What to make of Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman?

Mark 7:24-37

First, this: I have struggled with my writing now for like many, I hardly know what to make of the scene we witness in Mark’s Gospel today. What you have here are my first thoughts on a difficult passage. I would welcome your thoughts as well.

I know the woman Jesus meets in our Gospel lesson today. I know her for I have seen the desperate, pleading look in her eyes, heard the grief-stricken yearning in her voice a hundred times.  You know her, too, this one who would travel any distance, cross over any barriers, risk any social shame to save the life of a beloved child, sibling, parent, friend. We know her well and recognizing her heart-deep struggle, is it any wonder that we are troubled by Jesus’ first response today?

Indeed, I have perused the commentaries and not a one seems able to adequately explain or ‘explain away’ Jesus’ seeming effort to dehumanize this woman and her child by comparing that suffering little one to a ‘dog…’

Oh, one might surmise that Jesus was just tired. That perhaps his retreat into the region of Tyre was meant to be just that: a retreat from the constant pressure bearing down on him from countless needy, suffering people and those with earthly authority who would seek to stand in the way of what and who he was called to be and do. Maybe Jesus’ weariness is what is heard in his seemingly instinctive response.

And so yes, maybe this is so, that in this short vignette we realize that Jesus was every bit as much actual flesh and blood and bone as he was divine. As for me, there is no piece of scripture that brings this across more clearly than this one.

So this is why I cannot help but wonder if this story is a powerful reminder to us that Jesus — and therefore God — is not static. That he was shaped and influenced by real forces all around him, born into and living in a particular time and place with all that meant. Indeed, could it be so that in the Gospels we actually bear witness to the story of one who was a ‘work in progress’ and that we are privileged to see his growing into the one who would lay down his life not just for those who came from the same place that he did but for all the rest of us as well?

For there is certainly evidence elsewhere for this understanding of who and how God is. We can travel back to the time when Abraham walked with God and argued that Sodom be spared God’s wrath. If God was open to that sort of conversation which would change God’s mind then… might this still be so? (Genesis 18:16-33)

And oh, it is so, that one of my favorite understandings of the last week of Jesus’ life was that when he came to that last meal with his followers, the image of Mary in John’s Gospel kneeling to anoint his feet stayed with him in such a way that he actually emulated her in kneeling at his disciples’ feet a few days later. (John 12:1-8, John 13:1-11) Could it be that Jesus was somehow ‘changed’ by what Mary did to and for him?

Oh, perhaps it is not comfortable for us, is it, this understanding of the Son of God somehow being changeable while he walked among us? And yet, I cannot come up with a more reasonable way to hear what is before us now. The implication of this, of course, is that if this is so, it may also be possible that our ongoing relationship with Jesus is one where there is ever and always such give and take.  For it is so, isn’t it, that our ancient understanding is that God made us in God’s own image as partners in this holy work of caring for the earth? (Genesis 1:26-30) And this being so, wouldn’t one partner have influence on the other? Might that just go both ways?

It is perhaps a risky understanding, this one. Oh, how much more comfortable it seems to believe that God is unchangeable. And yet, even with this being so, in many ways I am convinced that God does remain the same. That God is ever and always One of love and grace, of forgiveness and hope. That God does not will suffering for any of those whom God has made in God’s own image. Or for this beautiful creation which God has gifted us. And that you and I are invited into a relationship of partnership and friendship with the One who made us and set us on this earth in the first place. So could it be that while in some ways God remains the same, God is also changeable?

So it is risky, this. But in the end, perhaps it is more life-giving than the relationship that many have chosen which is in itself static, and too much top down, and in no way marked by the sort of lively conversations shared with God by the likes of Abraham and Moses and countless others since.

In the end I have to say that I am not now and never will be comfortable with the Jesus we first encounter today. As I have already said, it is hard to make sense of God’s Own Son speaking in such a degrading way to a desperate mother. And yet, we also know this from these first short verses:

  • That Jesus stepped into actual physical territories where he would not be ‘at home.’ In doing so he was automatically more accessible to those with whom he would perhaps share little other than a common humanity.
  • Though his words may have been meant to dismiss her, he did not ignore her.
  • And Jesus was not above admitting that he was outwitted in that theological exchange they share. Though not explicitly said, by granting her heart’s desire for her suffering daughter, he admits he has been bested.
  • Indeed, Jesus was open to having his mind changed. Jesus was open to being changed. He was willing to be moved.

So, my friends, I am not exactly sure how this preaches, but preach it we must for we cannot very well let Jesus’ words be spoken next Sunday without taking time to wrestle with them, with him, with our own understandings of who Jesus was and is and continues to be with us and for us.

And in the end, might it be Gospel words to all that if Jesus could be changed — if Jesus’ imagination could be expanded to understand that God’s love and grace and healing and power were meant for all people — might ours just be as well?

  • How do you understand Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman? What do you make of his singularly degrading comment and her subsequent ability to best him in the argument?
  • What message are we to take from this all too disturbing story? What words of hope are there for us to share?
  • I am suggesting that perhaps the fact that Jesus is changeable points to the fact that our relationship with Jesus is meant to be just as lively and that this is the gift of this story. What do you think?



  1. Penny Naugle says:

    I’ve been wrestling with this one too. One thought was that Jesus is also fully man as well as fully God. Is this where the change in response comes from. And as you noted there are other times when it appears God changed his mind or something close. Coupling this with the deaf mute I see ministry to the outsider as well as the restoration of community for both. Maybe there are times when we’d rather not engage in ministry but these examples may encourage us to move forward anyway. I noticed just previously that when Jesus was seen on the water his intention was to continue passed them to the other side but changed his mind when he saw how frightened the disciples were. Also he then directed them to a different port so maybe changing his mind is a bit more normative than I had thought. Also is the story an encouragement to keep pleading your hearts desire before the throne.

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks, Penny, for your thoughtful response to a challenging passage. I do think you are right that these are about the restoration of community and that these stories can be encouragement to ‘move forward’ when perhaps we would rather not!

  2. Ralph Midtlyng says:

    Thank you Janet. I have always been more “comfortable” with Jesus as fully human than fully divine. As you say so well, it is both/and not either/or. I was very renewed and inspired by the theology of Rene Gerard. This text, along with James, speaks clearly to the universal grace and love of God for all of us. I am a half time pastor, past retirement age at All Saints in Sun Valley, CA.

  3. Beth Olson says:

    Janet, I found Debie Thomas’ commentary on Journey with Jesus blog to be helpful. She fleshes out further the idea of Jesus learning and growing in understanding. Thank you for your faithfulness with your blog. I read it weekly.

  4. Jan Jones says:

    Janet, I remember an editorial by a well-known journalist (whose name I cannot remember,😄) writing about going back to his childhood home and finding that God had not changed. His faith was still there. Years later I began to question what is was that had remained the same and came to your conclusion that it was love and kindness and unfailing grace.

    Perhaps we can be challenged as Jesus was when we see someone on the street asking for help or are asked to help with one more good cause. We may ask uncomfortable questions, but we become changed. Nothing is static but God’s love which is in every molecule.

  5. Christoph says:

    Thank you, Janet. I like where you take this as well as that you don’t tie a neat bow on it at the end.
    I don’t know whether I will ever have a proper understanding of this story. Debie Thomas at Journey with Jesus speaks of Jesus’ humanity. It’s not a new take in the sense of Jesus “learning something” but I like it being connected to understanding the humanity of the Son of God and the dual nature of Christ.
    The Iona Community has a skit on the story in which they understand Jesus’ response being sarcasm, echoing not what Jesus thinks but what his disciples are thinking. This works very well and makes for a great skit/retelling. The only problem is that that it is purely speculative, though it makes for a coherent telling of the story of Jesus.
    What struck me this year is that in the epistle James forbids the very partiality that Jesus practices in the Gospel reading. This is an interesting contrast that I plan to explore/highlight.

  6. Chiming in – late as usual. ISTM that the discomfort comes from an expectation of dominant males always having to be ‘right’ if they are to remain dominant (Father Knows Best), vs. an appreciation of the way of repentance (new mindedness) as central to Jesus. ‘Repent – (meta-nous – new mind) for God’s reigning has come near’ means just that. The way is the way of repentance, not the way of always being right.

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks as always, Bill, for chiming in! I am grateful for your having put it into these words: “The way is the way of repentance, not the way of always being right.” Just perfect.

  7. Jason Smith says:

    I came to the very same conclusion on this passage before I even read your post. Remember that Mark is notorious for depicting a very human Jesus – Jesus: becomes hungry in 11:12, tired in 6:31, angry in 3:4, has pity in 1:41, is amazed in 6:6, has compassion in 6:34, loves in 10:21, has limited knowledge in 13:32 and has limited power in 6:5. But for Jesus’ humanity, how does one explain his lack of knowledge or power or any of these other human attributes? With regard to 6:5 – in the same passage in Matthew, Jesus’ choice not to work miracles is explained by the people’s lack of faith, rather than Jesus’ inability. This isn’t the Jesus we learned about in Sunday school! But it’s the Jesus we find in Mark. And I think it makes perfect sense and makes him much more relatable as a savior. Of course he got tired, and irritated. Of course he didn’t want anyone bothering him when he sought to rest. Of course his focus was on his own people. But God’s plan was greater than that, and Jesus was quick to realize and admit it when God acts through this gentile. That’s my 2 cents, at least!

  8. Dale Williams says:

    I stumbled across your blog while I was contemplating the similarities and dissimilarities between the Syro-Phoenician woman and the Woman at the Well recorded in John 4. The stories seem so different. Jesus seems hostile to the Syro-Phoenician woman. While, with the Woman at the Well, he actively seeks her out. The Syro-Phoenician woman won’t be dissuaded by Jesus but Jesus needs to persuade the Woman at the Well. There are at least some similarities between the stories and that intrigued me. Both women would be shunned by the Jews. The Samaritans were the result of inter-marriage between the occupying Assyrians and the remnant of Jews who remained in the land during the Assyrian occupation. These Jews served no purpose to the Assyrians and they never bothered to exile them. The Samaritans, became hated by the Jews upon their return, and a good Rabbi refused to enter their territory. Likewise, Josephus records that the people of Tyre and Sidon were one of the most hated enemies of the Jews. So, it is amazing the Jesus would enter either territory. I believe, he would be considered unclean for doing so. That being the case, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus had an ulterior motive for entering Tyre and Sidon. The Bible only records this one encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Tyre and Sidon. No other interactions are recorded. Did he have a pre-ordained meeting with the Syro-Phoenician woman just like the Samaritan Woman? It gets very telling in the exchange between the woman and the dogs. Matthew 15 records more detail. [Mat 15:25-26 NKJV] 25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw [it] to the little dogs.” Jesus response is so insightful because the Jews never domesticated dogs but the Syro-Phoenician people did. According to a Strong’s concordance little dog can also be interpreted as little puppy. Jesus use of this term was highly unusual for a Jew. He is now reaching out to her at a level she understands. The culture of the Syro-Phoenician. I am not sure this story is as hostile as it appears.

  9. Jeff Garrett says:

    Miss Janet, one explanation for Jesus’ treatment of the woman may be that this was a turning point for her. She was not a follower of God but was Canaanite, & Jesus tested her 3 times to see if she was serious about seeking the one true God. God used this illness to point her to His Son Jesus, and her faith was rewarded. Perhaps?

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