Kampen has reminded us that there are few texts in the gospels that can compete with Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in terms of discomfort. Mark 7:24-30 is undoubtedly one of those few. In his reluctance to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, Jesus displays an attitude that is difficult to describe as anything but racist. He even uses the unfortunate metaphor of dogs to describe this woman and her daughter, pointing to the fact that they are not a part of God’s chosen people. Now, Jesus does eventually heal the Syrophoenician’s daughter and even praises her. However, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that here Jesus acts decidedly imperfectly, despite coming out all right in the end.
I want to suggest that from this woman Jesus learns more about who he is – both of his person and his mission. This story comes at a crucial moment in Mark’s narrative. Immediately afterwards, Jesus opens a deaf man’s ears, where throughout the preceding six and a half chapters neither the disciples nor the crowds have had “ears to hear” and cannot figure out who Jesus is. Jesus then feeds the crowd of four thousand on Gentile territory, after which seven baskets (for the 70 nations) are left over. Taken along with the twelve baskets (for the twelve tribes of Israel) collected after the feeding of the five thousand on Jewish territory, Jesus seems to indicate just a few verses later (8:18-21) that this this action symbolizes the full extension of his ministry to non-Jews as well Jews. With this rapid sequence of events, it looks as though Jesus himself only came to this conviction about his mission after his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.
Reading (and pushing) Jean Vanier, Romand Coles provides a similar reading of Jesus’ footwashing in John; this act, he argues, was something Jesus first received from Mary of Bethany (John 12) and an anonymous women’s tears (Luke 7:36). For Coles, this shows that Jesus (or at least Vanier’s Jesus) is not “a self-reliant hero but a being whose ‘new life’ is found in ongoing and entangled dependencies.” In Mark 7:24-30, I believe we see another, even more pointed, instance of this. Jesus cannot even figure out his own ministry without the words of a foreign woman.
Now, this could very well call into question the generally assumed perfection of Jesus. However, I think it would be more accurate to describe this as a radical re-orientation of perfection. Even as Mark seeks to turn categories and labels on their head, he unapologetically presents Jesus as the Messiah. And so, it seems more probable to say that Jesus exhibits perfect humanity not through self-sufficiency or even a generous self-sufficiency (as those rulers who “lord it over them” (10:42) might). Rather, Jesus shows us that a “perfect” humanity is found, in part, through a vulnerable and receptive dependence on others; Jesus, to be Jesus the Messiah, needs this woman.