From Pastor Kenny's Desk
September 9, 2018
Jesus left Gennesaret and went to the territory of Tyre and Sidon. There he went into a certain house and wanted no one to recognize him, but he could not pass unrecognized. A woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She approached Jesus and fell at his feet. The woman, who was Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, begged Jesus to expel the demon from her daughter.
He told her, “Let the children of the household satisfy themselves at table first. It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She replied, “Yes, Rabbi, but even the dogs under the table eat the family’s scraps.”
Then Jesus said to her, “For saying this, you may go home happy; the demon has left your daughter.” Then she got home, she found her daughter in bed and the demon gone.
~ Mark 7:24-30
A lot rides on how you understand Jesus surprising reaction to the request of the Syrophoenician woman. Okay, surprising is an understatement. How about down right rude? After all, she comes to him falling at his feet … begging that he cure her daughter of an unclean spirit, something we already know he can easily do. And yet he brushes her off, refusing her request and casting her aside, throwing in an ethnic slur just for good measure. He says that the children must be fed first and that it wasn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs ... because that was how the people around them saw Syrophoenicians and others who were not of Israel … they were dogs.
Was Jesus going to turn away this woman because of her race? Like any other human being … and Jesus was as human as he was divine …it appears Jesus has prejudices and even racism inside him. He called this bold woman a dog.
And the haunting question is, why?
Here’s the traditional answer to this question: He is not actually refusing her but rather testing her. That is, the snub, the insult, the rejection … these aren’t real at all but rather the means by which to test her faith, to see if she really, really believes in him. And, of course, she passes.
The trouble with this interpretation is: nothing like it occurs anywhere else in Mark’s story; there is no mention of testing in the story (as in Job, for instance); and it creates a rather cold-hearted picture of a God who taunts and tests us in our times of vulnerability and moments of deep need.
If not this interpretation, then what? Why on earth would Jesus react to someone in need in such a callous manner?
I’d like to suggest an untraditional answer to this question: Perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus had not yet realized the full extent of God’s mission or the radical nature of the kingdom he proclaimed.
Look, I know that’s a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion to reach. We want to think of Jesus as full-bodied, perfect, and undisputable from birth, kind of like Athena springing full-grown from the head of Zeus. But if we are to take Mark’s story seriously, then perhaps we should not be surprised to see a development in Jesus own recognition of God’s vision for the world. After all, the profoundly expansive notion of a kingdom that included everyone … no exceptions! … was completely and totally novel ... and truth be told … still is!
If so … if we can imagine that this woman didn’t simply pass a clever test but instead, as Jesus himself says, demonstrated profound faith … then we might acknowledge that this brave mother actually taught the Teacher … she challenged Jesus and in-so-doing he sees her as a human being … someone with feelings, a heart and soul, and a person having value ... a child of God! Makes me wonder … what things can this marginalized woman teach us?
Two things in particular stand out. First, she teaches us about the power of the stranger. Newcomers, strangers, outsiders, people who are different from us … those with a different religion, or race, or a different perspective or experience with racism or sexist stereotypes, or perhaps someone who simply thinks differently than we do … they stretch our perspective and teach us things about themselves, about the world, and about us … but only if we will listen.
All of us from time to time meet persons as bold … or desperate … as is the woman in this story who will offer their insight to us unprompted … often these folks sit at the margins of society … those who are disenfranchised and marginalized due to class, race, ethnicity, gender, ability. If we take time to listen to these folks we can realize they have value and needs, feelings and heart-aches, triumphs and brokenness. They too are people deserving of respect and kindness … just the way they are! Instead of brushing them off … they have something to teach us about who they are as well as who we are. I believe we deserve to reach out to them and convince them that we care about their opinion. One question might be to ask … both personally and as a congregation … who are we overlooking? Who is a part of our church but does not often participate, does not sit at the center, is not enfranchised but might have a great deal to teach us.
Second, this woman teaches us about the nature of faith. While it’s tempting to see this story as one of self-actualization … the woman not only believed in Jesus but also and more importantly believed in herself … I’m not sure that’s the case at all. I mean, I have no idea whether this woman believed herself worthy of God’s attention or Jesus time. But I do know that she believed her daughter was. She was convinced that her precious, beloved daughter who was being oppressed by this unclean spirit … more likely mental illness by today’s standard … was absolutely deserving of Jesus attention and so she was willing to go to great lengths to help her, even to the point of arguing with this famous teacher and healer.
I think that’s often the case with faith ... it shows itself most fully when we believe on the behalf of others. This isn’t to say that I’m against self-affirmation and actualization … when we remember and hold on to God’s abundance of hope and love given to us while also remembering that God is always for us … no matter what! … these truths are among the most affirming and life giving there are in the world! Rather, it’s simply to say that we are not created to be isolated beings but rather find our true selves most deeply in community, in relationship, and when we are advocating for another.
The question is: can we as people of faith at MCC Richmond identify those persons around us who need our advocacy and care? Can we listen and learn from those who are marginalized, those who are hurting from the wounds of stigma and fear, those who are cast aside by society and see them as worthy and deserving of God’s love shown through us? Can we set aside our own attitudes and judgments of who and what people are and instead get to know them … listen to their experiences and also affirm they have value … just the way they are? I am convinced one of the ways to experience meaning and fulfillment in our faith comes when we look around us … at our work, schools, community and our world … to discern who needs us, what they need from us and how we might leverage our resources to be their advocates before God and the world.
The Syrophoenician woman teaches us that God’s work is among the people … all people … especially the sick, the poor, the widow, the orphan ... and those who are different from ourselves. God’s work is among the children separated from their parents at the border; those who are having their citizenship stripped from them; those who are incarcerated. God’s work is among mothers and fathers grieving for their children; the people living on the streets; those who are oppressed, depressed, anxious and at the end of their hope.
How will you learn from this fiercely loving mother?