Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
In our scripture passage for this morning, Jesus has made his way up the coast to a town called Tyre. This is what we’d call “Gentile” territory. Non-Jewish territory. There are Jews around, but Jesus is a foreigner here, more or less. And here he’s hiding out, trying to keep a low profile. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s here, it says.
But apparently it’s hard for Jesus to hide. He ducks into a house, it says, but “he could not escape notice.” Word gets around town fast, even without the help of social media. And one woman from the town comes to Jesus, and falls to his feet in desperation. She’s not Jewish, it says. She’s a “Gentile,” a “Syro-Phoenician woman.” A non-Jewish, Syrian woman. Her little girl it says, has an “unclean spirit.” A demon. Something oppressing her, distorting her, causing her affliction. She’s heard that Jesus can help. So she begs him to help relieve her daughter of this soul-sickness.
It’s the kind of thing that can elicit kind words and compassion. Even from people who are normally cruel.
But not Jesus, apparently. She begs him for help, and Jesus responds like this: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and to throw it to the dogs.” Ouch.
Now when Jesus says this, he means by “bread” is his ministry, the power of God to heal and make new. Remember that this woman’s a Gentile, a non-Jew. What Jesus has got to give is meant only for his own people. It’s only meant for insiders. People already in the circle of acceptability. She’s an outsider, meaning she’s also unclean. So if Jesus were to help her out, it would not only tarnish his reputation, and make him unclean, it would be like wasting your kids food on the dog while your kids go hungry.[i] It’d be an undeserved waste. Blessings are for holy people before unholy people. Insiders get first dibs over outsiders.
She asks for help, Jesus turns her away. And then he puts her in her place. Why would he do that? Why would he say something so cruel? It doesn’t sound much like Jesus. Jesus who’s known for his compassion and inclusion. Here Jesus puts holy people over unholy people, insiders over outsiders. And it just doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know and love.
It doesn’t sound much like Jesus to us. But to a lot of people, it maybe sounds a little like their experience of Christians. Maybe sounds a little like Church.
Maybe they’re a Christian. Maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re a skeptic, or a believer in something, curious, but not quite there. Christian or not, maybe there’s something about their life or their choices that they figure people’ll judge them for. Maybe they’re not married to their partner. Single mom with kids. Drug problems, homeless, mental health challenges. Gay, transgender. Or have too many tattoos. But they find themselves or their children going through some major difficulty, and so they look to a good, upstanding Christian or head to church in search of some kind of help, comfort, or just plain community. But when they get to us, they find out that like the Syrophoenician woman, by somebody’s religious standards, they’re unclean. Unholy.
Maybe when they come knocking a cruel person pulls a Jesus. Insults them and sends them home. But more often it’s a nicer person says that they’d love to help but you have to get holy first. Get married, find a husband first. Drop the drugs, stop being (or at least acting) gay. Drop your politics, learn all the right politically correct things to say. Learn our habits and behaviors before you come near. Take a bath, stop dressing that way, stop being so rude. Wash and work your way up from dirty dog to clean child at the table. Then we’ll talk. Don’t wanna waste that blessing.
People’s initial response to or experience with Christians and church can be like this Syrophoenician woman’s first experience with Jesus. Grace withheld for the deserving. And our personal holiness is preserved by distancing ourselves from the unholy. Whether said kindly or rudely. It’s insiders first. That’s how people have experienced us (as in Christians in general). It’s how people perceive us. Whether we like it or not. Whether it’s true or not.
Okay, so maybe this is the only sermon I’d preach where Jesus is the bad example. At least at first. A lot of commentators throughout history have tried to justify Jesus’ meanness to this woman. Some say he’s testing her. Some say that he says puppies, not dogs. He means it affectionately. Which yeah, that’s a stretch. The truth here is that the text doesn’t say. We don’t know.
All we can really say here, though, is that this experience isn’t the end of the story. Because the script suddenly flips.
In response to Jesus, this woman isn’t turned off. She doesn’t give up. But she persists. She engages Jesus in a little verbal jousting. “Yeah,” she says. “The children eat first. Sure. But dogs are still part of the household, and are get the crumbs under the table.” I may be a dog, she says. But dogs are a part of the family too.
First this unclean gentile woman offends Jesus’ honor by ambushing him at his house. Now she’s talking back, refusing to leave. And embarrassing this great teacher by using his own words against him. That’s no way to speak to a Messiah. She’s got guts.
And you know what? Jesus gives in. “For saying that,” he says. “For saying that, you may go. The demon’s left your daughter.” She heads home, and her daughter’s sitting up in bed. Cured.
I love how one commentator puts this: “Jesus found it irresistible,” he says. “Now I perhaps see a wry smile on his face. ‘You won,’ he says.”[ii]
She wins the argument. Jesus casts out the demon right then and there.
It may not seem like a big deal to us. But this scene in Mark’s story of Jesus is huge. It’s a turning point. Because in healing this gentile woman’s daughter, it becomes clear that Jesus’ ministry and his work isn’t just for insiders. Jesus hasn’t come to just bring his fellow Jews back in to the fold, to bring blessings to the already blessed. But it’s clear that God’s scope of salvation is much much bigger. Jesus is there to extend the table of grace and healing beyond those already comfortably within the walls of the religious household.
And it’s also clear that Jesus’ ministry isn’t just for holy people, either. In fact, Jesus himself no longer has an interest in preserving his own reputation, his own holiness. Because in admitting she’s right, he’s submitting himself to humiliation. It’s a sneak peak of Jesus’ suffering, humiliation and passion on the cross. Because Jesus is now deemed defiled, debased, spiritually unhealthy and unholy in the eyes of the pious and religious. All for the sake of this hurting woman and her daughter.[iii] Instead of insisting they make their way up, Jesus gets down on the floor with the dogs who are excluded from life’s table. Bringing them the bread of heaven.
In the end, what the text is telling us is that the first rejection isn’t the whole story. Jesus extends his blessings to all who long for and reach for them. Insiders and outsiders. The holy and unholy alike. No matter the cost to himself. And in doing so, he shows us what true holiness is. All on account of the persistence of this suffering woman. That’s the whole story.
In her book Operating Instructions, the writer Anne Lamott tells the story of her recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. She shows this same kind of persistence:
When Sam was six days old, I took him to my little church in Marin City, the church where I’ve been hanging out for four years now… I got in the habit of stopping by the church on Sundays but standing in the back, in this tense, lurky way, and leaving before the service was over because I didn’t want people to touch me, or hug me, or try to make me feel better about myself. After I got sober and started to feel okay about myself, [then] I could stay to the end and get hugged. Anyway, the first Sunday after Sam’s birth, I kind of limped in… and everyone was staring joyfully and almost brokenheartedly at us because they loved us so much. I walked like a ship about to go down, to a seat in the back. But the pastor said, Whoa, whoa, not so fast—you come up here and introduce him to his new family. So I limped up to the little communion table in front of the half-circle of folding chairs where we sit, and I turned to face everyone. The pain and joy were just overwhelming. I tried to stammer, “This is my son,” but my lip was trembling, my whole face was trembling, my whole face was trembling, and everyone was crying. When I’d first started coming to church I couldn’t even stand up for half the songs because I’d be so sick from cocaine and alcohol that my head would be spinning, but these people were so confused that they’d thought I was a child of God.[iv]
Lamott was an outsider. By all measures, she was unclean, unholy, unworthy of the love given to her. She sat in the back. Lurking around, likely fearing the kind of response Jesus gives the Syrophoenician woman. Off to the side of the table, hoping for crumbs of healing from the church’s table. But, like the Syrophoenician woman, she also she persisted. And there is was. Her own demons exercised for the sake of her newborn son.
So today, if you find yourself in the shoes of the Canaanite Woman. If your first encounter with Jesus—in the form of Jesus’ people—ended in rejection, based on someone’s measure of holiness, by who you are or what you’ve done. Whether done with cruelty and a frown or politeness and a smile. Or if you assume it will end in rejection and haven’t even tried. First, I’m sorry. Second, hear this: hold on: be persistent. If you do, miraculous things will happen.
The mission of the church of Jesus Christ is not primarily about our spiritual well-being and welfare. As William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury once said: "The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members."[v] This is a reminder to us that the bread of God’s grace is not just for those of us already at the table. It doesn’t mean we don’t take care of each other or care about our own needs. But it means that Jesus is always drawing the circle wider around himself. Jesus is constantly reaching outside our walls, breaking through our prejudices and judgments, and drawing outsiders and those who have been deemed to unholy to touch to himself. It means that the gift we’ve been given is given to be passed along to the next hungry soul. And like I said: when it is, miraculous things happen.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask Jesus. But make sure to ask at least twice.
[i] “Her solicitation is an affront to the honor status of Jesus: no woman, and especially a gentile woman unknown and unrelated to this Jew, would have dared to invade his privacy at home to seek a favor.” Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988), 203.
[ii] Leonard Vanderzee, “The Lectionary Gospel: Proper 18B,” The Center for Excellence in Preaching, September 3, 2018. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel
[iii] “Jesus allows himself to be ‘shamed’ (becoming ‘least’) in order to include this pagan woman in the new community of the kingdom.” Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 204.
[iv] Quoted brilliantly in relation to this scripture in Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 142-143. The original quotation is from Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1993), 26-28.