Every society has insiders and outsiders. Groups of people or individuals are defined by a particular characteristic, belief, ethnicity, or behavior marking them as winners and losers. If one was a Jew in Nazi Germany, for example, she was an “outsider” and branded as such by a yellow Star of David sewn into her garments. If one was a Tutsi in Rwanda in the 1990s, he would be forced to use an ID card which specified his ethnic group. In addition, his skin color was a general physical trait that was typically used to designate him an ethnic “outsider.”
But just who is inside and who is outside in particular cultures is often a matter of perspective. Many Anabaptist communities, for example, intentionally live as “outsiders” eschewing many of the modern trappings of secular culture. Being outsiders is their purposeful identity. In the button-down-shirt-world of suits and ties, tattoos and multiple piercings define one as an outsider, using body art as a means of “dressing” apart from the rest of society. It seems that the boundaries around who is in and who is out shift and change constantly.
Jesus, as presented in the gospel accounts of his life, often blurred the lines between who was inside and who was outside. Indeed, he often suggested in his teaching ministry that those deemed on the outside of the society were actually on the inside. In his “outside-in” perspective, the first would be last, and the last first. Rejecting the rules that kept the poor, the broken, the sick, the disabled, or the ethnically different person firmly on the outside, Jesus instead opened-wide his arms and extended the reach of his hospitality far beyond what would have been deemed acceptable in his day.
Yet standing in stark contrast with Jesus’s welcoming reputation is an encounter with an unnamed Syrophoenician woman. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is passing through the predominantly gentile region of Tyre and Sidon when this unnamed, gentile woman approaches him to ask for healing for her demon-possessed daughter. As a Jewish male, he is an outsider in this gentile region. Yet, he speaks to her as a Jewish insider. “It is not good to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.”(1) In Matthew’s account of this same encounter, this woman’s outsider status is highlighted in even stronger terms. She is a Canaanite woman—a member of the people group Israel was commanded to expel from the land thousands of years earlier.
We who are more familiar with a loving, welcoming Jesus are jarred by his seemingly cruel response. Matthew notes that the woman was pleading with Jesus to help her, yet “he did not answer her a word.”(2) Is this the same Jesus who told the story of the good Samaritan and who welcomed other outsiders into his care? How is it that Jesus could ignore her cries for help?
Remarkably, this non-Jewish woman is not deterred by what must have been a familiarly abrupt response from an insider. Like other great negotiators of old—Abraham, who bargained with God over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses, who bargained with God over destroying the people in the wilderness; and King Hezekiah who bargained for more years to his life—she very cleverly argues: “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Both Matthew and Mark highlight Jesus’s delight at her faithful response. In Mark, Jesus is impressed simply by what she has said; “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” In Matthew, Jesus acknowledges her amazing faith; “O woman, great is your faith!”
A casual reader or hearer of this encounter may not realize the boldness and courage of this outsider, and the gift of Jesus in giving her a public voice. A gentile woman alone with a daughter did not hold a good position in first century society. As a gentile and a woman, she was an ethnic alien invisible to the society. Her ‘outsider’ status is greatly amplified since she was without a man to represent her in the public realm. Yet, this woman stepped beyond the prescribed boundaries of insiders and outsiders to seek out Jesus for the sake of her daughter and Jesus commends her great faith and resolve.
This story of the Syrophoenician woman demonstrates that God’s promise to Abraham overflows to the outside. The Syrophoenician woman demonstrates this understanding more than some inside Jesus’s own circles. He gives her the opportunity to educate them. The blessings that come to one seemingly on the outside does not involve taking away the portion allotted to the insiders. As Peter declares in his own encounter with the gentile Cornelius, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”(3)
Beyond this ancient story, we who sometimes feel ourselves as outsiders can take heart. For here, this outsider of outsiders is the recipient of healing. Jesus brings the outsider inside, he gives the least a voice, he makes blessing overflow. And that is very good news.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See the full story in Mark 7:24-30. Matthew’s Gospel also records this event. Cf. Matthew 15:21-28.
(2) Matthew 15:23.
(3) Acts 10:34-35.