May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
Last week, in Jewish territory, Jesus turned upside down the idea of clean and unclean. Only God is holy. If you want to know whether a person is in touch with the source of all true holiness, Jesus says, see what comes out of their heart.
This week, his ministry has taken him far north, into Gentile territory where a Syro-Phoenician woman, a Greek challenges him to make his words live through action.
In Jesus’ day, Tyre was the most important sea port in Phoenicia. It was the most important city in that area, where Jews lived as an oppressed and threatened minority.
There is a complicated power dynamic at work in this interaction. The woman has some disadvantages; she is a woman, she is a Gentile, she has a daughter who is in desperate need of healing. On the other hand, she is a local and may even have been quite wealthy.
Jesus is definitely a stranger, deep in unfriendly and potentially hostile territory. He is a man, and has a reputation as a healer but he also belongs to a minority that experienced oppression and persecution in that area. He has gone there to get away from the crowds and he is hoping to avoid notice. Being approached by a local asking him to do something that he clearly doesn’t want to do, puts him in a very difficult position.
Jesus words about the law and the heart hang in the air throughout his interaction with this desperate, courageous, woman.
She bows at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter. His response is in two parts;
- Let the children be fed first
- It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
These are horrifying words to hear on Jesus’ lips.
The first part is not too bad, the Israelites were known as God’s children and that title was never given to non-Jews. Also, the fact that Jesus says, ‘let the children be feed first’, sounds as though there will be a second sitting when the Gentiles will be included. It will happen, just not yet.
But the second part, is inescapably insulting. For Jewish people of that time, dogs were not furry members of the family but unclean animals, and the word ‘dog’ was a derogatory term used for Gentiles.
The woman’s response is extraordinary. With great strength and dignity she accepts Jesus’ words and offers to him words spoken from her heart.
‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs’. She addresses him respectfully, ignoring the racial slur, and she gives to him a perspective that only a Gentile woman could. There would be no dogs under a Jewish table but under a Gentile table, the dogs would benefit from the scraps, dropped accidentally or thrown down to them.
The Syro-Phoenician woman does not make a demand based on her own dignity, or on any sense of entitlement. She does not demand that Jesus apologise for calling her a dog. Instead she speaks to him out of her reality, recognising that he has plenty and to spare and that to give her something does not diminish what is available for others.
The humanity of this exchange is so beautifully written! We hear the echo of Jesus’ teaching that holiness comes from the heart, and we remember the feeding of the 5,000 when God’s generous love filled everyone there and left twelve baskets of scraps. We are shocked by the harshness of Jesus’ words and we hold our breath to see how the situation will be resolved.
This passage is from the first half of Mark’s Gospel. The key question of this half of the Gospel is, ‘Who then is this?’ As yet, no answer has been been given but here, in this Gentile region, a woman, the mother of a child in desperate need, sees God at work in Jesus and knows that, for those who are starving, even the scraps of God’s love are enough.
She is unclean by virtue of her ethnicity, her religion and her gender, but what comes out of her heart is, the recognition that Jesus is the Christ, the holy one of God, a profession of her neediness before God, and her faith that God’s goodness extends to her and her family.
It is worth remembering that in the chapter immediately before this one, Jesus was not only in Jewish territory, but in his own town, amongst his own people. There, we are told, he could do no great works and he was amazed at their unbelief (6.5-6). Here, the faith of this woman leads Jesus to heal her daughter, and she, trusting him at his word, leaves him and goes home, believing that it is as he says. It is a beautiful, powerful exchange of the mutuality of the relationship between God and humanity.
After healing the woman’s daughter, Jesus does not return to familiar territory but goes further north, continuing his work in Gentile territory, reaching the Decapolis where he heals a man who is deaf and cannot speak properly.
In both of these stories, we find faith and trust but advocacy on behalf of those in need as others step forward to plead their case. The Syro-Phoenician woman begs that her daughter might be healed, and the friends of the deaf man bring him out of his isolated existence into a place where he can be opened up to communication.
The actions of these people remind us of our responsibility to care for each other, nurturing each other’s well-being and bringing each other into God’s presence.
We do this in many different ways.
- In prayer we bring our concerns to God, in faith and trust that God brings wholeness and life.
- In everyday life we seek ways to allow God’s love to dissolve the human barriers that stand between us and other people, listening to differing voices, welcoming the excluded.
- In our decision making and our language we look for ways to move towards reconciliation, offering and receiving forgiveness for the hurts we absorb from each other.
It is not always easy. Sometimes, we might find ourselves brought face to face with someone who stretches our capacity for understanding and compassion beyond its limits. This is particularly difficult if we do not encounter a person of dignity and grace, like the Syro-Phoenician woman, but an angry, hostile, hurting person. We will not always get it right, but part of growing in faith and love is the daily practising of putting aside human perceptions, and choosing love over law so that out of our hearts flow actions that declare the holiness of our lives.
Let us pray.
Come, Holy Spirit,
send forth the heavenly radiance of your light.
Cleanse that which is unclean,
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.
Bend that which is inflexible,
fire that which is chilled,
correct what goes astray.
Grant the reward of virtue,
grant the deliverance of salvation,
grant eternal joy in Jesus Christ. Amen.