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.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
I have to admit, this passage does not sit well with me. There is a tension between Jesus and the woman that makes me uncomfortable. Does it for you?
Was Jesus annoyed by the woman’s demands? Was he being pastoral by saying the hard thing she did not want to hear: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
And the woman, was she being presumptuous by begging at Jesus’ feet? Was she justified by creating a voice for herself?
As difficult as it may seem given one’s theological background, the Syrophoenician woman creates a transformative experience for the son of God. Jesus provides a (seemingly) harsh criticism for the woman’s plea. Conversely, the woman retorts back with her own defense, and Jesus’ mind is changed. Instead of ignoring her plight, Jesus hears her reply and responds with healing. Much like the parallel story of deafness, his ears are opened to the woman’s requests.
In a good narrative, the main character changes, grows and experiences a sense of fullness. Therefore Jesus clearly remains the central figure of Mark’s gospel throughout this particular encounter. Jesus listens. Jesus does not dismiss the woman’s predicament as insignificant. But Jesus hears the woman, mulls over her quandary and considers her situation; thus he is transformed according to the information.
Yesterday, while listening to my daily dose of NPR I heard to the story of Michelle Dyarman. In 2010, the army overlooked Dyarman for a Purple Heart service award stating that her injuries sustained during combat were “made up.” The piece read, “Dyarman, a major in the Army reserves in 2005, had been setting up meetings around Baghdad between Army commanders and Iraqi leaders. A roadside bomb exploded right beside her Humvee. A few months later, she was in a second explosion. The Army sent her to Walter Reed to treat her paralyzing headaches, muscle spasms and post-traumatic stress disorder.” Because her injuries were psychological or difficult to document, Dyarman was rejected for an honorable award for sustained wound. Although Dyarman voiced her complaint several time, along with fellow supporters, she experienced rejection until recently. In 2012 the US Army decided to honor those traumatized in battle with a Purple Heart. During her award ceremony, Dyarman began tearing up with the overwhelming sense of acknowledgement. Her voice was heard. Someone listened.
Is it important that the unnamed woman stands up for herself, exploring her voice before Jesus? Of course. Her self-expression is not devalued simply because she is heard. However, it seems as if the woman maintains a sense of confidence she already possessed. The woman possesses agency to verbally expand on her plight. However, within the narrative, Jesus’ transformative listening experience displays the significance of listening skills for justice, for ministry and for honor. Without allowing our ears to “be opened” to the call for just actions, justice cannot be carried out.