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The Syro-Phoenician Woman: A Covenant of Risk

September 6, 2009

Bev Moana Hall-Smith

Pentecost 14     Mark 7:24-30

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


She has no name; she is neither wife of a man nor mother of a son. She has a daughter with an unspeakable disease. She is Greek–racially and linguistically inferior and despised by Jews. The woman is described as Syro-Phoenician Woman. Two words that tell us she is marginalized, she is an outsider; she does not belong.


To you my sisters and brothers in Christ…kia ora mai tatou… it is good to be here in St Matthew-in-the-City. I am among you today as one with you, not only because of our shared whakapapa/genealogy in Christ but by one whose life has been immeasurably enriched by the many women in my life and the women from within these sacred texts. The story before us is a woman’s story, and, my papa told me once, if women stories are not told, the depths of women’s souls will not be known. So this morning I invite us all to enter into a space of a “woman who does not belong” and to look at this passage through the experience of the “Outsider”.


This morning I am preaching Mark’s story with a spirit of boldness, the one I assume the woman had when she encountered Jesus on land that once belonged to her tupuna/ancestors. But I am hoping we can re-claim this text and rescue it from its patriarchal influence, marginalized, genderized and misunderstood rhetoric. However I am conscious that I am also an indigenous woman, living in a post-colonial setting. And, it is only by listening to the voice of the “Outsider” in the text, the one who has suffered, the unjust invasion and oppression that I can construct a liberating story.


In 1840 in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, two peoples from two different worlds; Maori and Pakeha came together and signed a treaty of risk, of promise, of hope and faith. In today’s narrative over 2000 years ago, in the district of Tyre and Sidon, two people from two different faiths, also entered a covenant of uncertainty – a covenant of faith - Jew and Gentile. 


Like the Syro-Phoenician Woman; I too, am caught in a space of in-between-ness" a person straddling two cultures, Maori and Pakeha. It is an association that in many ways connects me to both the colonized and the colonizer. So when I read the text I hear the voices of my tupuna/ancestors the colonized who constantly reminded me about the generations of Pakeha/Europeans who handed them exploitation, poverty, diseases, inequality, searing bullets and a foreign text (the Bible). Then I remember my grandmother Maryanne Edmonds. She was of English ancestry and had strong family links to the early missionaries of the CMS (Church Missionary Society), who traveled across the seas with faith, hope and love to bring the gospel, the good news to the Gentiles in Aotearoa, New Zealand in the early 19th century.


On Sunday, Christmas Day, 1814, the gospel arrived in the Bay of Islands. The Church mission to New Zealand represented a Christ figure that had absolute and universal authority who commissioned its missionaries to teach the new nation, the Gentiles to obey what was commanded of it.


The Syro-Phoenician Woman meets Jesus as an equal in her tenacity to be true to her mission, as much as Jesus feels the need to be true to his mission to the covenant’s community. Because of her tenacity, her commitment to her daughter’s healing and her ability to use the “power of the weak” in a positive and life-giving manner, she also becomes the catalyst for moving Jesus to acknowledge his ministry to the Gentile people. 


I am listening to the Syro-Phoenician woman’s cry. I hear her pleading for justice and fairness. It is a voice from the back asking for mercy, for equality, for compensation. It is a voice representative of indigenous people who can only survive as a colonized mind. But this woman does not remain silent instead she crosses the border not to worship the dispossessor but to demand compensation. She is actually fighting back against the oppressor by disrupting and invading the geographical space from which she has been displaced. She refuses to be dominated; she is desperate and wants her daughter healed.


Yes this is a powerful story of an unholy alliance, a Syro-Phoenician Woman and a Jewish man. A Greek woman comes into a public place and asks what a Jew can do for her that her culture disallows. In the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician Woman. Jesus is challenged. She has positioned herself in a male space kanohi to kanohi/face to face with a Jewish man. She enters Jesus’ personal space. And, she demands the right to be treated as a human being, not a subordinate creature and definitely not a dog. I hold that the Syro-Phoenician woman is not a humble dog begging for crumbs, she is a dispossessed woman who has awoken from her position as oppressed and is coming to confront the empire and demand her right to be treated as a human being.


Here is a woman who has something to give to Jesus by enabling him to see his role in a different way. Daring and self-assertive, it was she who opened up the relationship and enabled him to act in a new way. Her gift was not submission or obedience. Rather it was the gift of the sharp insight of the “Outsider” the “Other”. She breaks the boundaries of ethnicity, of the empire, of gender, of culture and speaks for her daughter, the one who cannot speak. She cannot and does not respect either human boundaries or divine boundaries that go against the human value of life. The crux of the story lies in what each of the main characters brings to it. The woman has a need – a desperate need to have her daughter healed. Jesus had a mission to heal, to restore, to forgive. Two people who recognize they have more in common than they realized. They form a covenant – a treaty with each other. Both partners have taken a very high risk.


I love the Syro-Phoenician Woman - she sits in the grand old city of Lahore holding her baby girl who will one day be a victim of sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.


I love the Syro-Phoenician Woman - she is the Black African woman who is a survivor of colonialism, and now lives in the deep shadow of death – watching helplessly as her daughter shrivels while the HIV/AIDs virus gnaws at her.


I love the Syro-Phoenician Woman - she is the teenage Cambodian girl who sells her body to pay for food, so her starving malnourished infant brother will not die


I love the Syro-Phoenecian Woman – she breaks the boundaries of ethnicity, gender and old certainties. She speaks for those who cannot speak, for the one who cannot move, for the one who has not strength to fight back.


Two thousand years ago, Jesus gives the Syro-Phoenician Woman space to show us the power of justice. He gives her love to show us how to reclaim humanity and dignity. In a new relationship, a covenant of understanding these treaty partners can sit down and break bread.


The story today is a challenge not just to those with whom we disagree, but to ourselves as well. It is time my treaty partner, my friends, my sisters in Christ to reassess ourselves. We know in our beloved Church there are pockets of marginalization, sufferings and injustice. We know we have been called by God to speak out against injustice. We too like the Syro-Phoenician Woman can stand out there in the open space and daily commit to creating Church where men and women can all sit at the table as equals with faith and confidence in the Risen Christ.

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