Numerous stories in the first book of Scripture in one way or another wrestle with this rhetorical question asked by the first older brother: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” They all give the obvious answer: Of course!
Was Abraham his nephew’s keeper? Yes, several times (Gen. 13-14)! Was Ishmael his half brother Isaac’s keeper? He should have been, but he was quickly banished (Gen. 21:9). Were the twins Esau and Jacob each other’s keeper? No? Later, yes? Were Joseph’s many brothers jointly their brother’s keeper? Certainly not when they sold him into slavery. Was Joseph keeper of his 11 brothers? The book of Genesis concludes with Joseph providing a safe place for his brothers and their families.
As the stories of Scripture continue, violence and intolerance of others entrench themselves in society as clans become tribes and tribes become nations and alliances form. Some groups of people place those seen as “others” into slavery. The hatred Cain felt toward Abel spreads to entire communities of people as the human situation degrades.
While there are brotherly and sisterly moments in Scripture (the book of Ruth, the call of the prophets—especially the book of Jonah, for example), the separation and hostility between people groups seems rock-solid. Certainly the Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, Assyrians, and Babylonians were Israel’s enemies, not Israel’s brothers. Cain’s denial of responsibility for his brother becomes the norm.
In Jesus’ day His hearers still wanting to diminish their responsibility for others debated a slightly different version of the question: not “Am I my brother’s keeper?” but “Who is my brother?” or “Who is my neighbor?” Those most cautious against outsiders believed their brother and neighbor to be those only of their own kinship group; your brother was one only of your own blood.
Others, more generous, expanded the notion of “neighbor” to include at least all Jewish people living in their own village. The most liberal of the day believed that any Jew one met was one’s brother and therefore “neighbor.” But still, care and responsibility were due only within the boundaries of one’s ethnic group.
Then came Jesus. He expanded even the most inclusive view, giving it radical new dimensions. His parable of the good Samaritan made it clear that a Samaritan—related, but beyond the immediate ethnic group—was also indeed a neighbor (Luke 10:25-37).
Jesus tells the parable while on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), walking through Jewish and Samaritan villages and encouraging His disciples to go ahead of Him preparing the way (Luke 10:1ff.). But what happened in territories even beyond these? What happened when Jesus went into enemy territory, that is, into Gentile land? Do the questions “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or “Who is my brother?” apply there?
In Mark, the very first Gospel written, we have a clear answer to Cain’s challenge of whether we are responsible, and how far our responsibility to care extends. The answer comes through a rather difficult story, one in which Jesus surprises us with the distinction He makes between people who are “children” and people who are “dogs”:
“But from there He [Jesus] arose and went away to the border of Tyre [and Sidon]. And He entered into a house. He had wanted no one to know, yet He could not escape notice. But immediately a woman heard about Him, whose little daughter had an unclean spirit. She came and fell down at His feet. Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He said to her: ‘First let the children be satisfied, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’
“But she answered and said to Him: ‘Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’
“And He said to her: ‘For these words you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’ And she went to her home and found the child lying on the bed, and the demon had gone out. Then He returned again from the border of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee up to the region of the Decapolis.”
This Greek, Syrophoenician woman, referred to in Jewish idiom as a “dog,” can certainly not be a “sister” to Jesus, can she? She’s not even a “neighbor,” is she? One can imagine Mark’s Jewish Christian readers asking such questions. And Jesus—the one who radically expanded the category of neighbor and brother in the good Samaritan parable and earlier in this first Gospel (Mark 3:31-35)—seems to call this unnamed woman with the sick little daughter a “dog.” Why?
As challenging as life is at the borders, borders do not have to be barriers.
One can argue that the canine reference was to a “lap dog” rather than a scavenger dog, since Greeks sometimes had pets. But most scholars reject such an idea not only because it imposes contemporary culture onto the first century, but also because it does not resolve the problem: who wants to be an animal, even a pet?
One can argue that this is only a parable about the gospel going first to Jews, then to Gentiles, though the parable's implication is to Gentiles as dogs. Isn’t that troubling—especially today?
One can argue that Jesus was testing her faith, and that she more than passes the test. But how should we understand Jesus’ apparent reluctance to heal? Admittedly, Jesus' response to people in need does exhibit great variety. Then again, what if it is a test and she fails? You may respond that in Mark’s Gospel people fail a lot, but Jesus never gives up on them.
One can argue that Jesus was testing His disciples, using their own insulting and prejudiced language in a way that hooks them into the discussion; then He turns the tables on their thinking about those outside the Jewish community. Perhaps, Mark doesn't give that answer yet, because he doesn't even mention the disciples as Matthew does (Matt. 15:21-28).
Looking at the story in its cultural setting helps: Jesus was doing what any honorable male in his culture would do when confronted by a strange woman. She was out of line to be so aggressive. She should have had a male ask on her behalf, rather than just burst in on Jesus.
But since Jesus challenged other aspects of His culture’s patriarchal values (and will again even before the end of this story), why does He seem to buy into His society’s racism and sexism at this point?
It is certainly a difficult story. Jesus appears to be calling the Greek, Syrophoenician woman a “dog.” It may have sounded to some like a standard insult, although probably one she had heard many times before. It bothers us. Did it bother her? How could it not? Although it probably didn’t surprise her. There were clear and well-established boundaries between Jews and Greeks in the first century. There were strict rules of not eating together—there would be no sharing of food or fellowship.
Interestingly, Jesus challenged some of these very traditions about eating and those who were unclean earlier in this same chapter (Mark 7:1-23). So why on this occasion does He seem unwilling to put His own arguments into practice?
This episode and this woman call for particular attention. This was a surprisingly different kind of woman. A close reading of the text reveals that she was likely an aristocratic woman of Greek ethnicity living in the territory of Tyre
2 on the Mediterranean coast. During times of scarcity the wealthy of Tyre were known to take the bread from poor Galilean farmers.3 In social status she is above Jesus, yet this mother falls at Jesus’ feet.
Both she and Jesus are out of place, in the borderlands, and Jesus’ first words to her underscore this uncomfortable location. Literally, they are on the border between Syrophoenicia and Galilee. But they are also on the border of other boundaries: male/female; Jew/Greek; lower class/upper class; Galilean (depleted of bread)/Syrophoenician (taking bread).
Am I my brother’s keeper when we are living on such borders? when the brother is across the border? when differences that separate are highlighted and unavoidable? Who is my brother, my sister, my neighbor at the border between Israel and Jordan? at the border between Sudan and South Sudan? Ukraine and Russia? North Korea and South Korea? Mexico and the United States? What about the uncertain and confusing borders of conservative and liberal?
Then the story takes a surprising turn. Scripture says:
“But she answered and said to Him: ‘Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’
“And He said to her: ‘For these words you may go; the demon has left your daughter.’”
This Greek, Syrophoenician woman—the only person in Mark’s Gospel to address Jesus as “Lord”—observes that the dogs are already eating! Simultaneously with the children, the dogs are eating crumbs under the table. Call her what you want, she knows she has a need that must be cared for: her daughter must be free of the demon. She is convinced that Jesus can heal. She is convinced that a crumb of His healing power is sufficient for her family. And Jesus affirms her words, performing the only miracle in Mark’s Gospel done from afar.
The very next action Jesus takes after this encounter in Mark’s Gospel is to go to the Decapolis—10 cities on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, alien territory where foreign Greek culture flourished and was held out as the ideal (Mark 7:31). There Jesus will heal a deaf man who couldn’t speak properly. Jesus will blur more boundaries when—over on that “other” side of the Sea—He will take seven loaves and a few small fish and feed a huge multitude (Mark 8:1-10).
This time it isn’t people from Jewish villages (Mark 6:30-44), but non-Jewish foreigners, and—just like the earlier miracle—there are broken pieces (crumbs) left over (Mark 6:43; 8:20). Jesus’ mission had expanded to include Greeks!
The questions—Who is my brother? Who is my sister? Who is my neighbor?—were receiving shocking answers: Greeks of the Decapolis, the hungry of the region, great multitudes who had been strangers. Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman modeled the disciples' prejudices to teach them a desperately needed lesson.
4 The episode is a turning point in Mark’s Gospel: the family of God includes people across borders!
Recently a sabbatical project took me to two continents where I interacted with people from 15 different countries, people beyond my own borders. I conducted a survey of five questions about this story of the Syrophoenician woman.
5 The responses reflected the way culture affects our reading of a passage, and how we are blessed by those readings.
Those from Asian cultures tended to focus more on the domestic aspects of the story: of the mother-and-daughter relationship, village life, the frequency of scavenger dogs near doorways, and where families eat meals in storefronts. While many did not express concern that Jesus appeared to be labeling the woman a “dog,” they were definitely interested in the dog part of the story.
Australians tended to want to explain or address the demon-possession description of the daughter. What caused the daughter’s malady? How to understand demon possession then and now? All readers were shaped by their own cultural setting: by their assumptions about mangy dogs or household pets; by understandings about the spirit world or skepticism about demons; by borders and language barriers; by cultural clashes and gender assumptions.
Crossing cultural borders myself caused me to imagine the challenges Jesus’ Gentile mission must have faced as He interacted with people who didn’t know the stories of Abraham; or who were unfamiliar with the Ten Commandments; or who had different assumptions about what and how to eat; or with whom one should share table fellowship.
To follow the radically inclusive Christ means that we do not ask the question that avoids responsibility.
Imagine the cultural clashes between Jesus’ disciples and the secular Greeks of the Decapolis. Yet the disciples were to learn that these Greeks, even their oppressive Roman colonizers, were still their brothers and sisters and neighbors. Although it was “a slow and painful process,” the Christian community would eventually come to include Syrophoenician women and men as sisters and brothers.
The healing power of Jesus is that amazing: it can transform Greeks and also the people who used to call them “dogs.” For Mark’s readers their households were to be inclusive, and their radical inclusivity was embodied every time the community celebrated the Lord’s Supper. As Jewish Christians and Greek Christians ate together remembering Jesus’ broken body and spilled blood, they embodied broken-down boundaries between people. As challenging as life is at the borders, borders do not have to be barriers.
But it sure isn’t easy to put into action. Where are borders acting as barriers today? I think of the faces of Syrian refugees living for years in camps along the borders between countries; Rohingya boat refugees from Myanmar refused asylum; children riding trains from Guatemala and southern Mexico to the United States in order to escape drug violence. Some faces that feel even more foreign include: ISIS fighters; Americans who hold up flags while using anti-American rhetoric; advocates of Al-Qaeda and sharia law. Who is my brother?
Mark’s Gospel challenges me. If Jesus is the Christ, if the gospel is here, then all these people are my brothers and sisters.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” is not an innocent question. A simplistic, plain reading of this important text misses its real meaning. It must be read literarily rather than literally. It is not a question requiring an answer. It is actually a lying wrongdoer’s denial of responsibility and accountability. “I do not know” where my brother is, Cain said to God. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9, NRSV).7 It wasn’t really a question seeking an answer. It was a denial. The intent was clear: Don’t blame me. It’s my brother’s fault, not mine.
All readers of the story condemn Cain’s denial of responsibility. And the next question God asks Cain is: “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (verse 10, NRSV). God’s question echoes throughout the ages: “What have you done?”
Because of Scripture’s clear condemnation of Cain, we carefully avoid asking his question when we see refugees, homeless, or hungry people. We know God’s response, so we change the question to: Who is my brother? And quickly respond, “Other Adventists,” right? OK, I’ll expand the answer to “other” Christians. Perhaps even to all Christians living in my country. But Mark reminds us of a Jesus who crossed borders into the region of Tyre and met a woman with whom he had nothing in common. She was what many considered a “dog,” but by the end of the encounter her needs were cared for; her daughter was healed.
Then Jesus began a preaching and healing ministry across every border His feet could take Him. If we stay close to Jesus, our brothers and sisters are those both in our villages and across borders who need care: the hurting and the hungry of our world.
To believe Jesus’ ministry was about the kingdom of God arriving (Mark 1:15) is to embrace His model of justice; that is, to work for a just society. To follow the radically inclusive Christ means that we do not ask the question that avoids responsibility.
But to the question “Who is my brother?” we respond: our brothers and sisters are not only those living in our town, of our same nationality and ethnicity, who embrace our faith, but they are those across the many borders of our world. Come: learn from Jesus that a Greek, Syrophoenician woman with an unclean daughter is our sister.
Kendra Haloviak Valentine, Ph.D., is a professor of New Testament Studies for the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University.