By The Rev. Sherry Deets
15 Pentecost, Proper 18 – September 9, 2012
This is one of the more difficult, if not interesting stories for me, in the New Testament – the story of the Syrophoenician woman. During our first service upon my entering seminary, this was the gospel passage. Our Liturgy professor at the time, said, always remember that you entered seminary under this passage.
What makes it difficult, of course, is that Jesus comes off as downright rude, if not worse. We understand that Jesus went off to Tyre, searching for some R and R – he did not want anyone to know he was there – and then along comes yet another person seeking him out. We can understand Jesus being a little testy – but did he really have to call this woman a dog?
Think about it. Which one of us, if one of our children was possessed by a demon and we suddenly heard that a miracle worker from distant parts had ventured unexpectedly into our neighborhood, wouldn’t also go ask this favor? Jesus has never been anywhere near Tyre before, and he’s not likely to come this way again, and so this woman does what any desperate parent would do. She runs, and she prostrates herself in an act of at least respect if not downright worship, and she begs, fervently, for the restoration and healing of her beloved little girl. And in return all she gets is, not just a rebuke, but an insult; actually, a mean, ugly slur.
So what is this all about? Some of us have gone through a set of gymnastics to try to soften what Jesus says and does here, but Mark is direct and to the point. The story is also in Matthew. So let’s look at it a little closer.
Jesus says to the woman, “Let the children be fed first…” He is implying that the time is not right. Blessings may come to Gentiles, in time, but for now his work is on behalf of Jews. His answer is not “Absolutely not,” but “Not just yet.” This interpretation seems most in line with the story Mark tells. But, it’s the strange lack of compassion or imagination on Jesus’ part that causes many of us to resist such a reading. For others, it’s difficulty with believing that a divine Jesus might be persuaded to change his mind about something. (Matt Skinner)
Notice, also, what Jesus says in verse 29: he expels the demon dia touton ton logon — “because of this reasoning” the woman puts forward. It’s because of her logos, her statement that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her argument. Her logic.
It’s not simply that she cleverly reconfigures Jesus’ metaphors of crumbs and canines to fit her desires. Her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility. It appears she recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to. Go ahead, children, eat all you want. But what if your table can’t contain all the food Jesus brings? (Recall the leftovers when Jesus fed 5000, and perhaps more, in Mark 6:43.) The excess must therefore start spilling to the floor — even now. (Matt Skinner)
The woman also recognizes the potency of this “food.” She doesn’t demand to be treated as one of the “children.” Look, Mister, I’m not asking for a seat at the table. My daughter is suffering. All I need from you is a crumb or two. I know that will do the job. But I’m going to need it right now. Parents of really sick children don’t wait around. (Matt Skinner)
It’s as if the anonymous woman inexplicably understands implications of what Jesus announced in our gospel last week about defilement. Aren’t Jews and gentiles in the same boat, in terms of what makes all of them defiled? Then why should gentiles have to wait to participate in the blessings made possible through the reign of Israel’s God?
In any case, immediately after leaving Tyre, Jesus’ work goes a new way. He cures a man who cannot hear and can barely speak, then feeds 4000 people. Those events occur, apparently, in the Decapolis (Mark 7:31-8:10), a region populated chiefly by gentiles. Although Mark doesn’t call attention to the ethnic identity of these people, it seems Jesus takes the Syrophoenician mother’s wisdom to heart. The timeline has been accelerated; gentiles receive blessings, too, even now. The woman’s persistence benefits more than just one little girl.
Her persistence persuades Jesus to do new things in his ministry. We should give thanks for this desperate mother and her fierce parental love, for in it we see as clearly as anywhere in the Gospel the character of God’s tenacious commitment and God’s similarly fierce love for all of God’s children.
But there’s also one more thing this reading of the passage does: it makes us aware of the unexpected blessing and insight a stranger might bring to us. Every once in a while someone who is totally different from us might stumble into our life and then suddenly the question becomes how we will welcome this one. Will strangers feel welcome or, well, strange? Will they sense people eager to make a place for them or feel the need to fit in and conform to the way things are?
Let’s face it: Hospitality, for most of us, means being patient and polite while we wait for newcomers to become more like us. But can we understand hospitality as a willingness to be open to the distinct gifts and perspectives of someone who is different? Can we even imagine that hospitality is an openness to receiving people who are different from us as gifts of God given to change and stretch us?
Look for the Syrophoenician woman, she may be here in church today, or at work tomorrow, or a birthday party – look for her. Let her faith compel all of us to recognize new implications in a truly abundant gospel. Our table cannot contain all that Jesus brings. There is excess. There is abundance. God’s abundant, overflowing, mercy and love. Amen.
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