Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Like streams in the desert, God comes with healing
I will praise the LORD as long as I live. (Ps. 146:2)
Faith without works is dead
Christ healing a little girl and a deaf man
In the spirit of this back-to-school season, I’d like to begin today with a geography lesson. That’s because I believe that today’s Gospel lesson from Mark cannot be fully understand unless we grasp where the action is taking place. As you know, Jesus was a good Jew who spent most of his time doing ministry in Galilee, a Jewish region of Roman Empire occupied territory. Jesus studied the Torah and knew the Hebrew Scriptures so well that he could discuss them with religious leaders when he was just a teenager. As an adult, he surrounded himself with Jewish disciples. That’s why it’s important to know that the region of Tyre, where today’s story begins, is Gentile territory, far, far north of Galilee. And the story closes with Jesus is on the road in the region of the Decapolis, a group of 10 Greek cities—again, nowhere near Jesus’ normal stomping grounds or his usual religious and cultural setting.
Knowing that, it’s clear that Jesus is the outsider in this story, rather than the insider. How does that inform the way the story begins, with Jesus not wanting anyone to notice his entering a particular house? Probably the house belongs to a Gentile, and his going into it would make him ritually unclean according to Jewish tradition. This is kind of funny, given that last week Jesus announced that following religious tradition wasn’t as important as cultivating relationships, because the first thing that happens in this place where he doesn’t want to be seen is that he is engaged in conversation by someone who wants to talk about relationships!
She is a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician heritage—which is to say, her ancestors came from Syria and Phoenecia, both places that had conquered the Israelites in battle more than once. So she is on her home turf, and she speaks Greek, marking her as a member of a ruling class, while Jesus is a blue-collar carpenter from a defeated land. So, even though she is a woman, she not completely at a disadvantage in this encounter. Whatever else her identity includes, the one that takes precedence on this specific occasion is that she is a Mama Bear, willing to cross any boundaries to get the help she needs for her child. She has nothing to lose but her daughter, and she is not willing to do that without a fight.
Jesus responds to her plea 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 children. But this woman, who is willing take any indignity this guy has to throw at her, will not permit him to ignore or abuse her child. Instead of screaming at Jesus, “My daughter is NOT a dog! She’s a little girl in trouble, and I know you can help her! YOU know you can help her! So don’t you talk to me about your religious purity or the problems of racism or classism or all the rest. Those are real issues, but this is my child! Don’t hurt her to prove your point!”
Can you understand her urgency? Has a sick child ever asked you why it hurts so much? Or what will make it stop? Have you heard the sobs of little children being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, or their parents crying? Two weeks ago you heard from Pastor Mary Pharmer about the real conditions of separated families at the border. You heard stories of real human families struggling to survive, even as people in power talked about them as if they were mathematical problems to be solved. So maybe those stories inform how we imagine what pushed this mother to the point where she was willing to risk anything for her child.
Mark describes the problem afflicting the woman’s child as “a demon.” We don’t know what kind of demon it was. After all, there were many diseases that 1st century parents had no medical way to explain other than that they seemed evil—demonic. Was it a kind of mental illness? Or epilepsy, which can produce terrifying seizures? Whatever it was, it drove this mother to drastic measures, just like those that modern mothers and fathers take when they are tormented by the afflictions their children face—be they poverty or violence or police brutality or gay-bashing or addiction or any other “demon.” These demons continue to torment the children of our nation and of our world. Anxious parents and grandparents still turn to God, demanding healing, unwilling to be deterred from their search for healing for their suffering loved ones. We, the church, can learn from this fierce woman about the necessity and importance of bringing those urgent demands to God’s attention.
Though Jesus has just insulted this woman who has set aside all propriety and dignity to kneel at his feet and all him Lord, though Jesus even called her child a dog, she does not yell at Jesus (as I might have done). Instead she calmly, rationally presses her point with Jesus, using his own argument against him. “Dogs, you call us? Well, ok then, dogs we are. But I have a little dog at my house, and I know that when my kids eat, this puppy positions itself strategically under the table so that she can catch the spills and crumbs they drop. We may be uncivilized Gentiles, but even we let our dog eat our scraps. Would you deny my child even table scraps of God’s mercy?”
I wish we could see Jesus’ face when he responds to this challenge. I can only imagine Jesus looking at her with surprise and respect. She does not accept his insistence that her race or culture or religion exclude her or anyone else from access to God’s grace. She challenges Jesus to recognize that he is more powerful than he has allowed himself to be up to this point, and that his significance transcends his actions so far. She insists that if he really is God, then he is God for ALL people! He cannot say that Syrophoenician lives don’t matter. She will not accept the artificial geographic, religious, traditional, or cultural restrictions he tries to impose on his own ministry or God’s mercy.
Mark doesn’t say how long Jesus stood there taking in her courage and audacity. What we do know is that when Jesus leaves the town of Tyre, he is changed. He doesn’t go straight back to his ministry among the Jewish people. Instead he goes on a healing spree among the Gentiles, beginning in the Decapolis, another Greek territory. For the rest of his ministry, Jesus deliberately creates space for honoring children, and repeatedly pays attention to women in distress. Forever after, Jesus welcomes children with dignity, even calling upon them to advance his ministry, as when he asks a little boy with two fish and five loaves to help him feed a multitude. After this encounter with the woman from Syrophoenecia, Jesus never again discriminates against the Gentiles. Instead, Jesus treats each Gentile and Jew, each child and adult, every person of every gender identity, with even-handed mercy and honor. It’s as if once this woman unleashed his generosity and compassion, Jesus could not hold it in. His heart is melted by persistence and mercy and grace actually leaks from his being! Jesus’ encounter with this foreign 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.
At his crucifixion, when Jesus is on the cross begging, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing,” I wonder if he is remembering the lesson he learned from this Syrophoenician woman? Forgive those who don’t know not to be biased against one whose religion is different. Or whose skin color is different. Or whose cultural practices are different. Or whose political ideology is different. Forgive them. They don’t see me as a child, just as a dog. But I see them. And what I see is that they are in need of compassion and forgiveness more than anything else.
This is our God, pleading for children in need, flinging away the map of who gets to be included in the circle of God’s grace, so that all are included. And we Christians—“little Christs”—endeavor to follow this example. As James writes in today’s second lesson, if we are not receptive 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 and Mexican and Guatemalan mothers scream that they need a safe haven and affordable healthcare 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? If parents whose kids are shot in school cry out for attention to our inadequate gun laws, we cannot turn away from them.
Let’s give thanks that Jesus is with us, praying for us as we learn to open up our manufactured borders. Let’s rejoice that God transforms people who once were 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 people from all over the world at this holy table, always making more and more room for sinners to gather around. Let us give thanks that God keeps on leading us into new territory, opening up for us unexplored roads toward justice and mercy, kindness and compassion, hope and dignity for all of God’s creation. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider