DEALING WITH DIVERSITY

‘The encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman’ (Mark 7: 24-30)

2.2 TIME TRAVEL: JESUS IN HISTORY

2.2.1 Jesus’ environment: where did he live?

ASSIGNMENT. Read the text below and answer the corresponding questions.

The Bible is a centuries-old book, written in a world that is very different from ours. In order to understand a story from the Bible properly, it is important to have knowledge of the world of that era. The world in which you live always influences your thoughts and actions. Even Jesus has not been an exception. We can never understand the stories about him if we don’t know what the world he lived in was like. So, it is important to always keep the cultural context of a story in mind. The context counts!

Jesus was born around the year six BCE in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod, and grew up in Nazareth. Back then, this was a small village in Galilee. Galilee was a Jewish region in what was then Palestine (region in The Middle East).

In the story of ‘Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman’ we read that Jesus stayed in the area of the city of Tyre. At that time, Tyre was a harbour town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The city was outside the borders of Palestine. It was one of the most important cities of the small coastal state of Phoenicia.

Religious life in Tyre was mainly characterized by polytheism. The term ‘polytheist’ refers to someone who does not believe in one god, but in multiple gods. The term ‘polytheism’ therefore refers to a religion with several gods. At the time of Jesus, this was unacceptable for the Jewish people. That’s why they called Tyre “the land of the pagans”. People who did not believe in the God of the Jews were considered unclean. Jews themselves are not polytheists, but monotheists because they believe in one god (and that is Yahweh). Thus, the term ‘monotheism’ refers to a religion with one god.

ASSIGNMENT. Read the text on the previous pages and fill in the correct places.

  • 1) Jesus was born in

  • 2) Jesus grew up in

  • 3) Galilee is a region in

2.2.2 The Society of Galilee

ASSIGNMENT. Read the text about the society of Galilee, and fill in the missing words.

Jesus – religion – Jewish – monotheism - polytheism

In Galilee there were many different communities. All these communities had their own ideas about religion and the world around them. Yet the majority of the population throughout Palestine (and therefore also Galilee) was . However, there were also many people who were not Jewish. Their faith deviated from Jewish tradition, and therefore they were generally shunned by Jews and seen as ‘pagans’. They did not believe in the Jewish God, but sometimes worshipped different gods and were therefore polytheists. The term refers to a religion with several gods. Jews are not polytheists, but monotheists because they believe in one God (and that is Yahweh). So, the term refers to a religion with only one god.

In order to have a better understanding of the Bible and the life of Jesus, it is important to know that Jesus grew up, lived and preached in this Jewish context. was very important in Palestine, and therefore also in Galilee. and his environment were strongly influenced by Jewish Scripture and tradition. So, Jesus himself was Jewish. Every event, from the cradle to the grave, was dominated by the Jewish tradition.

ASSIGNMENT. Answer the questions below.

  • 1) What is the difference between monotheism and polytheism?

  • 2) Right or wrong: all the inhabitants of Galilee were Jews.

2.3 The encounter between Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman

2.3.1 A Remarkable Story From The Bible

The writings of the New Testament in the Bible tell us more about the life of Jesus, about His words and deeds. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels: the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These gospels are written based on their faith and serve to demonstrate their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. They bear witness to the evangelists’ personal faith in Jesus. The words and stories of Jesus are brought together in these writings.

Did you know that ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek word ‘euangelion’? This means ‘good news’ and refers to the good message brought by Jesus Christ.

The evangelist Mark tells in his gospel about an encounter between Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). In this story Jesus meets a Syrophoenician woman, who comes to Jesus to ask for his help. Her daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit, and she hopes that Jesus can grant her daughter salvation and deliverance. Here you will find the first part of this Biblical story:

[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.

The evangelist Mark emphasises that Jesus and his followers left Galilee and travelled to the region of Tyre. Jesus lived and preached mainly in Galilee. In Tyre, they are no longer surrounded by fellow Jews. Rather, when they leave for the areas of Tyre and Sidon, they become ‘foreigners’.

The story shows that the woman is Greek and of Syrophoenician descent. So she wasn’t Jewish. The name ‘Syrophoenician’ is a combination of ‘Syrian’ and ‘Phoenician’, and probably comes from the fact that Phoenicia was then part of the Roman province of Syria. So for Jesus and his followers she was a stranger, a ‘pagan’.

In the gospels, one often speaks of ‘demons’ or ‘unclean spirits’. The medical knowledge we have today was unknown at the time of Jesus. Therefore, diseases were often associated with the existence of demons or unclean spirits. Today we no longer speak of demons or unclean or impure spirits, but of tumours, viruses and bacteria. Also, in the culture of that time, psychological problems were attributed to negative forces or evil spirits.

[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.”

In Jesus’ time, a dog was an unclean and inferior animal.

ASSIGNMENT. What does Jesus mean by the answer:“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27)?

ASSIGNMENT. How does the woman react? What does the woman mean by her answer: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28)?

[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.

ASSIGNMENT. What attitude does Jesus take after the woman’s response? Doesn’t he want to help ‘other believers’ in need? How can this be seen as a story of depolarization?

2.3.2 Summarized interpretation of the Biblical story

Jesus’ first answer

The Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to expel the unclean spirit from the body of her daughter. Jesus’ reaction is striking, his answer sounds rather strange and dismissive: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). What does Jesus mean by this?

Jesus refers to the woman as a ‘dog’, and strongly insults her in this way. With this reference to ‘the dogs’ Jesus seems to emphasise that everyone who does not belong to the Jewish people is labelled as a pagan. A pagan is differently believing, and therefore a non-believer. This explains why Jesus initially rejects this woman and her request for help.

In addition, Jesus refers in his answer to ‘the bread’. The bread here symbolises the power Jesus gives to his followers. Jesus indicates that this bread is primarily meant for the Jewish people. What if there is not enough ‘bread’? Surely it cannot be shared with other believers? Jesus wants to be there for the Jewish people in the first place. The bread that is meant for ‘the children’ (the Jewish people) should not be fed to ‘the dogs’ (other believers).

The woman’s answer

The woman doesn’t give up. She confronts Jesus with the following answer: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).

What does the woman mean by saying this? She wants to point out to Jesus that even now there’s something for ‘the dogs’ under the table, there’s enough ‘bread’ for everyone. In fact, the woman means that the hope and salvation that Jesus brings is not only for the Jewish people. Despite the differences between the Jewish people and the pagans, the ‘bread’ is not meant only for the children of Israel.

How does Jesus react?

After the reaction of the woman, Jesus gives her the following answer: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29).

Jesus understands the woman. The woman’s strong faith in Jesus makes a great impression on Him. Even though the woman and her daughter are of pagan descent, Jesus helps the woman and her daughter. The daughter is freed from the unclean spirit thanks to the power of Jesus.

Through the encounter and the conversation with the woman, Jesus changes his mind. This is remarkable! In most gospel stories, it is Jesus who changes the perspective of the other. But in this story, it is Jesus himself who changes his mind because of the other. From that moment on, Jesus doesn’t want to be there just for the Jewish people, the children of Israel. On the contrary, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God has a universal scope and therefore applies to everyone.

It is important to frame this story in the context of that time. The gospel of Mark was written at a time when most Christians were in fact Jews, who thought that Jesus’ message was only for Jews. However, over the years, other people, ‘pagans’, also felt drawn to the faith in Jesus’ message. This caused a discussion among the first Christians. Was Jesus’ message also meant for other people, for pagans? The Jewish Christians asked themselves the following question: Was the extension of Christianity to non-Jews clean? Or was it unclean? This question seemed to be an important discussion at the time Mark was writing his gospel. The encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, a pagan, should be read in this context. The evangelist Mark makes it clear that also non-Jews belong to the Kingdom of God.

Here you can read the complete Biblical story.

‘The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith’
[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.
Mark 7:24-30 (NRSV)

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2.4 GLOSSARY

In this glossary you will find more information and an explanation of certain concepts.

Children of Israel
The term ‘children of Israel’ or the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel refers to the ‘Israelites’, to the Jewish people.

Devout
When the term ‘devout’ is used to refer to a person in a religious context, this means that it is a very religious and dedicated person. This person also demonstrates this in his thinking and acting.

Galilee
The writings of the New Testament in the Bible tell us more about the life of Jesus, about His words and deeds. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels: the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These gospels are written based on their faith and serve to demonstrate faith in Jesus as the Messiah. They bear witness to the evangelists’ personal faith in Jesus. The words and stories of Jesus are brought together in these writings.
‘Gospel’ comes from the Greek word ‘euangelion’, this literally means ‘good news’. It refers to the good message brought by Jesus Christ.

Kingdom of God
Jesus speaks in the gospels about the ‘Kingdom of God’, or the ‘proclamation of the Kingdom of God’. It is a concept by which one refers to the rule of God over all things. His Kingdom transcends earthly rule. The gospel writers want to announce the rule of God with this proclamation. There are different views on the meaning of the Kingdom of God: is the Kingdom already established on earth, or is it in the (near) future? Is it already here in part? Or is the Church an expression of this Kingdom?

Middle East
Jesus lived in the Middle East. That is why Christianity has its origins in this region. The term ‘Middle East’ refers to the countries of Southwest Asia and some parts of North Africa, such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and so on.

Monotheism
The term ‘monotheism’ refers to the belief in one god. A monotheistic religion proclaims belief in the existence of one god. Examples of monotheistic religions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are the three largest monotheistic religions.

Nazareth
Nazareth was in ancient times a small village in Galilee. Galilee was a Jewish region in what was then Palestine (region in the Middle East). Jesus was born around the year six BCE in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth.

Pagans
The devout Jews in Jesus’ time labelled all people who did not believe in the Jewish God (Yahweh) as ‘pagans’. These people were condemned by the Jews. To the devout Jews, a pagan person was someone who did not believe in Yahweh. By rejecting the God of the Jews, they were thus considered as ‘unclean’.

Palestine
At the time of Jesus, Palestine was a place in the Middle East. Jesus lived here as Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee are all in Palestine, and therefore also in the Middle East.

Phoenicia
The term ‘children of Israel’ or the ‘lost sheep’ of Israel refers to the ‘Israelites’, to the Jewish people.

Polytheism
The term ‘Polytheist’ refers to someone who does not believe in one, but in several gods. The term ‘polytheism’ therefore refers to a religion with several gods.
The Greeks and the Romans of antiquity, for example, were polytheists as they believed in different gods.

Syrophoenician
The name ‘Syrophoenician’ is a combination of ‘Syrian’ and ‘Phoenician’, and probably comes from the fact that Phoenicia was then part of the Roman province of Syria.

Tyre
In the story of ‘The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith’, we read that Jesus stayed near the city of Tyre. At that time, Tyre was a harbour town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The city was outside the borders of Palestine at that time. It was one of the most important cities of the small coastal state of Phoenicia.

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