Stories of Jesus’ healing extend in multiple dimensions, including physical and spiritual depths. In these stories, we may also be witnessing Jesus’ own healing… of himself.
Is the Syrophoenician woman too aggressive? Or is she assertive, smart, and desperate?
The Syrophoenician woman . . . shows no pious reticence at all. She speaks openly when she begs Jesus to come heal her daughter and she speaks even more openly—audaciously—when he refuses. There is no good way to pretty up Jesus' words. He speaks a harsh word, insisting that his mission is to Jews and not to gentiles such as this woman and her daughter. Attempts to imagine a winsome smile on Jesus' face while he chats warmly about children and little puppies are bound to fail. Jesus speaks a harsh word, is outfoxed, and changes his mind.
It may be that Mark's gospel is unashamed to tell the story of a savior who learns as he goes along. (Did Jesus know that he was God's son before God said so at the baptism? Did he know he was the Christ before Peter told him so at Caesarea Philippi?) At any rate, by the end of this story Jesus reaches out farther than he intended to reach out—to two gentiles, to two women. Surely Mark, as a gentile, tells this story in part to remind his readers that they are included in the story of God's mercy as much as the Jews are, but it is striking here that Jesus is the reticent one and the woman sees the breadth of his mission better than he.
Jesus changes his mind because the woman opens his eyes. The deaf man speaks openly because Jesus opens his ears. Notice that here the power is all God's power. Jesus doesn't say to the man, “Open your ears. Listen up. Shape up.” He says: “Be opened”—let God do God's will. Surely the healed man who speaks plainly is a forerunner of Christians in Mark's church who are to speak plainly of what God has done for them in Jesus Christ.
Jesus' order to the onlookers to tell no one is part of the complicated device of the messianic secret in Mark's gospel. No one has fully explained all the nuances of this theme in Mark, but part of the idea seems to be that we cannot fully understand Christ's significance until we know him as crucified and risen. Those who witness his miracles get the truth but not the whole truth.
We do note, however, that Jesus has no more success dissuading the crowds than he does in dissuading the Syrophoenician woman. – David Bartlett
We hear from the prophet Isaiah that God who promises healing and comfort also commands from the people strength rather than fear. Perhaps the courage of the woman who desperately needed the crumbs from Jesus’ healing power took seriously the prophet’s admonishment to put away reticence.
These verses are part of a larger oracle in which the prophet predicts the return of his people to Zion. The hope to which Isaiah points is both a hope for persons and a hope for the world of nature. Human suffering and disability will be cancelled. But more than that, the very scarcity of nature will be overcome. Nature will be restored not only for its own sake but for the sake of the people who will now be able to travel home to Zion through the transformed desert. . . – David Bartlett
God’s promise of healing for all creation leaves us with a great challenge: to reconcile Jesus’ reluctance to heal a desperate woman, as told in Mark’s Gospel, with the blatant assertion from the writer of James: “. . . faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
This is the statement over which followers of Christ Jesus trip daily. How is faith to be measured? Can it be measured? Is the action of the believer the final measure? Is failure to act a denial of faith? What of the problem that no perfection is granted us in this life? Can we ever fulfill all of God’s commandments? And, if not, what is it that saves us? Are we not, then, thrown back on the mercy of a gracious God?
Jesus faced the Syrophoenician woman, at first, with a stern fixation about his assumed path. His encounter with her, however, opened up his proclamation to an englarged horizon. He engaged with someone outside of his calling.
And finally, we have to ask who God means to bring into the promised dominion. Are we not all included in James’s famous question, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith…?” If none of us can fulfill what is required of us, are we not all poor beggars?
David Bartlett, an ordained American Baptist minister, is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.
Homily Service 39, no. 10 (2006): 14-23.