes of Israel).
When he heads over to “the other side”, Gentile territory, Jesus feeds a crowd of “about four thousand people” (8:1–10). In this story, the flavour is quite different: the Old Testament allusions are missing, the baskets (spuridas) are non-Jewish, and the numbers are 4 (signifying, in Jewish thought, the four corners of the world) and 7 (thought to signifying all the nations).
In both scenes there are also strong eucharistic allusions, with Jesus taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and giving it to his disciples (6:41; 8:6). The pattern replicates his words and actions at the Last Supper (14:22). Is the symbolism significant? With eucharistic overtones, Jesus has fed both Jews and Gentiles, teaching by his words and actions that there are no food boundaries between Jews and Gentiles—precisely the point made in a debate located right in the centre between these two scenes, at 7:19.
Linked with the matter of territory, so also the matter of nationality of the people involved is important in these two scenes in Mark 7. In each story, Jesus encounters a person who is unclean: a Gentile woman who has been in contact with her daughter, who is possessed by a demon; and a Gentile man who is physically disabled in speech and hearing.
The woman had been born a Syrophoenician; she is clearly a Gentile (7:26). Matthew, in reworking this story, actually makes her a Canaanite (Matt 15:22), a member of the race native to the area long before the Hebrews lay claim to the land. Most certainly, she is not a Jew.
Contact with such people would make a person unclean and thus alienated from the holy people of God. Jesus is pushing the boundaries of his faith, deliberately engaging with people on the edge (or beyond) in territory which is outside the realms in which the rituals of purity and holiness apply—the land of Israel.
This is important when we consider how the story of the Syrophoenician woman was received and retold in later Christian tradition. Although anonymous in both passages where she appears in scripture (like so many women in the patriarchal world of the day), she is gifted with a name—Justa—in the same way that the unnamed woman of Samaria who encountered Jesus (in John 4) is gifted with a name by later Christian writers. (She gains the name Photini—and she also becomes a saint; see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/.)
Not only is the Syrophoenician-Phoenician woman named, but in later Christian writing, she actually converts. In the Clementine Homilies, a third century work, the story of the encounter between Jesus as Justa, as she is named, is retold, clarified, and expanded in Homily II, Chapter XIX. Jesus says to her, “It is not lawful to heal the Gentiles, who are like to dogs on account of their using various meats and practices, while the table in the kingdom has been given to the sons of Israel.”
The woman obtains healing for her daughter, not through her words back to Jesus (as in Mark 7:28), but by her actions: “hearing this, and begging to partake like a dog of the crumbs that fall from this table, having changed what she was, by living like the sons of the kingdom”. The women becomes a proselyte, changing from a Gentile to one of “the sons of the kingdom”.
Does this mean she became a follower of Jesus? The phrase “the sons of the kingdom” is found twice on the lips of Jesus, both times in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 8:12; 13:38). After healing the servant of a centurion in Capernaum (8:5–13), Jesus teaches that “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness”. Here, the phrase refers to Jews who do not believe in him. In his explanation of the parable of the weeds (13:37–43), Jesus declares that “the field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom”, whilst “the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil” (13:38–39). Here, the phrase describes Jews who accept the message of Jesus.
Does the description of the change undergone by Justa in Homily II indicate that she had converted to Judaism, or to Christianity? The former option would completely undermine the impact of the Gospel narratives, in which, as we have seen, her Gentile status is critical to the narrative. But the Homily is resolute, providing this clear explanation: “For she being a Gentile, and remaining in the same course of life, He would not have healed had she remained a Gentile, on account of its not being lawful to heal her as a Gentile.” So she had no choice. She had to convert. Jesus would not dare to heal a Gentile!
Ironically, this later patristic assertion that the woman converted undermines the very testimony of the Markan account. It is for her saying—not her faith—that Jesus commends her (7:29) and heals her daughter. (This is in contrast to the version told by Matthew, where Jesus explicitly commends her for her faith; see Matt 15:28).
There is a further reference to Justa through her daughter, who lived in “Tyre of Phoenicia” and was familiar with Peter and other followers of Jesus—suggesting a conversion to Christianity. Later in the Clementine Homilies, in Homily III, Chapter LXXIII, Clement, Aquila, and Nicetas are instructed by Peter to travel to Tyre and stay in the household of “Bernice the Canaanite, the daughter of Justa”.
Then, in Homily IV, Chapter I, we read that the same three believers arrived in Tyre and lodged with “Bernice, the daughter of Justa the Canaanitess”, who lavished hospitality on them for some time. “She received us most joyfully; and striving with much honour towards me, and with affection towards Aquila and Nicetas, and speaking freely as a friend, through joy she treated us courteously, and hospitably urged us to take bodily refreshment”, writes Clement.
Bernice had certainly learned from her mother Justa the importance of providing generous, welcoming hospitality, with good food on the table, ensuring that her guests had no need to beg for the scraps. Her encounter with Jesus left a lasting impression on Justa.
The front image is by Peter Gorman, Exorcising the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter; sauce-crayon on paper; 1990, еsize:36х50, from https://www.erarta.com/en/museum/collection/works/detail/G081009103/
The images above have been taken from http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2014/08/ilustrating-miracles-canaanite-woman.html
My thanks to Elizabeth Raine, with whom I have had many discussions about this woman and the way she is portrayed in the two Gospel accounts.