From tradition to defilement to… A Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith.
Jesus, apparently, decided to take a loooong journey on foot to the area of Tyre. If you look closely at the photo below, the sea of Galilee can be seen, the border of which Jesus has been frequenting this whole time. It lies on the line between Aram and Israel. To say he entered the area of Tyre is to say he entered a land controlled by a series of city-states called Phoenicia. Tyre was the capital of one of those city states.
Phoenicia was by no means an inconsequential place. Established a little less than 3,000 years before Jesus’ time, they were known for their maritime skills and naval dominance. Their famous boats were adorned with horses heads to honor their God of the sea, thus, they were Gentiles. They were also known for their purple dye, which earned them the nickname the “Purple people” due to the worker’s skin being stained.
It is interesting to note that even so far from home, Jesus was still unable to find a place to be alone. A Greek woman, a gentile, heard he was there and apparently had heard about the healings he had been doing all over Galilee.
She had a sick daughter and leaped at an opportunity to get help. If your child had cancer or some other form of difficult illness, and you heard a person had been healing cancer patients in another country who happened to be in town… wouldn’t you go?
This next exchange has been oft discussed. Jesus answers her plea with a statement, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs.” People have claimed that Jesus was insulting her, but the translators here suggest it is not as much of an insult as previously thought. The word dogs is a reference not to wild animals but cared for small pets in the house.
This exchange still makes me uncomfortable though. Jesus is saying that this woman is less deserving than the Jewish people Jesus has been healing thus far. That the Jews get priority as the chosen people, and anyone else will come after. However, this woman cleverly turns the analogy to say that even household pets get scraps the children drop. That is, you could heal just my daughter and it wouldn’t take anything away from the deserving. Jesus rewards her cleverness by healing the woman’s daughter.
What does this imply though? Jesus likes clever, witty people? Jesus sees the Jews as more deserving of the authority and message of God? Doesn’t that stand in the face of his statement about coming to heal the sick? Is he only to heal the sick Jews then? It sets a strange president if taken at face value. Perhaps it is a discussion of timing? That God’s Kingdom and authority was not yet firmly established there because it hadn’t fully taken root in Israel yet? I honestly don’t know. What do you think?
If Jesus really felt this way, what was he doing in Phoenicia to begin with? If he wasn’t there to help people, was he there just to get away? Get some quiet time? Why? Did Jesus require rest?
Here’s a thought that could help. How does this story’s meaning change if viewed in light of the previous messages? Jesus spoke of tradition being corruptable by human desires. Maybe the tradition of Jewish superiority and this woman’s subtle desire to get around it spoke of such an understanding? Jesus spoke of defilement coming from within, was his statement a way to reveal if this woman was defiled, and her response showed him that she was clean from the inside? That at least feels like it has a grain of substance and truth to it.
Grace and Peace to you all.