This week I came back to work excited for a new program year and rejoining you in worship together. I felt well rested, and ready to preach today. I caught up with the staff and lay leaders, dug into the onslaught of emails, had some pastoral visits, and then finally sat down to read the lessons for today. After reading the gospel, I momentarily considered calling Charlie to say, “Are you sure you don’t want to preach this week too?”
If you were listening as we proclaimed the “Good News” of God in Christ today, you might not have felt like this was very good news. Within Mark’s gospel lesson is one of the very few stories in Holy Scripture about Jesus where we get very uncomfortable. We are told Jesus has set out to get away. He wants some rest and to be alone after weeks of healing, miracles, and debates with Pharisees. In the midst of trying to get some peace and quiet, a woman comes to him, asking for another healing. The story at this point could go in a couple of directions: Jesus could agree to heal her daughter out of compassion; Jesus could engage the mother in conversation; or the disciples might intervene to help Jesus get some rest – and maybe Jesus would protest and heal the girl anyway. We know Jesus is likely tired and needs some serious alone time. But even in the midst of fatigue and a need to escape the constant pressure of the crowds, we find Jesus’ words to the Syrophoenician woman unpalatable. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
We know a few things. We know this is a woman and women in Jesus’ day have less power and would not customarily approach a man without a husband or male family member intervening. But this woman is no ordinary woman – the original Greek text tells us she is a woman of means, a “lady.”[i] We also know that she is Syrophoenician and Greek – a comment on her culture and ethnicity – as well as the fact that she is a Gentile, and not a Jew. We know her daughter has a demon, so in Jewish minds this woman and her child are impure. We even know from scholars that this particular area of geography has a history of tensions between Gentiles and Jews, with many Jews being mistreated by Gentiles.[ii] Finally, we know Jesus understands his ministry is about redeeming the people of Israel first.[iii] Eventually the Gentiles will be included, in fact, he even says so in his insulting comment; but the Gentiles are not Jesus’ primary mission. But even with all of that: the cultural norms, the racial and ethnic tensions, the purity laws, and the God-given mission, Jesus’ words have a tone of disdain and degradation that we simply do not associate with Jesus. Jesus’ words are uniquely harsh: no other supplicant in the gospel is treated in this manner.[iv] This is not the Jesus we know. To look at this suffering woman and to call her and her child dogs makes our stomachs turn. We are embarrassed by Jesus, and would rather sweep this particular story under the proverbial rug.
I have been wondering all week why this story about Jesus bothers us so much. Countless scholars have tried to justify Jesus’ action or mitigate the brutality of his statements or soften Jesus’ words. But after pondering Jesus’ words this week, I realized what bothers us so much about Jesus’ words. What bothers us is we see ourselves in his brutal behavior. We do not like Jesus’ harsh treatment of this woman because we do not like to ponder the times when we have acted similarly. We do not want to examine too closely those times when we have treated persons of color like dogs – through segregation, lynching, fire hoses, criminalization, or exclusion from opportunities. We do not want to examine too closely those times when we have treated persons of other ethnicities like dogs – migrant workers who take jobs, extremists who commit violence, illegal immigrants who want free healthcare or education. We do not want to examine too closely those times when we have treated women like dogs – refusing safe, affordable birth control and childcare, ignoring sexual assault, leaving unresolved wage gaps. Because even if we have never called one of those groups, “dogs,” we have either thought the word, “dog,” or our actions have indicated we think of those groups as dogs. And when someone shines a light on our incongruous behavior, we feel exposed as being uniquely harsh as Jesus is harsh. We do not like Jesus’ behavior because we do not like our own behavior. And Jesus is supposed to be the good one. Jesus is that one about whom we proclaim “and yet He did not sin.”
Here is the good news though: what is brilliant about this story is the very fact that we see ourselves in Jesus today. As much as we see the bad in Jesus, we also find redemption in Jesus today. The good news about Jesus’ awful behavior is that he finds a formidable opponent today. This Syrophoenician woman does not cower, or feel defeated, or walk away. Quite the contrary, she takes Jesus’ words – his exclusion, his justification, his arrogance, and she turns them back on Jesus. Jesus thinks she is a dog unworthy of the children’s food. Fine. She reminds him that even dogs get crumbs from under the table. The woman does not contradict the system, or take a deserved stand for dignity, or try to fight Jesus’ presumptions. She simply reminds Jesus that there is enough for everyone – even in the scraps. She does not defend herself – she holds a mirror up to Jesus. And this – this is the best part – this is where something tremendous happens. Jesus says, “You’re right.” Jesus acknowledges he is wrong. Jesus heals and restores her daughter to health. And, most importantly, Jesus redefines his entire ministry – no longer maintaining redemption of the Jews first and, maybe if there is time, the Gentiles. Jesus expands his abundance and wideness of mercy for all.
What I love about this story is two-fold. First, I love that the Syrophoenician woman is a woman who sees abundance in the face of humiliation. The woman is unwilling to believe she is unworthy of God’s grace and abundance. She boldly, humbly demands that abundance from the person of Jesus. Second, I love that we actually get to see Jesus’ humanity in this story. We could spend hours debating scripture and tradition and the creeds about whether Jesus can be sinful and what that means for our faith. But one of the things we say about Jesus is that he is fully divine and fully human. And we all know in this room being fully human means messing up, saying awful things, and sometimes being a failure. But being human also means righting our wrongs, making amends, and taking our learnings from failures and turning them into future goodness.
What Jesus says today is awful, and we should feel his words as embarrassing, shameful words. What we sometimes say and do is awful, and we should regard those actions as embarrassing and shameful too. But what Jesus does today is also beautiful. Jesus not only changes his mind, he expands the wideness of the kingdom of God.[v] What the Syrophoenician woman does is make a claim on abundance and hold up a mirror to Jesus to see where he limiting abundance. Her invitation to Jesus is her invitation to us today too. Where are we limiting abundance and shutting down possibilities for blessing? The Syrophoenician woman today asks us to look at the mirror and let go of a sense that there are limited resources and particular protocols about those resources. She invites us to look at our lives, at the ministry of Hickory Neck, and the community around us and see the opportunities to choose abundance over limitations, to see grace over judgment, to see divinity over humanity. With her mirror, and Jesus’ example, the possibilities for new life and ministry are endless. And that’s a Jesus, and a you and me, and a Hickory Neck of which we can all be proud. That’s a ministry that is expansive and explosive with grace, and dignity, and love. That’s a church who is doing exciting things and I want to be a part! Come and join us!
[i] Daniel J. Harrington, ed., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 233.
[ii] Harrington, 232.
[iii] Douglas R. A. Hare, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.
[iv] Harrington, 233-234.
[v] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 49.