24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
What to do with this educator’s commentary
This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’
This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.
Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.
In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.
Structure of the commentary:
Text & textual features
Characters & setting
Ideas / phrases / concepts
Questions for the teacher
Questions for the teacher
Meaning for today / challenges
Church interpretations & usage
The World Behind the Text
See general introduction to Mark.
The world of the text
Text & textual features
This text begins a series of activities where Jesus leaves Jewish territory and goes onto Gentile – therefore pagan – land. His mission there begins with the exorcising of a pagan woman’s daughter. Continuing to travel through that region, Jesus will heal a deaf man with a speech impediment and feed a Gentile crowd.
Jesus is in a house in the region of Tyre when a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician (from Roman occupied southern Syria), enters and falls at his feet. She has heard of Jesus and comes seeking a miracle for her daughter who is possessed by an unclean spirit. We are given few details about this woman: her nationality and religious beliefs identify her well enough – she is an outsider.
The woman approaches Jesus and assumes a deferential position at his feet. Mark’s description of what happens next has been the subject of much debate.
The woman is said to beg. In response, Jesus’ words are harsh and insulting: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Three points are important to note:
- The mission of the Messiah, when he came, was to focus on the Jews (named as the children by Mark) and their restoration. Those Jews would subsequently undertake the mission to the rest of the world. Jesus’ response then is consistent with mainstream Jewish thought. It is stark and offensive though, when coming from the one we call the Christ. We should not be afraid of making this clear: calling someone a dog is insulting, no matter what the basis for the comment.
- The woman pushes Jesus in a quick retort: her comment that the Jews are having the food from the table indicates that she knows of the messianic expectation – yet surely there is enough on the floor for a Gentile?
- Jesus’ reply indicates a strong move in thought: he has been pushed to think more widely about his mission. His reply, ‘for saying that….’ attributes this change directly to the woman’s actions. Recognising the woman’s great faith, Jesus tells her that the demon has left her daughter.
Characters & Setting
This story is set in the region of Tyre, in Phoenicia just north of Upper Galilee.
Galilee and Judaea, the principal Jewish areas of Palestine, were surrounded by Gentile territories.
Gentile: People who were not Jews. Collectively, it designates the nations distinct from the Jewish people. The word Gentile is an English translation of the Hebrew word goyim meaning “people, nations” and the Greek word ethne meaning “nations, people groups, people”.
The Gentile Woman: The woman is clearly identified as a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin, meaning that she was probably born in the province of Syria. She is considered an outsider because of her nationality and religious beliefs. As a woman, she had no right to approach a man on her own initiative and it would have been considered beneath the dignity of a Jewish man to engage in conversation with a Gentile woman. Whilst the setting and her posture are conventional, her request, coming from a woman is shameful.
Jesus: In Mark’s Gospel, more than any other, Jesus’ humanity is much more on show. We should not be afraid to work with this text; it does not diminish our faith to recognise that, even in his own ministry, Jesus was fully human and fully divine.
Jesus uses the term ‘dogs’ in his initial response to the request from the Gentile woman. “Dogs” was a highly insulting name; dogs were regarded as shameless and unclean. In the everyday language of the day, Jews commonly referred to Gentiles as dogs.
Jesus tells the woman that ‘the demon has left her daughter’. In the New Testament, demons are frequently also called unclean spirits or evil spirits and were thought to cause mental problems, physical illnesses, natural disasters and the like. A person thought to be “possessed” by a demon, where the demon lives inside the person, was a demoniac. The process by which demons are cast out of a person is an exorcism.
This diagnosis of possession by evil spirits referred generally to what would today be recognised as mental or nervous illness, or in some cases as epilepsy. The symptoms are often such that persons seem to be not really their normal self; in their depression they sometimes feel they are evil and cannot explain why they think and act the way they do. In Mark’s Gospel, the possession by a demon or demons is often symbolic.
Questions for the teacher:
The world in front of the text
Questions for the teacher:
Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.
Meaning for today/challenges
The story of the Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel of Mark is a significant turning point in Jesus’ ministry. In this text, we see Jesus’ mission and ministry expand to those outside of the Jewish people. Jesus’ interaction with and response to a woman on the outside challenged and radically shifted the of his ministry and, in turn, the early church’s view on who is included in “children of God”. Through his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus moves from an exclusively Jewish ministry to one that is inclusive of believing Gentiles.
The message in this story is relevant for today’s society and church as we work towards a vision of a radically inclusive society and church. The challenge for us today in our ministry as a disciple of Jesus is how do we include those who stand outside of our community, those who feel unwelcome or marginalised. Society cannot flourish and the church cannot fully accomplish the work of the gospels when parts of our community are separated from one another.
Church interpretation & usage
Pope Francis has spoken extensively on social justice issues, particular regarding the “poor.” His mission and ministry are to include and encourage rather than exclude and condemn. In a number of documents, Pope Francis has addressed issues such as the plight of refugees, homelessness, discrimination and those marginalised through poverty, injustice or economic greed. Like Jesus, he models compassion and urges us to reach out to those who are the ‘outsiders’ in our world today.
In his reflection on the Markan text and the plight of the Syrophoenician woman. Pope Francis urges up us to foster our ministry of discipleship with “concrete attitudes of charity to our neighbour.”
Mark 7:24-30 is the Gospel for Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I (Lectionary: 332).
The First Reading for the day is from Genesis 2:18-25. In this text, then second creation story, God has created man and sees that the man should not be alone and so creates woman as a partner for the man.