The Unnamed, VIII: The Hyphenated Woman
During Epiphany and Lent Christine and I are preaching a sermon series called The Unnamed. It’s about a virtual battalion of characters in the Bible who don’t get a name but are very important to the story. This has giving Christine and I an excuse to revisit the sweep of God’s history with God’s people, from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Resurrection, including this story about a women who disturbed Jesus' peace and quiet from the Gospel of Mark:
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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” And when she went home, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.
Jesus has been working like a dog for several weeks now, preaching sermons and healing sick people, and he’s exhausted, but in order to get some well-deserved R&R he has to leave his own country to escape all the broken people who want something from him, so he decides to visit the ancient city of Tyre, today in the nation of Lebanon, about 50 miles northwest of his hometown of Nazareth on the coast of the Mediterranean.
Tyre is one of the oldest cities in the world, 5,000 years old today, already 3,000 years old when Jesus visited, and legendary for its ancient architecture, secure harbors, and exquisite coastline. Tyre was the St. Tropez of first-century Palestine.
Jesus checks into a little Airbnb on the beach to relax, but even this far out of his accustomed shipping lanes, he can’t hide from the hordes. He’s catching some rays on the beachside deck when he hears a knock at the door, tears himself away from the beach book he’s reading, and finds another supplicant begging for a miracle. “Rabbi,” she says, “help my little daughter. Please?”
Mark tells us—in the cryptic, arcane medical jargon of the first century—that the little girl has “an unclean spirit,” and who knows what that means. Maybe she was epileptic, or maybe she was autistic, or maybe she had Asperger’s Syndrome, but whatever “unclean spirit” means, her mother wants a fix. “Help my little daughter, Rabbi. Please?”
Mark tells us that she is of Syro-Phoenician origin, which means that she is a Gentile, she is an Arab, she is a foreigner, she is not Jewish, she is not among the Chosen People. She is a Stranger with a Hyphen.
Mark also tells us that she is Greek, which might refer to the language she speaks. Perhaps she addresses him in her mother tongue. Now, doubtless this woman knows that Jesus speaks Aramaic, and doubtless, living in this part of the world, she can speak Aramaic herself, but maybe she is nervous, so before she knows what she is saying she blurts out her desperate plea in the language that comes most naturally to her.
And so with a few quick strokes of his deft pen, Mark paints us a vivid picture of the huge gulf that yawns between this Jewish carpenter and this Syro-Phoenician mother. She speaks with the language of Aristotle, Alexander, and Archimedes, which might mean that she is educated and sophisticated. She lives in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Jesus on the other hand, is from rural Galilee and speaks Aramaic, the dialect of farmers and bumpkins and hicks. Her Greek is ‘like butta,’ as Mike Myers might have put it. Her Greek is as refined as Kate Middleton’s English; Jesus meanwhile sounds like Yogi Berra or Tony Soprano. In other words, she is part of the 1%, and Jesus is part of the 99%.
This woman speaks Greek, reads Sophocles and Aeschylus, worships Zeus and Aphrodite, drinks ouzo, maybe she’s seen the Parthenon. Jesus speaks Aramaic, reads Jeremiah, worships Yahweh, drinks Mogen David, he goes to the Temple in Jerusalem. “Help me,” she pleads. In Greek.
But Jesus is in a foul mood. She’s interrupted his vacation. “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he famously and rudely responds. When Jesus says ‘children,’ of course, he means ‘the Jews,’ and when he says ‘dogs,’ he means the Gentiles, the foreigners, the aliens. “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Don’t let the shocking, insulting nature of that comment be lost on you. It was not a compliment. It’s still not a compliment. “You dog!” I say to my son when I challenge him to a dollar a hole on the golf course and he collects $18 every time, just by getting lucky, every time. “You dog!” Forgive my language, but Jesus comes this close to calling her a bitch, a female dog.
But here’s where the story gets good and becomes Gospel. Look at this pushy mother’s response to Jesus’ blunt, unmannerly metaphor. She doesn’t take offense; she doesn’t walk away huffing “Well, I never...”; she doesn’t resent it; she doesn’t argue with it: she enters Jesus’ metaphor. She wrestles Jesus’ metaphor from his grip like a University of Michigan linebacker, runs the other way, and takes it home for a stolen turnover touchdown.
“Not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, you say? Aye, sir, but even the puppies under the table eat the children’s crumbs. All I need is one of your crumbs, Master. Throw me a crumb. Throw me a bone. It’ll do. C’mon, Rabbi, throw me a bone.”
And Jesus is just undone. He melts. He is abashed. He is embarrassed. He is rhetorically and theologically defeated. He instantly grants her request, and immediately her child is made well.
You know what? This is the only time in all four Gospels where anyone wins an argument with Jesus. Can you think of another time? As far as I can tell, this is it. Sure-footed, quick-witted, and almost cocky, Jesus bests every sparring partner that comes along, except this Gentile woman.
I love this story because the Gospel is heard despite, not because of, the Son of God. The word becomes Gospel on her lips, not on his. For once Jesus is the recipient, not the agent, of Good News.
It was the day Jesus met a Stranger with a Hyphen, and we learn that even Jesus pays attention to the hyphens. She was a Syro-Phoenician woman; she was a hyphenated human being, and all of us, even Jesus, pay attention to our hyphens. The hyphens tell us who we are: we are African-Americans, or Mexican-Americans, or Polish-Americans. You fill in the blank with your own heritage.
A while back The New York Times columnist Bob Herbert told the most wonderful story. You remember Bobby Thomson, right? Bobby Thomson hit “The Shot Heard Round the World” which won the National League Pennant for the New York Giants in 1951. On October 3, 1951, in the third game of a three-game playoff, the Brooklyn Dodgers are leading 4–2 in the bottom of the ninth. The Giants have runners on second and third and Bobby Thomson steps to the plate. He takes a call: strike one, and then hits Ralph Branca’s second pitch over the left-field wall for a walk-off home run to give the Giants a 5–4 win and the 1951 pennant.
Remember the old recording: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” By the way, do you know who was waiting in the on-deck circle behind Bobby Thomson—a 20-year-old rookie named Willie Mays.
The Times columnist Bob Herbert is African-American, of course, and on October 3, 1951, young Bob was listening to the Dodgers-Giants game on the radio in his father’s upholstery shop in East Orange, New Jersey. When Bobby Thomson hit The Shot Heard Round the World, Bob Herbert’s father Chester grabbed his mother Adelaide and they all started jumping up and down and dancing around the room. From that instant, Bobby Thomson became Bob Herbert’s hero.
Bobby Thomson was raised on Staten Island, but he was born in Scotland, so Bobby Thomson was a Scottish-American. He spells his name without a ‘p’.
There was another player on the 1951 Giants team whose name was Hank Thompson. Hank Thompson spelled his name with a ‘p’. Hank Thompson was Black.
But Bob Herbert got his baseball from radio, not from television. He didn’t know that Bobby Thomson was white and Hank Thompson was Black. So Bob Herbert once asked his father Chester, “Are Hank and Bobby Thom(p)son brothers?” Chester laughed and said, “No. You know how you can tell they’re not brothers?” Bob said he didn’t know. And Chester says, “Hank spells his name with a ‘p’. If they were brothers, they would spell their names the same way.” And Bob Herbert says, “It was years before I realized what a terrific thing that was to say to a kid.”
Sisters and Brothers, Brothers and Sisters, the only thing that separates us is a tiny little hyphen, a single consonant. Just a hyphen, just a ‘p’, or none.
Oh by the way, Mark never gives this woman a name. She is just one of a battalion of important but unnamed characters in the biblical story.
But one third-century preacher called her Justa, which is akin to our common name Justine, and means ‘The Just One,’ because she showed Jesus the right thing to do. And he called the troubled but eventually healed daughter ‘Berenice.’ Berenice is a Greek name, and they pronounce it Berenikei. And you can hear that just like Veronica from last week, part of her name is Nike, Greek for ‘Victory.’ Berenice, or Berenikei, is ‘The One Who Brings Victory.’ Because of her mother’s chutzpah, she wins.
Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 27 of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 470.
Bob Herbert, “A Hero Named Bobby,” The New York Times, August 23, 2010.
In a homily written by Pseudo-Clement, purported, certainly spuriously, to be from a sermon by St. Peter.
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