The Syrophoenician Woman

Apostles Anglican Church
Fr. John A. Roop

A Matter of Purity: A Reflection on the Syrophoenician Woman
(Mark 7:1-30 and Matthew 15:1-28)

Collect of Purity
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

St. Peter was speaking specifically of St. Paul’s letters, when he wrote this in his Second Epistle:

There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures (2 Pe 3:16b, ESV).

Amen: some parts of St. Paul’s writing and thinking are complex and challenging and even confusing. It takes careful and prolonged study of the whole of his corpus to begin to understand his vision of the victory of God in the person and work of Jesus, of how that victory is implemented in the life and work of the Church, of how Israel and the nations — the Gentiles — are made one new people in the Kingdom of God, and how their unity is a signpost pointing to the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

And, it’s not just St. Paul; the whole of Scripture is challenging, as anyone who has really read it knows. The idea that a person who has no prior knowledge of the Christian faith could take up a Bible, read it front to back, and make good sense of it does not make good sense itself. Some parts will be crystal clear, of course. But some other parts, many of them, will be as opaque as coal. This is one reason the Church insists on the importance of the public reading of Scripture. It is the communal reading and proclamation and preaching and study that provide a context in which the accumulated wisdom of the Church can unveil the true sense of the Scripture.

I mention this because we encounter a difficult and challenging passage in our Gospel reading this afternoon, one which is easily misconstrued, and one which is often twisted by those outside the church and even used by those inside the church to support their own agendas. This passage requires careful reading and a thorough understanding of Jesus’ mission. I am speaking of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who sought healing for her demon possessed daughter. Let’s hear the text again.

Mark 7:24–30 (ESV): 24 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

How does this story strike you? A desperate woman comes to Jesus, falls at his feet, and begs him to heal her daughter who is tormented by a demon. And how does Jesus respond? It seems that he rebuffs her, rudely dismisses her as a dog amidst Jewish children, as one who has no claim on him and no reason to expect a favorable answer. On the surface, that seems cold, heartless, a bit xenophobic — some might say racist: not the image of Jesus that rings most true to most of us. So, what’s going on in this confusing and challenging passage?

Context matters. Both Mark and Matthew place this encounter immediately following a dispute with the Pharisees and scribes over the nature of purity

Mark 7:1-8, 14-22 (ESV): 7 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“ ‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Purity is not determined externally: unwashed hands and cutlery, what type of food is consumed, that sort of thing. No, purity is internal, a matter of the heart. How do you recognize whether one is pure or impure? Look at what proceeds from his heart; evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander are signs of impurity. If this is the measure, then on several counts the Pharisees and scribes do not fare very well. On the purity scale, they may not be grubby, but they are at best unkempt and a bit smelly.

We know now the measure of impurity, but what of purity? What are the marks of a pure heart? Jesus doesn’t answer that implied question in so many words. Instead, he travels immediately to Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile region, an unclean place full of unclean people. And it is there that he encounters — it is there he is accosted by — a Canaanite woman, a Syrophoenician. Remember that Israel has a long history with the Canaanites, and that that history was not good. There was plenty of ancient enmity and distrust to go around, not to mention — but we must mention — that the Canaanites were almost the definition of impurity to the Jews. We see that in the disciples response to the crying of this woman for mercy: “Send her away, for she is crying out after us” (Mt 15:23b). It is not that her request is outrageous. It is simply that it is outrageous for such an impure Gentile woman to make any request at all from a Jewish rabbi.

Jesus answers her as the Pharisees and scribes, as his own disciples might have done, had they bothered to answer at all: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” (Mk 7:27). In one sense, Jesus is merely — and rightly — pointing out that his mission was not to everyone, but only to the Jews. He had come to fulfill the Covenant, the Law, and the Prophets, to bring the story of Israel to its proper conclusion, to initiate a new covenant for all people, and to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ mission was to the Jews so that through the Jews the Gospel might come to all families, languages, peoples and nations. “Let the children be fed first.”

But, in another sense, Jesus is upholding the standard Jewish notions of purity — children versus dogs — just long enough to let it crumble under the weight of the Gospel: “…it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The disciples must have been pleased with this answer; they likely expected the woman to slink away, properly chastised. Oh, but she was a good and fierce mother, determined to do all in her power to provide healing for her daughter. And probably still on her knees, probably through tears, she responds: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” (Mt 15:27). What a dense statement this is — full of meaning. First, she calls Jesus “Lord,” acknowledging his superiority and her inferiority. She embraces this demeaning slur of “dog” and acknowledges that the Jews are children and masters. And she asks not for a choice portion of food from the table; she will be satisfied with scraps and with crumbs that fall forgotten to the floor.

And now Jesus responds, not as the Pharisees and scribes would have done, not as his own disciples urged him to do, but as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire,” (Mt 15:28a).

And this is the answer — this woman, this impure, Gentile woman is the answer — to the questions left hanging in the previous encounter with the Pharisees and scribes: What of purity? What of the marks of a pure heart? Love, in this case the reckless, indefatigable love of a mother for her daughter. Humility, in this case the willingness to embrace the status of inferiority. Faith, in this case the willingness to place all her trust, all her hope, in Jesus. That is what comes from her heart. And that is what marks her out as pure before God.

So, taken together, these two stories define the notion of purity in radical contrast to the understanding of Jesus’ culture. The Pharisees, the separate one, who kept most scrupulously the Law of Moses according to the traditions of the elders were revealed as impure before God because of the filth kept housed in the recesses of their hearts. The Syrophoenician woman, the Gentile woman, who was disdained and dismissed by Jesus’ own disciples, was revealed as pure before God because of the love, humility, and faith that flowed outward from her heart.

It took generations for the Church to come to grips with this radical notion, and perhaps we’ve not done so fully even now. “Oh, yes,” the Church said, “we suppose the Gospel can be extended to the Gentiles — if we must do — but only if they first become Jews.” St. Paul begged to differ. The Gospel is for the Gentiles as Gentiles, he insisted, and for all people — all people — who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and live according to his commandments:

Romans 10:12–13 (ESV): 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Whatever else the story of the Syrophoenician woman means — and it is a rich, multivalent story — it means at least this: purity before God is a matter of the heart, a matter of love, humility, and faith. This story and this meaning form the heart of one of the most dearly loved and well-known Anglican prayers, The Prayer of Humble Access, which we say immediately before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ:

We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your abundant and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up
the crumbs under your table;
but you are the same Lord
whose character is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to earth the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body,
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Those words turn Scripture into prayer; they capture the encounter between the Syrophoenician Woman and Jesus perfectly and then offer the woman to us as a model for our Eucharistic life: humility and trust on her part, righteousness and mercy on God’s part.

Yes purity before God is a matter of the heart, a matter of love, humility, and faith. So sure, wash your hands and clean your knives and forks. But, more importantly, purify your heart. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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