STATUES and paintings often depict the saints in ways that seem to drain them of life, as if obedience to God requires the Christian to be timid and servile. Jesus’s interactions in Mark’s Gospel — especially his interactions with women — present a very different vision of Christian faithfulness.
Like the woman with the haemorrhage in Mark 5, and the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany in Mark 14, the Syro-Phoenician woman in this Sunday’s Gospel is commended for an act of audacious rule-breaking.
This encounter comes at a point where Jesus has “withdrawn” from Galilee after a confrontation with the Pharisees over his own disciples’ disregard for rules. The unnamed woman throws herself at Jesus’s feet in a gesture of supplication.
Unlike the earlier homage of Jairus, her solicitation is “an affront to the honour status of Jesus: no woman, and especially a Gentile unknown and unrelated to this Jew, would have dared to invade his privacy at home to seek a favour” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus).
Jesus initially rebuffs her, saying: “Let the children be fed first; for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” As Mary Healy explains, “Dogs (here literally, ‘puppies’) was a pejorative term often used by Jews to refer to Gentiles. Here the point is that, as household pets, dogs do not have the rights of children.”
Jesus’s use of the word “first”, however, suggests that the time will come, after his Passion and resurrection, when these blessings will be extended to the Gentiles (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Mark). Indeed, as we saw last week, God calls Israel to remain distinct and holy precisely because that is what will enable them to bless all nations.
Undeterred, the woman answers by pointing out that dogs “eat the children’s crumbs”. Her response is the very opposite to that of residents of Nazareth. Whereas their lack of faith means that Jesus “could do no deed of power there” (Mark 6.5), this mother’s faith opens the way to her daughter’s healing, and to that of the deaf and mute man in the second half of our reading (bringing the blessings foretold in Isaiah 35 to Gentiles as well as Jews).
As Healy observes, the mention of “bread” also links this story with the multiplication of loaves in Galilee (6.35-44), and among a Gentile crowd at 8.1-9, and “anticipates the revolutionary table fellowship of the post-resurrection Church, where Jew and Gentile would share bread at a single eucharistic table”.
The Syro-Phoenician mother exemplifies the faith commended by Isaiah in our first reading, when he says to those who are of a “fearful heart”, “Be strong, do not fear.” Throughout Mark’s Gospel, many of Jesus’s metaphors for the Kingdom of God are images of insurgency. The examples of faith which Jesus commends have this same insurgent temperament — challenging oppressive rules and unjust hierarchies of status and power, and responding to the very different Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus’s healing ministry. In fact, the Syro-Phoenician mother is the only person in Mark’s Gospel to refer to Jesus as “Lord”.
While Jesus places the most marginalised and oppressed at the heart of the Kingdom, his followers often remain enchanted by earthly wealth and status. This is clearly an issue in the churches to whom James is writing. From this Sunday’s epistle, it seems that these congregations are largely made up of poorer citizens (the rich, James reminds them, are those who “oppress you” and “drag you into court”), but they have bought into the values of the wealthy.
As St John Chrysostom observes, the rich whom James is describing are in fact worthy of pity rather than reverence: “Such people destroy themselves, not you. For while they rob you of your money, they strip themselves of God’s favour and help. For the one who bases his life on greed and gathers all the wealth of the world around him is in fact the poorest of all.”
Poverty will not unite us with Christ if we remain ensnared in the value systems of this world. James and John Chrysostom call their readers to the faith exemplified by the Syro-Phoenician woman. It is a faith that recognises in Jesus the undoing of this world’s empires, and responds to his proclamation of the Kingdom with courage and joy.