The Syrophoenician Womanist?

Proper 18B/Ordinary 23B/Pentecost 15
9, 2012

Isaiah 35:4-7

Psalm 125

Mark 7:25-37

“Womanist theology is a prophetic voice concerned about the well-being of the entire African American community, male and female, adults and children” – Delores Williams

Author Alice Walker

The first use of term “womanist” is usually credited to author Alice Walker, in her 1983 work In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.  Walker says that “womanist” comes from the African American folk term “womanish”, which was “usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous, or willful behavior.  Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one …” (xi).

Phoenician Woman – ancient image

While she may not have understood the term “womanist”, the Syrophoenician woman at the center of the Gospel reading this week is certainly inspiring to women whose concern is the well-being of communities of color.  In the Gospel reading, the woman finds out that Jesus is staying in the region of Tyre, comes and bows down at his feet, begging him to cast an unclean spirit out of her daughter.  The reading specifically mentions that she “was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26), letting the reading know that not only was the woman a foreigner (a Syrophoenician), but also a pagan (Phoenicians commonly worshiped the goddess Astarte).  For a woman who was a double-outsider to boldly approach and speak to a Rabbi without first being spoken to  was certainly considered “outrageous, audacious, courageous and willful” behavior.

Ancient sculptures of the goddess Astarte

Shockingly, Jesus responds by insulting the woman: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (vv.27).  Jesus is referring here to the “children” of Israel, who – he says – should have precedence over “dogs” such as the woman before him!  While this insult may be shocking to us, ancient Jews commonly referred to pagans as “dogs” due to their lack of observance of Jewish purity rituals.  They were not only considered outsiders, they were also considered ritually (and socially) unclean.  Deities such as the goddess Astarte were regarded as unclean spirits.  A Syrophoenician woman whose child was possessed by an unclean spirit would have been seen as deserving what she got for worshiping deities such as Astarte.  The Syrophoenician woman, however, responds with – what Alice Walker might call – “sass”: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (vv.28).  She takes Jesus’ insult and turns it on its head!  She is getting uppity and talking back!  This behavior was extremely daring for an unaccompanied woman, a pagan and a foreigner, and would have commonly been greeted with a back-handed slap across the face.

Jesus, however, not only refrains from punishing the woman, he rewards her for her “outrageous, audacious, courageous and willful” behavior: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (vv.29).  The woman goes home to find her child “lying on the bed, and the demon gone” (vv.30).  I think that this passage has a heartening message for women of color who daily have to be courageous and audacious on behalf of their communities and children: Don’t give up.  Keep on keepin’ on.  It also has an important message for White authority figures – particularly in the church: If Jesus was willing to have His mind changed by an audacious woman of color, you should be too.  There should be a place for women of color at all levels of the community: in the boardroom, on the City Council, and especially at the altar!  These are the women that fight every day for some of the most vulnerable members of our community – it behooves the church and the community to “be opened” (Mark 7:34) and listen to what they have to say.

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