I want to dig into Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman just a bit more today. It is one of the more troubling episodes in Mark.
When this woman comes begging Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter Jesus in essence tells her she is a dog, unworthy of the gift: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.”
We have been told already that this woman is a Gentile, and the interaction with Jesus here bases his rebuff on that standing: she is not a child, a Jew; she is a Gentile dog.
First, Jesus in ch. 5 of Mark had already gone into Gentile territory to heal a demon-possessed Gentile. Such precedent makes this refusal all the more surprising.
In addition, the previous story had gone to great lengths to deconstruct Jewish notions of purity, particularly as associated with food. Elsewhere in the NT, such a distancing of the early church from food laws is associated with inclusion of Gentiles (Acts 10-11; Galatians 2).
Finally, and most importantly, when Jesus distributed bread to the children, in ch. 6, there were twelve baskets full of leftovers. The readers know, Jesus knows, the disciples should know, that even after feeding the children so that they are satisfied, there are not only crumbs on the table but more abundance than was started with.
The kingdom of God, we know, is like a seed sown that produces a crop 30, 60, or 100 fold. Or, like a loaf of bread that can feed 1,000 men with leftovers in abundance.
So is there any such thing, in the economy of the Kingdom of God, as taking from the little allotted to the children and depriving them by giving it to the dogs?
No. We the readers know that the Kingdom of God admits no such lack.
And this woman knows, too.
I note with interest that this is the only person in the Gospel who gets the best of Jesus in verbal sparring. And she does so by having eyes to see the sufficiency of the economy of the Kingdom.
This, yet another unnamed woman, not only gets the best of Jesus but also stands in marked contrast to the disciples who, for all their participation with Jesus in the ministry of the Kingdom, never in the story have eyes to see that God’s is an economy of abundance.
When they see 5,000, they initiate with Jesus: please send these people away. When Jesus sees the 4,000 he invites them to express their understanding: I don’t want to send these people away.
But no, they never understand about the loaves, but their hearts are hardened (ch. 6); having eyes they don’t see, ears they don’t hear and they do not yet understand (ch. 8).
But the Syrophoencian–the female Gentile dog–has eyes to see. And so not only in the exorcism itself but in her act of faith as well the economy of the world is turned on its head.
The woman from farthest away geographically and socially can see what those who participate intimately with the ministry cannot: the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It might look small when sown, but its plant is large enough for all the birds of the air (even Gentile birds) to find rest in its branches.