Monday, March 21, 2011

Mark 7:24-30: The Syro-Phoenician Woman, Social Boundaries, Evangelicals, and Latin American Immigration

The account in Mark 7:24-30 begins with Jesus arriving in Tyre and entering a house with the desire to have his presence remain unknown. Without specifying the amount of time that had passed since Jesus arrived, the story teller writes, “as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet.” We discover that this woman, who began to beg Jesus to heal her daughter by driving out the demon that was possessing her, was a Greek born Syro-Phoenician.

The social and theological import of this encounter is grasped only when the multiple social boundaries in place during this socio-historical location that get crossed during this meeting are illuminated. Commenting on the marginalized space this woman inhabited during this time period, Jim Perkinson notes, “She is, perhaps more than almost any other character in Mark, Jesus' "other"—not only geographically, but sexually, racially and religiously, "on the outside." By approaching Jesus in the manner she did, the Syro-Phoenician woman was crossing these socially constructed boundaries that were intended to divide, subverting them, and challenging the socio-political status quo that they maintained.

After the Syro-Phoenician woman “begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter[,]” Jesus responded--in a manner that appears to be informed by the socially constructed boundaries this woman is challenging by her action--by saying, “First let the children eat all they want...for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Regardless of the exact reason why Jesus used this term, the importance of this statement is how it reveals Jesus’ inability to see this woman as a part of his ministry and mission.

It is at this point in the story that the woman’s relentlessness and quick wit move the story forward and deeper. The Syro-Phoenician woman’s profound response to Jesus was, “Yes, Lord...but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus responded astonishingly by claiming that as a result of her reply, he casted the demon out of her daughter! By crossing the socially constructed boundaries that were a part of the established order, and by verbally challenging Jesus’ understanding of his ministry, the Syro-Phoenician woman became the catalyst for Jesus to see another dimension of his divine mission.

How are we to understand and appropriate this story in light of the socially constructed boundaries that are being crossed by Latin Americans migrating into the United States today, namely the national, racial, and socioeconomic boundaries? First, this story must provoke majority culture Christians to examine their own socially constructed boundaries that prevent them from seeing Latin American migrants as a part of their ministry. Like Jesus when he first encountered the Syro-Phoenician woman, it is these social boundaries that cause majority culture Christians to view Latin American migrants as outsiders, and thus, unable to see their presence as making a claim on their life and participation in God’s mission. These boundaries must first be exposed in order to subsequently be transcended.

Second, and the most critical aspect of this reading in order to understand and appropriate this story today, is the way in which the life of the Syro-Phenician woman was able to help Jesus transcend these social boundaries, lead Jesus to see a deeper dimension of God’s mission, and thus, to enact a deeper dimension of his own ministry. The lives of Latin American migrants in the U.S. today are crossing the socially constructed and ideological boundaries of majority culture evangelicals, and as a result, are confronting them as outsiders. Dalit Feminist, Surekha Nelavala, suggests that “the role of Jesus in this story breaks through the boundaries of insider-outsider and challenges Christians who operate rigidly within these boundaries.”

Like the Syro-Phoenician woman in her encounter with Jesus, Latin American migrants in the United States today, carry the potential to awaken majority culture Christians to a deeper dimension of God’s mission, and their participation in it. By seeing Jesus’ willingness to re-think his relationship to the Syro-Phoenician woman as a reference point, majority culture Christians must be willing to re-think the way they relate to Latin American migrants in their own lives. Are majority culture Christians going to relate to Latin American migrants through the grid constructed by their social boundaries, and thus, continue to treat them as “dogs?” Or, are they going to allow the presence and lives of Latin American migrants to challenge these socially constructed boundaries, expose them as the ideological commitments they are, and to lead them a deeper participation in God’s mission by standing in solidarity with, and extending hospitality to them? In order for majority culture Christians to be faithful to the witness of Christ within this contemporary social situation, they must be willing to transcend these social boundaries in order to extend love and hospitality to their Latin American migrant neighbors.