I’m continuing to ponder Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman. Here I’m thinking through a thought, rather than presenting any sort of hypothesis: is the reader of Mark really expected to believe that Jesus wasn’t intending to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter?
I ask this because there are many readings of the passage in which the woman is said to change Jesus’ mind.
Let me unpack my ponderances…
- It’s clear that there are significant historical animosities between the Jews and the repatriated northern kingdom (2 Kings 17), but the woman is not requesting anything that would contravene Jewish law or sensibilities, is she? The reader of Mark knows that Jesus can heal at a distance, and that he is happy to heal unclean demon-possessed people in Gentile territory (Mark 5). Wouldn’t the reader expect the same thing to happen here?
- The reader of Mark has already come across numerous points at which the ministry of Jesus seems to echo the ministry of Elijah/Elisha, but on a more massive scale: the ministry of John the Baptist; being attended by animals in the wilderness; healing a man with leprosy; multiplying loaves; etc. We have been told explicitly that some people think Jesus is Elijah (6:15). Now we see that Jesus enters the territory where Elijah healed a woman’s child – a fact elsewhere explicitly acknowledged by Jesus (Luke 4). Aren’t we being set up to expect that Jesus will heal the child?
- The reader of Mark has also already seen that Jesus does not categorise ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in the way that the Pharisees do (Mark 7). And, as mentioned, we have already seen that Jesus is not put off by the (extreme) uncleanness of an unclean Gentile (Mark 5).
- Further, the reader of Mark has already become familiar with the pattern of seeing a hurdle placed in front of those who come to Jesus pleading for help, which gives them an opportunity to express bold faith (e.g. the full house; the need for the bleeding woman to go public; the death of Jairus’ daughter). So isn’t it natural for the reader of Mark to suppose that the same thing is happening here, when Jesus offers his initial response?
These things are pushing me to think that the Syrophoenician mother is not changing Jesus’ mind. So what, then, is the point of including this episode in Mark’s Gospel? I think it functions to underline the motif of Jesus as bread for the world. But I’m still thinking that through…