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The Syrophoenician Woman – 9-9-12
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2012
Mr. Davey Gerhard
Anyone who knows me well, or who has been through EfM with me, or is in earshot of me whenever someone proclaims Jesus is perfect, knows that today’s passage from the Good News is my very favorite story. I like it because it’s surprising, because it reaches out and shakes us up. I like it because the hero is wrong. Yes, that’s what I said. And in doing so, I showed you my cards before the game has even begun. Jesus, the Son of God, was wrong.
Now that I have your attention, I want you to hold onto that thought for a moment while I dive into a little lesson on the history and geography of First Century Palestine.
The land we call Israel was formerly two Jewish kingdoms, a Northern Kingdom, confusingly called Israel; and a Southern Kingdom, Judah. Jerusalem, the holy city, was located inside Judah. That’s important to the story. Over time, and after a series of incursions, exiles, occupations, and restorations, the Northern Kingdom was dissolved, and the Southern Kingdom was restored, congregating around its bruised, but still beating heart of Jerusalem. Jews living in the Northern Kingdom became isolated from their Southern neighbors, and eventually decided Jerusalem’s temple, being painstakingly rebuilt by a very zealous group of Jews, was too far to travel for annual worship, and created their own holy city, Samaria.
Fast forward a few hundred more years, and more expansions, occupations, and political changes have created what, by the First Century, is Roman-occupied Palestine. The particularly Jewish part of this land was referred to by the Romans as Judea. Jews faithful to Jerusalem lived in the South, in Judea, where Jerusalem is; and also in a little enclave in the North, clustered around the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was born. Between Galilee and Judea lay Samaria. To Galilee’s West, bordering the Mediterranean, was Syrophoenicia.
If you were a Jew living in First Century Palestine, you would have been absolutely aware of which regions were faithful to Jerusalem, and which were not. That is to say, that Jews living near Jerusalem or near Galilee would know that the land that separated them, Samaria, was full of people who had lost their way, and were now considered outside the fold. And Jews living in Galilee would know that someone from Tyre in Syrophoenicia, was completely outside the chosen status of the Jews, an unclean pagan. Our modern concepts of reaching out and bridging gaps, of tolerating differences in our neighbors, were not just absent from the culture, but were inappropriate. The strength of being Jewish came from being closed to foreign cultures – their understanding of YHWH demanded nothing less.
Not only were Samaritans and Syrophoenicians lost and wrong, but they were unclean; being with them, eating with them; and here’s the hard one to get your mind around, even treating them equally, was considered an act of uncleanliness. These people were to be avoided, shunned, dismissed. If they showed up in your town, you had not just permission, but a responsibility to go all Arizona on them, and show them the way back home.
Jesus was from Galilee. An unfortunate reality to the circumstances of his birth and his original disciple base, was that to get anywhere else in his First Century world, he had to travel, on foot, through hostile Syrophoenicia, or through unclean Samaria. He was also a faithful Jew, born to an observant family, raised up in the Law. He knew the 637 ways he could be unclean, and he knew the consequences those unclean acts carried and what happened to the people who committed them.
By this time in Mark’s Gospel, 8 chapters in, the Jesus we know has done many amazing things, healing the sick and casting out demons. He has also shown us that he can depart from the strict interpretation of his Jewish upbringing, eating with sinners and sparring with the self-righteous Pharisees. By all counts, Jesus has all the makings for a real hero: he is prophetic, he gathers and leads people, he heals people, he can bring out the best in many, he knows when to break the rules, and when to honor them. What appeals to us, or at least to me, is how aware Jesus is of justice, breaking the rules to help people who should be shunned.
And that is just why today’s passage is so surprising to me. Jesus has been so clear about justice and love, he has reached across the divisions of his culture to associate with, call into discipleship, and heal the outcasts and the unlikely. So, then, why is he such a jerk to this Syrophoenician woman?
The Collect of the Day sets it up for us. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy…” The fact that this collect is paired with this Gospel is intentional, if I know Cranmer as well as I think I do. He was crafty. We are meant to see the connection. We get it: God resists the proud, but hears those who seek mercy.
Today’s Good News, however, challenges us. Just who is proud in this story, and who is seeking mercy?
You see, Jesus was a Jew, and he was a man. His Maleness and his Jewishness are not only outwardly visible, but internally identifying. I would like to think we live in a world where people are equal, where we don’t make decisions based on other-ness, but just as that is not true today, it certainly was not true of First Century Palestine. It was a culture deeply rooted in an honor-shame tradition – a person always knew his or her place in relation to another. Whether the differences were gender-based, age-based, religiously-based, economically-based, or class-based, every person was unequal to every other person. This rippled out into birth order, health, language, and of course, city of origin. In fact, one could assume that every identification had an impact on one’s relationship to another; and to be clear, there was always someone higher than you in status, and there was most certainly someone lower than you in status.
Given this law of society, imagine the series of disparities present when Jesus, the Jewish male, enters the home of this woman, a Gentile with a sick daughter. He and his disciples entered her home. We’re not told why he enters this unclean place, but he does; he’s entered unclean houses before, though, so this no longer surprises us. But here comes the first surprise: she makes a demand of him. This woman who has no place in relation to Jesus, begs him to heal her daughter.
Today, Jesus’ next action is remarkable in its appalling nature. We are so used to Jesus the Just; Jesus the Healer; Jesus the Righteous, that we can’t imagine Jesus the Jerk. What is surprising to us, however, is not surprising to a First Century audience. He does what is absolutely expected of a Jewish male when a Gentile woman makes a request – he belittles her, he denies her request, he insults her.
Calling a Semitic person a dog is, well, about as bad as it gets. The culture does not celebrate man’s best friend as such, rather these animals are compared with the ragged beggars outside the city walls, the bone-sucking scavengers around the garbage piles, the disease-carrying vermin of the gutters. And that is precisely what the Son of God calls this woman.
What he says is, I paraphrase, ‘What you’ve heard about my healing and my good works is true, but don’t think it applies to you or your daughter. You are unclean. My healing is for people like me, not people like you.’
Again, this insults us as 21st Century readers of the Good News. If we spend too much time in our modern minds dwelling on this passage, it could really make us angry about this Palestinian Jew of questionable parentage. See? Two can play at that game!
Here comes the second surprise, and again, it’s from this woman of no position. She counters his logic, swallows her pride, and seeks mercy. She, in fact, befuddles him. ‘Even dogs are worthy of the crumbs that the children drop.’ Yes, there it is, even we, who have no place in your kingdom, Lord, deserve your mercy. Not only do we deserve it, we claim it.
In your face, Jesus.
When I imagine this scene, I imagine Jesus rubbing his beard thoughtfully, perhaps nodding his head as he slowly realizes what’s just happened. This woman, this no-status woman, living outside the chosen land of the Children of God, has just nipped at the heels of his understanding of justice and his sense of purpose. He heals her daughter.
And here is the final surprise of this passage. What this woman set into motion when she confronted injustice with her truth had a lasting impact on Jesus and on the world. Today’s Gospel concludes with a second healing narrative which takes place in another Gentile region, Decapolis, the 10 cities west of the Jordan River, outside Judea. Before meeting the Syrophoenician woman Jesus thought that his ministry was for his people, God’s people, the Children of God. But after meeting her, Jesus was transformed, his life was changed, his ministry expanded. God’s children included dogs, and Romans, and Greeks, and Sidonites, and Tyrenians, Philadelphians, Ephesians, and any Jews that would still have him. The Syrophoenician woman opened the door for all of us to claim the mercy of God.
I love the prophetic Syrophoenician woman. I wish she had a name, so I could invoke it in my prayers for justice and peace and equality. And I love her message to me. She asks me a simple question: Are you a dog? Or are you an entitled, self-important man? Here’s what’s great about her question to me: I am often one or the other. When I am a dog, she gives me the courage to rise up, confront injustice, to claim my place in the world and my rights from those who would strip me of them or deny them to me. When I am the self-important man she reminds me to let go of my entitlements and get busy with the work that needs to be done. Far from deserving the crumbs from under the table, we all deserve a place of honor at the table.
Today, we’re invited again to experience that justice in the sacred meal of the Eucharist; and we owe a great deal of thanks to an unnamed, unclean, pagan woman in an ancient land for the right to gather here today. Amen.