There are few conversations more interesting in the Gospels than the one between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. (I hope you will take a moment to read it: Mark 7:24-30) In this conversation there are theological arguments, cultural struggles and name calling. It would even seem that the Syrophoenician woman wins the argument.
The seventh chapter of Mark begins with several religious leaders from Jerusalem eating with Jesus and his disciples. The religious leaders have traveled to meet with Jesus in the area known as Galilee. Galilee is where Jesus does much of his ministry. There they have an argument about what is clean and unclean, because it seems that some of Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands, according to the “tradition of the elders.” Jesus strongly teaches that, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but that the things that come out are what defile.” This conversation was about dietary restrictions found in the Levitical law. However, it was to teach that God was most concerned about what’s in our hearts and not in our stomachs.
After this scene is finished, Mark records that Jesus leaves for the region of Tyre. This area is quite different from Galilee. Unlike Galilee, Tyre is a region that is antagonistic to the people of Israel. It is in this gentile area that Jesus encounters the Syrophoenician woman, that is to say a woman from Syria. She seeks out Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter. It seems her daughter is possessed by a demon. When she finds Jesus, he suggests that his presence is more for the people of Israel and not the gentile people. She is relentless and counters every one of Jesus arguments.
This encounter ends with Jesus expelling the demon and healing her daughter. However, the healing is not what Jesus is teaching those around him. The first six chapters of Mark show Jesus teaching, preaching, healing and ministering to only the people of Israel. In Chapter seven, Jesus begins to care for those outside of his community.
Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman were two very different people. They were from different places, they had different cultures that looked down on each other’s ethnicity, yet they were able to have a conversation. The faith of a mother who was willing to go beyond what was acceptable to heal her daughter made her encounter with Jesus possible. At the end of this conversation, Jesus placed compassion ahead of any difference.
We live in a time when we too easily place our differences above any other thing. We fail to connect with others because we only see dissimilarities. Conversations can be difficult. Looking beyond our preconceived notions is a challenge. When we choose compassion, love, and look at others as God looks at us, we realize that much of what we think is unclean is clean. We can be a blessing to one another and to our world if we will look to accept one another, have a conversation, and choose compassion.
– Rev. Keith King, Pastor of Worship