September 3, 2021
Adapted from a sermon preached on September 9, 2018, based on Mark 7:24-37, the story of the healing of a foreign woman’s daughter and the restoration of a man’s hearing.
Have you ever had this experience: there’s something you’ve known about – some fact or some truth – for years, maybe all your life, and yet it’s always been just one more item of information in your mind? And then one day you have an experience that causes the wheels in your head to turn and that item just clicks into a new place? Or you could say a lightbulb goes on and you suddenly think, “That’s what that meant! Now I know what that really means!” You go from knowing about a thing to knowing it for yourself.
Bear that experience in mind as you consider the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Syrophoenecian woman.
When Jesus went away to the region of Tyre he was making a trip to a foreign land – a place where people spoke a different language, worshipped different gods, dressed differently, ate different foods… He was a Jew in Gentile territory. That’s a really important piece of information to bear in mind because it has a lot of bearing on what happens next.
A woman whose daughter is sick comes and begs Jesus, the famous healer, for help. And he responds with an incredibly harsh saying: Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Ouch! Not just, “No,” but a verbal kick and insult. What’s going on here?!
In the first place, why would Jesus, whose name is synonymous with love, utter such terrible words; and the second place, why have such unflattering words been preserved in scripture? I mean, if I were a scribe I would be very tempted to “improve” Jesus’ image a bit, with just a little adjustment of his words. But no, here are Jesus’ awful words in front of us, two thousand years later. Why?
Because this story is a pivotal moment in the gospel of Mark. It’s a turning point in Jesus’ own mission and ministry. Harsh words get our attention. They say, “Wake up! This is damned important!”
Here’s what’s so important in this story: The gospel is for everyone. No exceptions. No qualifications. God’s healing, God’s justice, God’s salvation… are for ALL.
Of course Jesus knew this, just like we know it. All are welcome, we might say. Jesus probably knew the verse from Proverbs: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.” (Prov. 22:2) He must have known the vision of Isaiah, in which all the nations stream to the mountain of the LORD (Isa. 25:6). Certainly he was familiar with the story of the anointing of David, in which God made it clear that the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (1 Sam. 16:7)
The human Jesus knew these things, just as we do, but until his encounter with that Syrophoenecian woman it’s as if the wheel hadn’t quite clicked into place, or the light bulb hadn’t gone on yet. And so, while knowing that yes, yes, God loves all people, the very human Jesus responded to the woman out of the same sense of tribalism and cultural superiority that every nation on earth harbours. Which is to say that if you were Jewish in Jesus’ day you thought you were more special than anyone else; if you were Roman you thought you were the top of the heap; and today if you are Chinese you might think your culture is superior to all others; if you are American you might believe your nation is a light unto the rest of the world; and if you’re Canadian you try not to flaunt it but you definitely harbour a quiet sense of superiority, especially over those Americans…!
The point, of course, is that all of us, whatever our language or culture, inherit some degree of tribal superiority. Sometimes it is expressed in quiet smugness, sometimes in outbursts of violence, but it seems to be a common human condition. Jesus shares our humanity fully, and that means he shared our common cultural assumptions.
It took a foreign woman of great faith, desperate to have a cure for her sick daughter, to challenge Jesus’ assumptions and reveal to him what he already knew: God welcomes all / strangers and friends / God’s love is strong / and it never ends.
“Sir,” she said, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Maybe she was remembering Jesus’ recent miraculous feeding of over five thousand people. There were twelve basketfuls of crumbs left over from that meal – plenty for her and her daughter. After this bold comeback (and who says faith can’t look like desperate determination for justice?) Jesus relents. The wheels turn, the light bulb comes on, and he remembers. Who did he think all that abundance of leftovers was for?
And the human Jesus is drawn more deeply in to the divine mission to heal the nations.
It is a turning point. Jesus heals the little Syrophonecian girl. And then his first act upon leaving Tyre and Sidon is to heal another Gentile, this one of his deafness. This is hugely symbolic. Jesus heals the Gentile of his deafness to God’s word, and he opens his lips to speak God’s praise.
The moral of all this is that if Jesus—the Christ, the Holy One of God—can be open to new insights, if our Lord can change his mind, then we, his disciples can also sit loose to our assumptions, opinions, beliefs, dogmas, and ideologies to be open to the call of the Spirit to remember what we already know.
“Ephphatha!” Open our ears, Lord, to hear your Word. Grant us wisdom to know you and proclaim your name among the rich, among the poor, and everywhere your Spirit leads. Amen.