15 Pentecost, Proper 18 – September 5, 2021
We just heard two interesting stories about a child, someone’s daughter, and a deaf man — both were suffering from ailments that isolated them from society. And the story of the Syrophoenician woman, the mother, is an unusual one, because Jesus insults this unnamed woman — he calls her a dog. But she persists, even with the insult, and then Jesus has a critical shift in awareness.
Because she is a Gentile, Jesus initially turns her down, saying the time is not yet for the Gentiles, for anyone outside of the house of Israel, the “children”. Yet, she respectfully counters Jesus’ insult by saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus changes his mind.
Jesus became more divinely human by letting go of a narrow way of seeing. Once that happened, his healing energies flowed more freely. He healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. From then on, Jesus’ ministry opened, expanding beyond the Jewish community.
She essentially teaches us about the power of the stranger. Newcomers, strangers, people who are different from us – they stretch our perspective and teach us things about themselves, about the world, and about us. But only if we will listen.
Last Sunday we talked about boundaries. Today we hear of the demolition of a boundary when Jesus heals the child of her unclean spirit. This encounter also illustrates how both Jesus and the woman are penetrated by the healing power of transforming Love. Both are examples of humility and truth, eliminating attachments to restrictive limitations. As is so often true in the stories of Jesus, both sides leave the encounter strengthened, healed, exploring a new path of hope.
Jan Richardson shares a beautiful response to this story about the Syrophoenician woman: She says: “Rather than hearing Jesus’ response as a barrier, she uses it as a doorway. The woman is kneeling before Jesus, but she is not merely a supplicant. She is poised to wrestle a blessing from him. She is in a stance designed to disarm Jesus, to sweep him from his feet. She is in a posture from which she can look for crumbs and, from them, make a feast. She knows there’s one here somewhere for her and for her daughter.
She knows that Jesus knows this, too. She knows that Jesus carries abundance with him. It hasn’t been that long since he presided at the feeding of more than five thousand women, children, and men. She can smell the feast on him, the scent of the crumbs that cling to him.
“Yes, Lord,” the woman responds to Jesus, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
This woman knows there is a whole other world beneath the table. She recognizes that beyond the tabletop of privilege, there is yet a place for her and the daughter whom she is desperate to save. Taking what lies beneath the table, the woman makes a feast. And in that place, the unnamed woman becomes a celebrant. She leaves with the blessing she has wrestled from Jesus; she leaves with a healing for her daughter”.
So this encounter between the woman and Jesus challenges us to think about what we are feeling fierce about in our own lives. And to what lengths we’re willing to go in order to save and preserve what lies within our care. What are you feeling fierce about in your own life? For what are you willing to cry out and challenge Jesus? Do you believe he can stretch himself to help you? What is the blessing that you need to wrestle from him?
For me, I’m willing to cry out about all we’ve been going through. It seems like every day there is a new crisis. This latest storm with it’s flooding is yet another challenge. But I do see prayers are being answered as we cry out to Jesus, because so many people have shown care and concern for their neighbor by reaching out to those effected by the storm. There has been an outpouring of donations, of support, of assistance with clean up. It is a blessing. But we know the difficulties are not over, challenges will continue for those who lost cars and homes and furnishings. There’s a long road ahead for many.
We hear today how Jesus continues on his road and he heals a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech. Jesus looks up to heaven and he sighs, and says “Be opened”. He sighs. What is that? Is the sigh ironic? Is it Jesus sharing the joke with God? As in, “Okay, Father, I get it. Listen. Learn. Be opened. I hear you. I’m working on it.”
What would it be like to follow in the footsteps of a Jesus who listens to the urgent challenge of the other? Who humbles himself long enough to learn what only a vulnerable outsider can teach? What would it be like to stop limiting who we will be for other people, and who we will let them be for us? What would it be like to insist on good news for people who don’t look, speak, behave, or worship like we do?
Be opened. Be opened to the truth that God isn’t done with us yet. Be opened to the destabilizing wisdom of people who are nothing like us. Be opened to the voice of God speaking from places you consider unholy. Be opened to the widening of the table. Be opened to making a feast out of crumbs. Be opened to Good News that stretches your capacity to love. Be opened. Amen.