PRAYER OF INVOCATION: Holy One of Peace, truly you show no partiality, for you treat all people with equity. You have chosen the poor to be rich in faith. You have chosen the downtrodden to be heirs of your kingdom. May our time of worship fill us with the desire to love our neighbor as ourselves, through Christ, our Lord.
LET US PRAY: Living God, help us to hear your holy Word that we may truly understand; that, understanding, we may believe, and believing, we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience, seeking your honor and glory in all that we do; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jesus was raised in a very racist society. For reasons of purity and righteousness, Jews avoided Gentiles. And they had names for Gentiles, for the likes of you and me, every bit as insulting as the degrading names we call each other today when we want to debase and hurt each other. Jesus is a Jew and the woman who comes to him and bows at his feet, begging for healing for her demon-possessed daughter, is Syrophoenician, and between them stands centuries of bad blood. Biblical interpreters have a hard time with Mark’s account of this incident and make excuses for Jesus: he’s tired; he’s preached and prayed out; he had had his fill of people for awhile. He’s withdrawn with his disciples to Tyre and Sidon, not to preach or to heal, but to rest. But this unnamed woman has heard about Jesus and she begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
At first, Jesus wants nothing to do with her and he throws a scornful reply to her: Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Interpreters have tried to soften Jesus’ response by saying that the word Jesus uses means puppy, and this term does not denigrate the woman, but the truth of it is that if it has four legs, a tail, and barks, it’s a dog. And that is what Jesus calls the woman’s daughter.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea that you can argue with God, or if you think that God’s mind cannot be changed, then you need to listen carefully to this exchange. When the Syrophoenician woman responds: Sire, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs, she challenges the idea that the grace of God has limits. She is the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark to best Jesus in an argument. When she returns home she finds her daughter lying on the bed, the demon gone. Matthew’s account of this incident has Jesus saying to those around him: I have not seen such faith – no, not in Israel. But Mark’s account makes no mention of faith.
Jesus says: For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter. For saying what? What was it that the woman said or did that got Jesus’ attention? The Syrophoenician woman believes that Jesus was a healer, but she had no knowledge of the beliefs and traditions of Israel, and there is nothing in Mark’s text to suggest that she believed that he was the Messiah. What the woman does is cross all sorts of ethnic, gender, and social barriers in order to engage Jesus so that her daughter will be healed. Jesus honors the woman’s argument and her resistance to being dismissed and forgotten.
The healing is important, of course, but what is equally important is the restoration of the child and her mother to their community. The Syrphoenician woman is already marginalized because she is a Gentile, but her daughter’s illness puts her even further on the fringe, even of her own ethnic group. When Jesus healed people, he not only corrected their physical problems, he also restored them to their communities. Whether it is a demon-possessed little girl, a leper, a bleeding woman, or a deaf man, whom Jesus heals, the restoration is not only of the body, but also of the fracture with community.
Community is important, and we know that the faith community is the most important intentional community we can join. Only in the faith community will we hear how much God loves us, because we are God’s children. In the faith community we are challenged to put God ahead of all other loyalties; here we hear God’s call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The Syrophoenician woman is nameless, but her actions are remembered. She resisted death and struggled to hope for tomorrow for her daughter. She challenges us to look into our communities to see who might be begging for our attention. Where can we cross ethic, racial, and social barriers to hear the cries of those who resist being dismissed and forgotten?
In the faith community, children hear the ancient stories and the long relationship that God has had with saints and sinners alike. They learn about the rainbow, covenant, and the cross. They learn about confession, forgiveness, and grace. I hope they also learn that it is safe to argue with God. I hope they learn that it’s ok to be an uppity woman, like the Syrophoenician woman of today’s text. I hope they also learn how to lose an argument with grace.
Because if Jesus can change his mind, then so can we. When Jesus recognizes that the woman’s argument is stronger than his own, and accepts her interpretation, his own mission expands, and his life is re-defined. Perhaps the real miracle in this story is the overcoming of prejudice and the breaking down of barriers that separate people. In other words, creating a new community.
God’s work in the world, through Jesus and now through us, is to expand community so that all God’s children are loved and cared for and have abundant life. Jesus tells us that his new commandment is to love one another as he has loved us. Of course, we have a choice. We can live in a community of our own distinctions, prejudices, and favoritism or we can choose to live out of gratitude for God’s abundant grace. The suffering of our fractured, hostile, and divided communities, of our divided world, would be healed if each one of us lived in the spirit of Jesus Christ with the heart to love God and to love neighbors as ourselves.
Our world is in desperate need of creating new communities. We can take away from Mark’s unsettling text both the courage and perseverance of the woman whose protest brings about healing for her daughter and Jesus’ willingness to change his mind. In order for us and for our society to be healed and to create a new paradigm of justice and righteousness, we need to be in honest conversation with those who are different from us and to name with honesty the demons that hold our society hostage. These are the first steps toward healing and wholeness.