Sunday, September 6, 2009

Recognizing God's Messengers

Sermon for 9.6.2009
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125 or 124; James 1:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I’m sure that each of us has felt exhausted, overloaded, underappreciated, ignored, and even desperate. These emotions are the starting point for the account from the Gospel of Mark this morning, the story of the Syrophoenician woman. A similar woman also appears in Matthew, but there are details in Mark that make the situation for both the woman and for Jesus more pointed. I must add the obvious: whatever the difference in details, the appearance of a similar story in more than one Gospel suggests its importance to those living within the memory of Jesus’ earthly lifetime.

In both Gospels, Jesus enters Gentile territory after what can only be described as a grueling schedule: crowds of people, denseness on the part of his disciples. In Matthew, the woman sees him and runs after him shouting for help for her daughter. But Mark creates a special setting. There Jesus—who often seems to have the introvert’s need for withdrawal—enters a house and does “not want anyone to know he was there.” In other words, he hides. Yet even in the house, Mark tells us, “he could not escape notice.” Hearing that he is in the house, somehow—the Gospel doesn’t explain—the desperate woman gains entrance.

What we must realize is how truly shocking her entrance was. Whether the door was locked, closed, or simply an open passageway, for that day and time, the woman’s action was appalling. For any woman other than a wife to intrude upon a single man was unheard of. The fact that she was a foreign woman and therefore unclean made matters worse. This is the behavior of a prostitute…… or of a mother who is so desperate for a miracle for her daughter that nothing else matters. Once there, she is hard to ignore because she bows at his feet and begs Jesus to exorcize the demon out of her daughter.

But hers is not the only character study in this account. Many readers find the passage difficult because Jesus is so harsh. He is not the gentle “suffer the children to come unto me” Church School poster. Of course, one can say that he was only testing the woman’s faith, but this is not the only possible reading. We can also imagine that he had had a really hard, exhausting day. Now he simply wanted to be alone, without demands. And suddenly, here is this unappetizing, aggressive woman making demands that suggest that there is still more lying in wait for him. As though the Jews, crowds and rulers are not enough, is he now supposed to take on the Gentiles as well?

Perhaps this is why he speaks so rudely, comparing her to an unclean animal, a dog. His doing so is roughly equivalent to calling someone a swine—or even worse. No other supplicant in the gospel receives such treatment. But at this point, I think it is important to allow Jesus his fatigue, and thus, in fact, accept his humanity.

In response to his fatigue comes the marvelous tour de force of the woman. Jesus has used the diminutive of dog, “little dog” or “house dog,” but he also uses the verb “throw,” which suggests flinging the food out of doors. The woman throws the remark right back at him, changing the metaphor while reverently addressing him as “Sir,” actually as “Kyrie,” or “Lord.” “Sir, even the little house dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Are the children careless or do they love to slip little treats to their pets? Either way there is precedent, she suggests, challenging the exclusive right of the Jews to the mercy and love of God.

Commentators like to speak of the Greek/gentile custom of allowing pets at meals and so point to the symbolic cultural gap that is preserved in this story. I am much more interested in the woman and what this exchange can mean for us. Her keenness must come from her despair buoyed by a wonderful faith. Moreover, her wit—if that is what we want to call it—her response comes from the depths of her being as a mother, a caregiver. Her world is the household, where creatures are nurtured, loved. As a mother, she knows that love cannot be limited or selective and that to do so sours the entire home. We too deserve your mercy, she says in effect, and such is its power that even the portion that you give me will be enough.

And Jesus does respond: “Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’” Note the “then” that starts the sentence. We never quite know whether that means a time for deliberation or an instance response, but whichever way, it is equally unequivocal. These two worthy opponents have come to a rich understanding. Healing and grace result.

As so often in the Bible, I see templates for us in both characters. This is a moment in the life of Jesus in which we can fully place ourselves. In the presence of this good woman, this good mother, Jesus himself moves a little more into the fullness of his mission. His heart is stretched, I may even say graced by her. If even Jesus—who was as human as we are yet without sin—can be discouraged and then pulled by experience into a greater understanding of who his people—the sheep of his pasture—really are, isn’t there a demand that we love more fully as well? And isn’t there also hope for us when our vision is narrow? If we allow Jesus his humanity, we can be more forgiving of our own failures and those of others. And so we can pray even more fervently: “O God, grant us grace to receive Jesus Christ in every person and to be Jesus Christ to every person.”

As for the woman: She is a role model for me in assertiveness, even with God. Her faith and passion for her child are such that nothing stops her. In so doing, she must have love for herself as well. She is sure enough of her own worth to ask, to enter, to barge into the presence that she knows is holy and that she treats with reverence but firmness.

If Jesus was stretched by her, we can be too. That may include loving ourselves more fully, seeing ourselves as fully worthy. We each have that right, for ourselves as well as for our loved ones. Jesus’ response makes that clear. Our memory of this is critical on those days when others—or even we ourselves—regard our mountains as molehills, not worthy of attention, and God doesn’t seem to respond as quickly as we want.

And so we may now pray: Lord, grant us eyes to see your messengers, your presence and your peace in strange places and unlikely people, even in ourselves. AMEN.

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