A sermon preached at Grace Episcopal Church, San Antonio, Texas.
The lectionary readings for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost are here.
This is a tough one, Y’all! It’s one of those Sundays in the lectionary where as the preacher, you have to make the decision to either deliberately avoid the difficult parts or intentionally step into a wrestling match with the text we are given. Guess which one I decided to do?
Just what are we to do with this story of Jesus and the woman of Syrophoenician heritage? I keep three different study Bibles at my desk to use in my sermon prep and not one of them offers notes on these verses, so apparently even the experts hesitate to tackle it. Which should probably be my clue to leave it alone so as not to venture into heresy but I’m not always that smart and I do believe that every single bit of scripture can teach us something about who God is and who we are in relationship with God, if we ask for the eyes to see and ears to hear. So, here we go …
Before we get into the actual conversation between Jesus and this woman – you know, I’d really like to give her the dignity of a name but I also think it’s a key factor of us stepping into this story that we aren’t told her name, she could be any one of us – let me set the stage and y’all imagine yourself in her place.
So, just where is Jesus and what is he doing there. Jesus wanted to get away for some rest and recovery. Healing and feeding and teaching full time is exhausting, just ask any parent. He’d been trying to get away for some time, but the crowds kept finding him. So he stole away to a region where, perhaps, he thought, he wasn’t as well known and wouldn’t be recognized or discovered.
Before he set out, he would have to know someone who lived in the region to stay with. He didn’t just log into the AirBnB app and make a reservation. But we don’t know if he was staying with friends or relatives or if they were even Jews.
The region of Tyre was not a jewish neighborhood but gentile. It was a wealthy area, a major seaport on the Mediterranean coast, north of Galilee, where Jesus did the majority of his ministry.
In Matthew’s telling of this story he says the woman who comes to him is Canaanite, a term used to emphasize even more how far removed from “God’s people” this region and the people who live there were considered.
And let’s not ignore the fact that she’s a woman. No self-respecting Jewish rabbi at the time would have been caught dead in the presence of a woman ‘like her,’ much less engage in conversation with her.
But most of all, she is a desperate mother wanting her daughter to be freed from her suffering. Desperate enough to throw herself at the mercy of a man she would expect to, at a minimum, ignore her, and worst case, have her thrown out into the street. But she’d heard this man, Jesus, was different.
She didn’t come in a posture demanding what she felt entitled to. In her understanding of the world, this Jewish rabbi would willingly give her nothing so she came prepared to beg. She was so desperate for her daughter that she was willing even to give up her dignity and her definition of self-worth.
So, just what do they say to each other?
She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
We aren’t given her words but begging is never dignified. In Matthew’s telling we are given a few more details, that she cried out over and over again making everyone uncomfortable to the point that others tell Jesus to send her away.
And then Jesus responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Wait. What? Did Jesus just insult her? Is he testing her faith? Is he making a point to those who are listening? I think yes, to all of these.
We can’t know what Jesus’ intention is exactly, but we can look at this situation in light of other stories we know.
Remember way back when in July when we talked about Jesus walking on the water? Mark tell us that even though the disciples were struggling with keeping their boat afloat in the heavy wind Jesus watched them from the shore for several hours and that when he did head out on his miraculous walk, he intended just to pass them on by. But when they cried out for him he stopped and got in their boat and their storm passed.
And then there’s the story of the man Jesus encounters at the healing pool who’d been there for most of his life and Jesus asks him, “do you want to be well?”
And then there’s the story of the woman brought before Jesus so he could condemn her and he turns the situation around and tells her accusers that if they are without sin they can punish her.
And then there’s the story when Jesus asks the disciples how they are to feed so many people instead of telling them what he planned to do. And then there’s Jesus’ response of “feed my sheep” when Peter assures Jesus he loves him after having denied knowing him.
In each of these stories and others, Jesus leads the person he’s talking to toward wisdom – rather than giving them a straight forward answer, he gives them what they need to work out the answer themselves; to wrestle with what they think they know and reframe it in light of God’s love and compassion. Because Jesus knows that is how we are truly transformed into kingdom people.
And so, the woman answers, not from a place of entitlement but from a footing firm in the understanding of God’s Kingdom: “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Calling her a dog was a huge insult, and she turns it around and relates Jesus words to the grandest and most public miracle he was known for. The miracle of feeding the 5000 had gone viral for sure and a key detail of there being 12 baskets of what? Crumbs! Is not insignificant. The “children” had been fed and now Jesus is taking the feast to the gentiles because in God’s Kingdom there is always enough for everyone.
Very few of the “children of Isreal” had called him Lord, but this woman who would have been considered less than a dog by the Jewish leaders called Jesus Lord. She had wrestled with his words and she knew and accepted who Jesus is.
Jesus’ nature is compassion. Regardless of this woman’s background, he is moved by her suffering on behalf of her daughter and he heals.
And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”
The irony of a gentile proclaiming Jesus as Lord is made all the more clear by the healing story in the second part of our reading.
Jesus returns to Galilee and some folks bring a man who is deaf for healing. We can assume they are all Jews because generally when folks are other than Jews we are given their origin, the we are with the Syrophoenician woman. They, too, beg. And Jesus takes the man aside and heals him. The people were astonished and said that Jesus ‘does all things well, even making the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’ Instead of acknowledging who he is, they grade his performance.
A Gentile woman and a Jewish man, both healed by Jesus. In one case, Jesus isn’t even in the same house as the girl he heals and he credits the woman asking with participating in the healing. She calls him Lord and does as he asks, she goes home and finds her daughter well.
In the second case, Jesus physically touches the man, and then tells folks not to tell anyone what he’s done. And they don’t listen. And they don’t call him Lord.
Jesus didn’t deny his healing mercy to either person; he gives it freely to both. But who do you think really gets what it is to live into Jesus’ healing power? Which one understands what it is to truly FOLLOW Jesus? Who has wrestled with God?
This is the truly humble submission God asks of all of us. And that really bumps up against our 21st century egos. But that’s the thing about gifts, though, to be truly a gift, it has to be freely given and freely received. If we approach God because we feel entitled, we have not yet realized that we need God’s mercy, and we don’t see the life God gives us as a gift.
We aren’t entitled to God’s mercy and grace based on the world’s ideas of self-worth: money, status, clothes, the right school or neighborhood. We are GIVEN God’s mercy and grace because of who God is: the God who created us in love for love.
It is in acknowledging our deep need for God’s mercy, in wrestling with who God is, that we become fully human as God created us to be because we come to know whose and who we are. Amen.