The Syro-Phoenician Woman

Fleur looks at a modern painting of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark’s Gospel by the artist Michael Cook.

Crumbs of Love by Michael Cook. Full picture at the end of this article.

Mark’s Gospel 7: 24-30.

24 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, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And when she went home, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.

In Mark’s account Jesus is escaping the crowds and finds refuge in the mixed-race region of Tyre. Jesus has just come from a confrontation with a group of Pharisees and Sadducees sent from Jerusalem to question his teaching. They are people of tradition from the holy city of Jerusalem but their debates on the minutiae of interpretation have taken them away from the lifegiving spirit of the law, and Jesus has accused them of being hypocrites who are spiritually blind. 

In this modern painting by Michael Cook the focus is on the woman, her daughter and the dog. Unlike most depictions of this story Jesus is absent from this interpretation. This enables the story to be seen from a different angle and angles are emphasised here: the woman’s hand holding the spoon is awkward as it bends back into itself; she has to hold her daughter with her other hand whose weight is heavy as she reaches down to feed the dog; both mother and child are leaning in an arc of kindness towards the very creature the gospels despised; the table is the only fixed object in this powerful picture of shifting planes and curves.

So Jesus enters a house when a Gentile woman, a Syro-phoenician (from Roman occupied southern Syria), approaches and falls at his feet. She has come seeking a miracle for her daughter who is possessed by an unclean spirit. We are given few details about this unnamed woman, but she is definitely seen as an outsider. The woman has heard about Jesus’ powers to cast out unclean spirits. And now, she has discovered he is in her area. So much for his trying to be inconspicuous! Jesus is well-known for his teaching, preaching and miracles, for his healing people and casting out demons. He’s already cast out a legion of demons from a man in the Gerasene area in 5:1-20. So much for a bit of peace and quiet. 

Just look at the pathos and determination in her face here. Resourceful waiting and seizing a moment must be second nature to someone who is not welcome, whose tribe is condemned before she’s even opened her mouth. It has taken her whole life to survive this far so any obstacles to seeking Jesus will not stand in her way. She readily assumes a deferential position at his feet and begins to plead with him. This woman is amazingly single minded – ignoring cultural and racial differences and dismissing the normal custom of finding a man to speak on her behalf, she has gone directly to Jesus. Any parent worried sick about their child will go to extreme lengths to help them. For a mother this is quite normal. 

But as any other orthodox Jew would, Jesus first ignores her since she is not one of the ‘family’. The disciples embarrassed by her cry beg him to dismiss her. They won’t even acknowledge her. Jesus answers them by referring to his core mission to call Israel back to what it is meant to be, to convert and be a sign to the nations. The Syro-Phoenician woman hears him and continues to plead. Then Jesus responds with a common racist remark saying the food for the children of Israel is not fit for the dogs, a well-known title of prejudice and hierarchy of needs which he tones down with the use of the diminutive ‘pups’. Quick as a flash she replies, and ignoring the implied prejudice says even the pups eat up the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. (Mark 7:28) He has just disrespected her as low priority on the mission circuit yet in this one swipe he is the disrespectful one.

Did Jesus laugh at her wit or admire her wisdom? He certainly responded to the depth of her faith with full delight, contrasting here with the empty spoon and bowl. Faith is what radiates from this wonderful painting. Any mother who allows her child to feed a dog with their hard-earned food believes that life means more than the physical. That even a scrap of faith and compassion from Jesus is more than enough to heal one’s suffering. For Jesus, this extraordinary logic from the outsider, forces him to stop and think: how can he resist a desperate mother’s cry for help, wherever she has come from? She’s ahead of the game. He’s just been arguing with the very elite of his own tribe who attack his every thought, yet here, an uneducated woman has no issues with his teaching. He replies, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29). And sure enough, she went home and found her little girl lying on the bed completely healed. (Mark 7:30).

This encounter marks a turning point in Jesus’ practice and a new willingness to recognise faith wherever it arises. In so doing, a wider understanding of compassion and mission are revealed, not just for the Jewish community but for Jesus on his own spiritual journey. If an unnamed woman can challenge Jesus’ authority, then the kingdom of God has no limits.

This biblical image of the dogs eating the crumbs from under the table is used in the Anglican pre-Communion prayer of Humble Access as follows:

We do not presume to come to this your table, 
O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your abundant and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up
the crumbs under your table;
but you are the same Lord
whose character is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body,
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.  
The Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer 2019.

By Fleur Dorrell

More paintings by Michael Cook can be found here –

Twelve Mysteries: Nameless, marginal and fleeting characters from the four Gospels by the poet Rosalind O’Melia can be found here –

‘Crumbs of Love’ by Michael Cook.