Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 6, 2015
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
A recent Pew Research Study examined the racial makeup of religious groups in this country. On a list of 29, the ELCA was #28—the second least-diverse religious group in the nation. We are only more racially diverse than the historically black National Baptist Convention. I’ve heard lots of reasons for our mono-cultural identity, of course, including the fact that our immigrant ancestors came mostly from Scandinavia and Germany.
The point is that we, the current ELCA, do not resemble the racial makeup of this country. That may be why we are sometimes out of touch with the pain that racism is causing in our nation. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just that the daily struggles of minorities can seem foreign to us because we don’t have to process that experience on a regular basis. We don’t HAVE to hear black mothers weeping for their children and so sometimes we don’t. They are not pleading that Black Lives Matter in our sanctuary or at our fellowship tables, so we don’t hear or see their appeals as our responsibility.
That was on my mind when I read today’s Gospel lesson from Mark. It’s all about culture clashes and blind spots. Today Jesus—a good Jew, whose Uncle Zechariah was a high priest, who studied the Torah and knew Scripture so well that he could explain it to religious leaders when he was just a teenager, and who as an adult has surrounded himself with a crew of Jewish fishermen—today that Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon. That is Gentile territory. Jesus is not on his home turf. This is not an ordinary day in his life.
A woman approaches him. She is a Gentile, of Syrophoenecian ancestry. This is unusual on a number of levels. For one thing, in First Century Palestine, women did not approach men in public to talk to them unless they were relatives; and for another, Gentiles did not typically approach Jews. As I said, this is not normal day in the life for Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.
But this was not a normal day for the woman, either. Just days before she was scolding her daughter for leaving stuff all over the floor of her room, but today she is panicking. Her little one is so seriously ill that the mother, knowing all the reasons she shouldn’t, comes to Jesus and throws herself at his feet, pleading for her daughter’s life. This woman risks much by approaching a blue collar itinerant preacher from Galilee and calling him Lord, but she is desperate, willing to cross any boundaries to get the help she needs. She has nothing to lose but her daughter, and she is not willing to do that—at least not without a fight. So she begs Jesus for healing.
And Jesus—I don’t know how else to put this—acts like a jerk. He responds to her by saying that he is the Jewish Messiah, called to serve the children of Israel. He says that addressing her needs above theirs would be like feeding a dog and starving his own family. Talk about a slap in the face!
But this woman knows about children—or at least about her child. Perhaps some of you parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents can relate. She will take any indignity this guy has to throw at her, but he cannot and will not ignore or abuse her child. He can say whatever he wants to her, but she’s not willing to have him belittle her daughter. She must want to scream, “My daughter is NOT a dog! She’s a little girl in trouble, and I know you can help her! And YOU know you can help her! Do something! Don’t you talk to me about your religious purity or the problems of racism. Those are real issues, but this is my child! Don’t hurt her to prove your point!”
Can you understand her urgency? Ask the Dyers what this feels like. If you have ever heard a sick child asking why it hurts so much, or what will make it stop—or listened to the moans when words were too much effort, you can. Have you seen the photograph of a little Syrian boy washed up on a beach because the boat in which his parents were escaping a war capsized? Can you imagine what pushed a mother to the point where she was willing to risk that for her child? Can you relate to such desperation and grief?
Mark describes the child in today’s story as “afflicted by a demon.” I don’t know what demon it was. Mental illness? Epilepsy? There were many diseases that 1st century parents had no medical way to explain other than that they seemed evil— demonic. So must modern mothers feel about the afflictions their children face—poverty, violence, police brutality, gay-bashing, and other horrors. These, too, are demons that afflict our nation, our world. We in the ELCA must look, whatever it costs us. We must hear the cries of the desperate mothers who simply cannot bear it anymore.
What I find hardest to understand about this Gospel lesson is how this mother refrained from scratching out Jesus’ eyes. But that’s my baggage, not hers.
Instead of taking out her anger and frustration in a non-productive way, she calmly and rationally argues with Jesus, using his own argument against him. “Dogs, you call us? Well, OK then. I have a little dog at my house, and I know that when my kids eat, the dog positions itself strategically under the table so that she can catch the spills and crumbs when they eat. We may be uncivilized Gentiles, but even we let our dog eat scraps. Will you deny my child even the scraps? Won’t you give her even that most humble and basic access to wholeness?”
I can only imagine Jesus looking at her with surprise and respect. She does not accept his insistence that her race excludes her from access to God’s grace. She challenges Jesus (and his followers throughout time), by throwing down at his feet the mandate that if he is God, he is God for ALL people! He cannot say that Syrophoenician lives don’t matter. She will not accept it.
I don’t know how long he stood there taking in her courage and her audacity. What I do know is that for the rest of his ministry, Jesus created space for honoring children. Forever after, Jesus welcomed children with dignity, calling upon them to advance his ministry. Think about the little boy with the fish and loaves whom Jesus calls upon to serve communion to the adults. Or about the child Jesus holds in his arms, telling the adults that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as this little one.
And after this encounter with the woman from Syrophoenecia, Jesus never again discriminates against the Gentiles. In fact, Jesus treats each Gentile and Jew, each man and woman, each child and adult, with even-handed mercy and respect. He acknowledges the divine spark of God in each one. Jesus’ encounter with this woman reinforces what he himself was trying to explain to the Pharisees in last week’s Gospel lesson—that sometimes to keep the higher law of God, one has to ignore the human-made laws that deny anyone’s full humanity. Sometimes we have to throw out the codes that exclude, because no one should be denied the full dignity conferred on the children of God.
Is it any wonder that in the next healing story we hear, Jesus touches a deaf man’s ears and utters the command, “Ephatha. Be opened”? Be opened. Jesus has crossed the boundaries people expected of the Jewish Messiah. He has offered the same healing power and compassion to a Gentile woman as he did to Jewish mothers. The door to God’s heart is now open wider than anyone ever expected. Jesus wants to make sure everyone feels his hands on deaf ears and hears him cry, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” Be changed. Hear the cries you never heard before, perhaps in languages you do not know, uttered by people you do not understand. Hear the appeals of mothers and fathers begging for their children. Hear the stranger praying for mercy, and be opened. Jesus’ appeal has come down through the church, generation after generation. I am convinced that Jesus prays it today for our mostly-white ELCA.
In today’s second lesson, a letter to the early church, James goes so far as to suggest that if we are not open to the cries of people in need, we have no business calling ourselves a church. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? If a sister or brother is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their needs, what good is that?” If Syrian and Palestinian mothers scream that they need a safe haven for their families and we do not listen, what kind of church are we? If black mothers scream that there is no justice when their children are incarcerated and killed at a much higher rate than white children and we do not listen, what kind of church are we?
The ELCA may be a historically white church. But today Jesus is placing his hands on us and praying for us to be opened. It may not come easily or naturally, and it certainly won’t come instantly. We may have to listen to some hard stories first, bear the pain of angry moms before the message is clear to us. We can’t feel too bad about that—Jesus had such a learning experience too.
So let’s give thanks that Jesus is with us, praying for us as we learn to be opened. Let’s rejoice that God heals people who are unable to hear the cries of desperate mothers. Let’s give thanks that God gives the power of speech to those who have too long been silenced by injustice. Let us give thanks that God is at work bringing new possibilities to an old world. Let us give thanks that God feeds us at this holy table, always making a place for us no matter what we have done or left undone. Let us give thanks that God keeps on leading us in the ways of justice and mercy, kindness and compassion, hope and dignity for all of God’s creation.
~Pastor Susan Schneider