Read Mark 7:24-37
For years, Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman has left me puzzled and honestly pretty mad.
I distinctly remember sharing my frustrations and concerns about this Gospel text with my mom after church one Sunday growing up. “Jesus is supposed to embody all things perfect and good, not the painful bigotry and broken parts of us humans! How could he say something so awful to someone who needed his help?” I asked her.
My poor mother responded by encouraging me to ask our pastor about it during his office hours that week. I diligently went, hopeful that I would get the answers I was hoping for. I honestly don’t remember his exact response, but I know that my eleven-year-old self was not satisfied with his answers.
Who is this Savior of mine that responds to the desperate pleas of a mother on behalf of her suffering child with what seems to be an ethnic slur? How could he?
I am sad to admit this, but even with all my seminary and theological education, I still don’t have full answers to these questions. What I do know is that there is no doubt that Jesus’ remark “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” would have been taken as an insult. Dogs were nothing you wanted to be associated with in antiquity. As unclean scavengers, “dog” was a term of great offense directed toward Gentiles.
Doubt and confusion do remain though as we consider the other contradictions in this story. They continue to baffle me because Jesus’ actions and his words just do not match up.
Jesus is implying with his words that this woman’s otherness somehow disqualifies her and her daughter from fullness at the feast of heaven. However, for weeks, Jesus has been performing incredible deeds, healing and feeding Jews and Gentiles alike. So why would he now say something like this? I wonder.
The book of Mark particularly emphasizes Jesus in all his embodied humanness. Theologian Mark Allan Powell points out that, “Like any human being, Jesus becomes tired (6:31) and hungry (11:12). He feels a wide range of human emotions including pity (1:41), anger (3:5), wonder (6:6), compassion (6:34), indignation (10:14) and love (10:21). Most significant, perhaps, Jesus does not know everything (13:32), and his power is sometimes limited.”
By becoming fully human, Jesus is embodying all that is human, and in some ways making it easier for us to relate to him. Jesus, son of God, appears to learn from a human in a Gentile land about the importance of inclusivity in the reign of God. He seems to learn that his ministry is larger than he might realize thanks to the wisdom of a stranger.
But is the Syrophoenician woman really challenging Jesus or is she challenging us as readers?
Just as Jesus comes to realize the expansiveness of his ministry, so too are we invited to rethink any narrow visions of community and of service in the world. As we allow ourselves to really enter into this story, we should be reminded of those times when a stranger has challenged us to extend our love further.
Can you think of such a time? Have you ever experienced what it is like to be challenged to expand your welcome by a stranger? Maybe this stranger was someone from a different part of the world than you. Maybe this stranger was someone with a different sexual orientation or gender identity than you. Maybe this stranger lived a very different life than you.
For Elham Chakib Yaacoub, a farmer in Syria I have come to know more about through my work with Lutheran World Relief, Namsha Salameh was that stranger.
Driven from their home in Syria by fighting, Namsha and her children fled the only home they’d ever known and made their way to Lebanon to live as refugees.
It was a difficult road, as they grappled with grief over their losses and fear of the unknown. Life as refugees has not been easy for them. Namsha has encountered hostility from native Lebanese, because Lebanon is experiencing an economic crisis and scarcely has anything extra to offer “outsiders” like her and her children. I would imagine her life in Lebanon has been full of experiences like that of the Syrophoenician woman in our Gospel story today.
Lebanon is now home to more refugees per capita than any other country on the planet. Without the welcome of their Lebanese neighbors, many refugees have no hope of survival.
Elham and her husband Mounir raise eggplant and produce Makdous, a Middle Eastern dish, in their home in Lebanon. They weren’t always in a position to help neighbors like Namsha. But after facing many years of poor harvests, Elham received support from Lutheran World Relief to set up a drip irrigation system that has helped her family to triple production.
From this blessing, good fruits have multiplied. Elham’s farm is now more productive and her family more secure. What’s more, Elham is also able to employ Syrian refugees like Namsha as part of her business. She is able to expand her welcome, thanks to generosity from neighbors across the globe.
As we professed in the confession and forgiveness at the start of our service today, it can be hard to believe there is enough for all sometimes. Like Jesus, Elham may have needed some nudging from her Syrian neighbors to embrace the welcome she has. Like Jesus, we may sometimes need a nudge to embrace our neighbors in need as they come to the United States from places like Afghanistan or Honduras or Somalia or Mexico. But that is exactly what our story from Mark is challenging us to do, to expand our reach, to open wide our doors and to share the infinite love of God with all the world.
During communion, our dear guest organist Dr. Philip has asked me to sing one of his very favorite pieces in our final Sunday together and I think it’s text from 1 Corinthians: 13 is a great one to reflect upon as we challenge ourselves to be instruments of expansive love in the world.
1 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
12For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
May you continue to wrestle with your questions about scripture. May you continue to learn from those around you. May you continue to be challenged to expand your welcome. But more than anything else, may you do all things with love.
Recording of Vicar Sarah singing "The Greatest of These Is Love": https://recorder.google.com/share/32d0c07d-c5f8-4fc4-bf3f-be7f4c39c2c1