Syrophoenician Woman, Diogenes and Jesus
24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.[a] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
There is a story about the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes (lover of dogs) meeting the legendry leader Alexander the Great. The meeting took place when Alexander was at the peak of his fame. As per the story, Alexander went out in search of the great philosopher, and finally found him dozing in the sun. Alexander introduces himself: “I am Alexander, the great king.” Diogenes replies: “I am Diogenes, the dog.” Alexander offered to grant the philosopher anything he wished, to which Diogenes replied “Move aside then, you are blocking the sunlight.” Alexander was delighted at Diogenes’ lack of pretension, and he walks away saying to his attendants “If I had not been Alexander, I would have liked to be Diogenes.”
In today’s reading we meet a woman who barges into the house where Jesus is staying, bows down at his feet, and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. The Syrophoenician woman comes from the region saturated with the philosophy of Diogenes. According to some historians she was a member of the Syrian upper class. It is likely that she was far from poor and destitute, the woman likely possessed education and resources of some financial worth. It could be the case that she had tired the standard remedies for her daughter. But nothing worked. Now she consciously seeks an unconventional solution to her dilemma, perhaps out of desperation, but also based on her findings and reasoned examination of what is available to her.
A person of honour and wealth and wisdom, she must have been intrigued by of Jesus’ response, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” It is worth noting that in antiquity Jews didn’t keep dogs as pets. Dogs were considered scavengers; they were filthy mongrels that roamed the streets and ate whatever refuse or scraps they could find. They were considered defiled, and impure. Remember when Jesus tells the parable of "The Rich Man and Lazarus," Lazarus lays helpless at the gate, and Jesus gave us that gruesome little detail about the dogs that would come and lick his sores? Well, that’s about it in terms of the way dogs were regarded. That’s the kind of worldview from which Jesus makes his comment to the Gentile woman in this week’s Gospel reading.
On the other hand, gentiles, especially those from the region where this woman comes, did keep dogs as pets. Their dogs were familial companions that often sat at the feet of the children, the most precious members of the household. These little dogs were loved by the masters of the house, and were granted the scraps from the family table, rather than being left to dig through the garbage dumps.
The woman comes back at Jesus. Her reply has often been linked to Hipparchia, a woman who followed Diogenes’ philosophy, who boldly challenged her peers in public and bested them in verbal challenges. Her reply is impressive: ‘even the dogs,’ she says, ‘eat the crumbs that fall from the table.’ It’s a brilliant response, because it speaks to the very heart of Jesus’s boundary-breaking ministry of table fellowship. He is the rabbi who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. The one who breaks bread with sinners. The one who shows the world who God is.
The result of her determination is that her daughter is healed. On the other hand this encounter sends Jesus in the direction of drawing the inclusion circle ever wider as he travels deeper into Gentile territory to heal and feed the masses.
We, the listeners of this story, are invited to consider the bravery of this desperate mother while we also consider the humanity of Jesus as his limited worldview is transformed into humility through an honest encounter with another human being, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29).
In his conversation with a brave and faithful woman Jesus discovers, and we discover too, that it doesn’t matter where we are from. All those boundaries and barriers we make so much of: ethnicity, class, nationality, upbringing—so many barriers, so many divisions—none of them matter. What matters is the person before God.