Her name is Justa.

Proper 18, Year B: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

You might be thinking to yourself: Did I hear that correctly? Did Jesus call the woman in the gospel passage a dog?

Well, yes — yes, he did.

This is the story of the Syrophoenician Woman. It also appears in Matthew (15:21-28) as “The Canaanite Woman.” And it does not appear in the Gospel of Luke at all. Maybe for the reason I just named? We’ll never know.

This woman is unnamed in Mark and Matthew. Characters without names tend to be “forgotten more easily.”[1] But in tradition, she is given a name. The 4th c. Pseudo-Clementine Epistles give her the name “Justa.”[2]

Her naming underscores her significance to our faith tradition. For in this brief verbal wrestling match between Justa and Jesus, she taught him something “about his own identity and mission […] that his mission was broader than he realized.”[3]

Justa challenged Jesus to see his power and possibility.[4] And we all benefitted.

Our gospel passage today opens with Jesus as he enters Gentile territory. It seems that he was looking to take a retreat, for he enters a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.

Undoubtedly, he was ready for a retreat. His ministry had certainly taken off by the time we reach this 7th chapter of Mark’s gospel — a gospel containing 16 chapters. He had been teaching and healing. He stilled a storm, walked on water, cast out demons. And, in the previous chapter from today’s gospel passage, had fed bread and fish to “five thousand men.”[5]

By the way, there were likely women and children there too, because ya know — we’re always here! So that number was probably more like 35,000. So, the story should be called “The Feeding of the Thirty-Five Thousand.”[6]

That story just got a bit more mind-blowing, didn’t it? And note, “And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of fish” (6:42-43).

Have you ever wondered what happened to the leftovers? Well, the concept of leftovers is about to get very important!

With this enormous picnic event still in recent memory, Jesus meets Justa (the Syrophoenician woman) on retreat in Gentile territory.

This meeting is full of tension. And Jesus is cranky. I imagine he was looking for rest — only to discover the urgent, pressing needs of the faithful were still coming at him. Coming at him — in a place he didn’t expect to encounter the faithful.

Differences abound in the meeting of Jesus and Justa. Gender, ethnicity, and tradition. But a universal truth is also present:  the love of a mother for her child.

Justa is propelled by a fierce love, even as she is vulnerable. She not only has the responsibility of caring for her child; she has the added responsibility for caring for a child who is ill. Further, it appears she does it without the support of a partner.

So, what great fortune: Jesus arrives on her turf!

She approaches him with faith and desperation. For, sometimes there’s not a lot of difference between the two. Just ask anyone with a sick child or loved one.

As I already noted, he is on her turf, and yet he speaks to her as if she is the outsider. And, it’s rather shocking.

She bows down and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter. To this he replies: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Note: Jesus doesn’t tell her no. He says not yet. Let the children be fed first. [7] In this, Jesus reveals his understanding of his mission: to the children of Israel first.

She accepts his logic and rolls with it, employing her knowledge of domestic life to argue for his saving help. For, if you’ve ever fed a young child, you know how much food ends up on the floor. How many times did I clean up the floor under my children’s highchair and wish that I had a dog to help me?

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Now think about the abundant leftovers in the Feeding of the 35,000. And hear what she says: she’s not asking to go first. She’s asking for scraps. She is asking for crumbs! And her conviction is that even crumbs from Jesus will satisfy.

Even crumbs from Jesus will satisfy.

He hears her. And the world shifts. 

Her child was healed from a distance. Trusting in him, Justa returned home and found her daughter just as Jesus said. Healed.

And Jesus, rather surprisingly, now continues in Gentile territory where he encounters more would-be outsiders becoming zealous evangelists. It is ironic, is it not, that Jesus would restore the Decapolis man’s hearing and speech, and then order him to tell no one.

I wonder if Jesus had Justa and the man from Decapolis (and others he met in Gentile territory) in mind — even just partially — when he taught his disciples in chapter 10: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”[8] For Justa and the man from Decapolis, were “last” as Gentiles, but among the “first” to receive the good news of Jesus.

Today’s gospel is a watershed moment in Jesus’ ministry. The verbal wrangling between Jesus and Justa changed the timing and scope of Jesus’ ministry.[9] His mission to the Gentiles is on! And, by the way — Gentiles? That includes us.

Justa is a powerful example for us  — to approach Christ with boldness. She challenged him to see his power and possibility. 

And though she approached him out of her own need, we all benefitted. Because when it comes to Christ’s ministry, the leftovers are abundant.

It is good to be reminded of this when there is so much need in the world. Between the natural and man-made disasters, along with new and age-old concerns for the welfare of our daughters and sons, we may despair at the present situation.

But here is where I believe the motto of the Daughters of the King is so powerful, as Dale and Sandra have recently taught me:

“I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God, I will do. Lord, what will you have me do?”

I wonder if Justa prayed something similar. She was but one, but she was one. She persisted. And it impacted Jesus’ ministry. His next moves reveal that. He did not return to Capernaum next but continued in Gentile territory where his ministry expanded and the good news spread — enthusiastically!

The deep truth is: we are all connected. When we step forward in faith, willing to wrangle with Christ about our deepest loves and needs, pains and sorrows, we cannot know the change it creates in the heart of God.[10] And we cannot always see the ripple effects it makes in the lives of those around us.

But thank God for those who do. Like Justa. Who challenge Jesus to see his power and possibility — from which life-giving benefits flow.

And, perhaps Justa met up with God’s own purposes and desires. For God is always looking for partners, to know and share the good news of God’s love in Christ.

Might you be one such partner today?

In the words of wise women: 

“I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God, I will do. 

Lord, what will you have us do?”

[1] Clark-Soles, Jaime. Women in the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 2020. p. 29.

[2] Ibid, p. 29.

[3] Ibid, p. 34.

[4] Luther Seminary, Sermon Brainwave #800.

[5] Mark 6:44.

[6] Clark-Soles, Jaime. Women in the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 2020. p. 26. Quoting Megan McKenna from Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories from the Bible, “Furthermore, sociologists say that when you gather a crowd of men, women, and children, the ratio of women and children to men can be as high as five or six to one. So, the story is really the feeding of the thirty-five thousand!(1994, 7-8; italics added)” Note: when I delivered this sermon on Sept. 5, 2021, I pulled this idea from memory and unintentionally low-balled the number at 20,000.

[7] Matthew Skinner, Luther Seminary, Sermon Brainwave #800.

[8] Mark 10:31.

[9] Matthew Skinner, Luther Seminary, Sermon Brainwave #800.

[10] We know from Exodus 3:7-8 that our God sees, hears, and responds: “Then the LORD said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians[…]’”

Black, C. Clifton. Commentary on Mark 7:24-37, “Jesus’ Offensiveness is a Fact we Must Face,” Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.

Image above: Limbourg, Herman de, approximately 1385-approximately 1416, Limbourg, Jean de, approximately 1385-approximately 1416, Limbourg, Pol de, approximately 1385-approximately 1416. The Canaanite Woman asks for healing for her daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55920 [retrieved September 7, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Folio_164r_-_The_Canaanite_Woman.jpg.

One thought on “Her name is Justa.

  1. Your sermon came up in a discussion with women friends this week. I had heard the prayer from the Daughters of the King before. It is resonating especially now because I am an activist but frequently feel overwhelmed .and disheartened. I care so much and I’m trying to make a difference. I will keep this prayer where I can see it and read it often
    Thank you.


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