From a sermon preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Richfield on Sunday, September 9
Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman: Strength from each other
Our Gospel story for today is one of the most controversial in the New Testament. I love this story, because we get to see two things: a determined, outspoken, quick-witted woman, one of only 18 whose words are recorded in the New Testament — and we get to see Jesus in a whole new light.
We don’t know her name. But she’s referred throughout history as the Syrophoenician woman and the Canaanite woman. Specifically, she’s a Phoenician from Syria, thus the word Syrophoenician. The story we hear today is from Mark 7:24-30; it is also described in Matthew 15:21-18.
As we hear in Mark, Jesus is traveling through Gentile territory—away from familiar Jewish lands where he grew up. For unknown reasons, he goes into a house and “does not want anyone to know he is there.” But a mother, with a daughter whose body housed “an unclean spirit,” hears he is there and immediately finds her way to his side.
Already she has several strikes against her:
–She’s an outsider, not of the Jewish faith.
–She has barged into a private home.
–And she’s a woman without a male escort speaking to a rabbi!
In the eyes of the disciples—and apparently Jesus — she’s trouble — and not wanted.
But… “Son of David, have mercy on me!” she cries. “My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Or as the King James Bible says: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil!” (Nothing like the King James to really paint the picture.)
Today we would most likely understand her to be saying that the girl was suffering from mental illness or some physically visible illness, such as cerebral palsy or multiple daily seizures. Perhaps she was depressed, suicidal. Or bipolar. Or paranoid schizophrenic. Or some combination of those things.
You would think Jesus would want to heal the girl. Sure, no problem. Thanks for your faith. Done. Anything else?
Jesus is really cranky. In a response that has divided scholars for centuries, he refuses her request and coldly responds: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Translation: You’re in the wrong camp. My ministry is not to you; only the house of David gets my benefits.
But she is desperate… this is her daughter we’re talking about… and so she begs… “Lord, help me….. I know you can heal her. Help!”
And then Jesus says one of the strangest phrases of his ministry: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Really? Dogs?! As a friend of mine said, “I thought Jesus reached out to everyone; that was his deal, wasn’t it?”
Not here apparently. The woman bravely answers him: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Dogs. You may remember this phrase that worked itself into our previous Books of Common Prayer: “We are not so worthy as to pick up crumbs under thy table, but your property, Lord, is always to have mercy…”
And Jesus has mercy. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” She goes home and finds her daughter lying on her bed, free of the demon.
Some say that Jesus was only testing the woman. Others say that the term for dogs was an affectionate term and used widely.
Here’s my call: Jesus was rude, at least initially. Fully divine and fully human, here we see his rather cranky human side: limited, exhausted, wanting to be left alone. He’s tired, probably from sleeping outside and no doubt grieving the recent death of his friend and cousin, John the Baptist.
Actually, I like that. He’s divine AND human and we often underrate the human side. How many of us get tired of people sometimes and just want to be left alone?
I believe that the woman lent a hand to Jesus in his spiritual journey — by drawing on his great gifts as a healer, and by giving him an opportunity to draw the world closer to him.
When Jesus was rude, she did not back down. When he refused her verbally, she did not flee. Like a judo player who uses the energy of his or her opponents to direct the opponent’s flight path, she engaged Jesus, using the words he had already used, specifically the word dog. She could have gotten insulted. But she knew what she wanted and went after it.
Surely this woman bared her heart. But she wasn’t the only one with a bared heart that day. She helped Jesus be more of who he was, and not less. I am willing to bet that he wasn’t as tired after this encounter as he was when he entered that house, not wanting to be seen. She helped him fulfill his ministry by believing in him, by knowing that he could heal, by seeking him out to do what he was called to do. In sharing her greatest desire — that her daughter be healthy — she touched his heart, helping him to be more of who he was, instead of less.
As a result, his energy level changed. The very next story in the Gospel is one of quick response: Jesus is presented with a deaf man who has a speech impediment and immediately responds to his desire to be healed — by putting his fingers into the deaf man’s ears and then spitting and touching the man’s tongue.
I believe that the Syrophoenician woman lent a hand to Jesus in his own spiritual journey — by drawing on his great gifts as a healer, and thus helping him to further his ministry and mission.
It’s all too easy in this world to hold back, to reject, to step back from what WE are capable of …from our ministries and mission…. because we are tired, because we are weary, because there is some excuse for us to NOT help some “other…”
There’s a poem by John O’Donohue that captures for me what happened that day…first with the woman, then with Jesus:
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.
May we all rise to the occasions God opens for us… and waste our hearts on fear, no more.
God Bless you. Amen