The Woman Who Refused to Take “No” for an Answer

The Canaanite Woman, from the Très Riches Heurers du Duc de Berry. The Conde Museum, Chantilly.

And Other Testimonies of Equality and Community in Early Christianity

“At once a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him and came and fell at his feet. Now this woman was a gentile, by birth a Syrophoenician, and she begged him to drive the devil out of her daughter.” —Mark 7:24–30

Equality and community are two of four (or more) “Quaker Testimonies” that Howard Brinton in his classic introduction to Friends understands as broad expressions of a living Christian faith. I have noticed these two testimonies in particular in gospel stories and letters of the early church. Jesus’s encounters with women and “gentiles” are numerous, suggesting an emphasis on feminine leadership and inclusiveness.

In the story of the cure of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, for example, Jesus is suddenly convinced to minister to non-Jews after his encounter with this woman. To me this suggests a turning point in his mission. The narrative is a bold stroke, the only one in the Christian canon in which “Messiah” is outwitted—and by a woman! The universalist implications of this story come from a covenant obligation to return all the world’s people to sanity (Exodus 19.5–6; Isaiah 49.6).

But evidently Jesus doesn’t yet welcome non-Jews to his healing ministry; he initially rejects the woman’s appeal for help for her mentally ill daughter by telling her, “The children [Jews] should be fed first, because it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs [non-Jews].” Jesus has not only said “no,” he uses insulting language. “Dogs” were sacred prostitutes of Canaanite fertility rites so abhorrent to the Hebrews (Deuteronomy 23.18–19). The woman could have responded in kind, but does not; instead she keeps her wits and answers him, “Ah yes, sir . . . but little dogs under the table eat the scraps from the children.”

He responds, “For saying this you can go home happy; the devil has gone out of your daughter.” The response implies that the result is not from something Jesus has said or done, but from her trust in him. Her daughter not only will live a normal life henceforth, but this courageous and persevering woman evidently changed Jesus’s mind about ministering to non-Jews.

Other gospel evidence of gender equality

There are stories of women having a stronger natural faithfulness than men, especially “men in charge” (Mark 5.21–43; John 4.1–54). In the Mary/Martha story Jesus encourages women to leave tradition-bound roles and become his disciples (Luke 10.38–42). Friend Elizabeth Watson (Wisdom’s Daughters), observes that there were so many female disciples of Jesus they could not be named (see Luke 8.1–3).

Though it is popular to think of the emissary Paul as anti-woman, some evidence says otherwise: Paul expressed gratitude for key women in the gatherings, evidently thinking nothing strange about feminine leadership (Romans 16.1–16). He also encouraged spoken ministry by women, often in opposition to gentile conventions (1 Corinthians 11.3–16). He admonished the gatherings to consider God’s view of equality, in which ethnicity, rank, and gender do not figure (Galatians 3.26–29).

Paul nurtured every aspect of inclusivity in church organization as well, going so far as to say that people who never heard of Jesus or the Bible could be faithful servants of God as revealed by their carriage and life; it was as if they had the “law engraved on their hearts” (Romans 2.13–16). He also cautioned people who spontaneously reverted to their village dialects—“tongues”—while giving Spirit-filled ministry, to do so only if someone could translate their message into “market Greek” so everyone could understand the message (1 Corinthians 14.1–28).

Friends’ views of gender equality and universalism

Friends expected women to minister, though there was some controversy around this at first (see George Fox’s Journal). Perhaps this is not unexpected in a nascent seventeenth-century religious movement that is bucking 8,000 years of male domination of human affairs, which was not the case for most of human evolution. It is clear how Fox and most Quakers felt about this issue. Fox boldly challenges Margaret Fell, changing her life forever: “Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?”

Friends’ theology embraced the universality of Jesus’s message. The church that really mattered they said was “the invisible church,” its worldwide members faithfully following God’s guidance unaware of each other’s existence! All of us who have traveled outside our cultural comfort zone with eyes and ears wide open have met such people and know exactly what Robert Barclay meant (Apology, 1676). To him, these members of Christ’s body are “walking cheerfully” and living as “patterns and examples” for “everyone of every nation” unselfconsciously—like Paul’s faithful who have the law engraved on their hearts. Moreover, Barclay sought support for Quaker ideas in traditions both distinct from and within Christianity in his classic defense of Friends.

Thus Friends’ idea of religious organization followed the maxim “keep it simple.” Friends emphasized personal responsibility, burden-sharing, and ministry by everyone, each according to his/her light and gift.

The tale of the cure of a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter shows that women and non-Jews were thought to have as much in the department of wits and faithfulness as any man or birthright Jew. This narrative is a striking illustration of the Quaker testimonies of equality and community in early Christian discourse.

William H. Mueller

Bill and his wife, Pat, are members of St. Lawrence Valley Meeting in Potsdam, N.Y. (under the care of Ottawa Meeting in Ontario, Canada). He taught biological and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston from 1975 to 2004, including courses in violence prevention and spiritual aspects of health.

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