Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Rev. Karen Barfield

Mark 7:24-37

Well, there’s not much to say as intro to today’s Gospel other than that I wished I had looked ahead and asked Joel to preach!

But (obviously) I didn’t… so I’ll just dive in, offering my reflections for your consideration, sometimes quoting the Rev. David Henson, an Episcopal priest, who has worded his, and my, thoughts so beautifully that I cannot improve them.

Until a few days ago, I have always read the story of the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus as another healing story of someone – in this case a child – possessed by a demon, albeit a story of an uncharacteristically brash Jesus.

As I reflected more deeply on the story, however, I began to wonder if this also might be a story of the healing of Jesus!

Jesus goes away to the primarily Gentile region of Tyre and surreptitiously enters a house there.

Somehow word gets out that he is in town…the exact location of his hideout being revealed.

This woman gets wind of it and in her desperation finds herself inside what was likely a stranger’s house, bowing down, humbling herself at Jesus’ feet, begging him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

Now, I want to pause here for a moment.

Have you, or someone you know, ever experienced such desperation for your child or a family member or friend that you would do absolutely ANYTHING to help find relief for your loved one?

Including going up to a complete stranger, whether the County magistrate to seek a court order for involuntary commitment, or a psychiatrist or physician, or a priest or teacher, or a principal or police officer, to beg for help?

Or perhaps just begging God over and over: help, please help. Heal my child (or husband, or wife, or parent, or friend)!

This was the state of this woman.

She had clearly heard about Jesus and his power to heal, and it didn’t matter to her what she had to do…she had to find him and speak to him so that he could heal her daughter whom she could no longer bear to see tormented.

So, she finds Jesus, bows down before him and begs him to heal her daughter.

And in response he says 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.”

He has called her a dog, an ethnic slur of the day.

As David Henson says, “This story should stop us in our tracks.

To be clear, while there is some debate about the social and cultural dynamics at work here, Jesus holds the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice…. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism.”

But that couldn’t possibly be the Jesus we know and love.
Or could it?

Henson continues,

“It presents Christians with some difficulty, particularly if we understand ethnic prejudice and racism as the systemic sins they are. When faced with the complexities of personal and systemic sin, it is much easier to think of Jesus as transcending them all and loving all people regardless of skin color or culture of origin.

“[Jesus] explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout the South not too long ago.

“It wouldn’t be fair, Jesus explains, to take the banquet prepared for his people – the children, the humans – and give it to gentiles – the dogs, the less than human.”

Despite his biting and demeaning retort, she remains bowed before Jesus in humility, interceding for her daughter, begging for just a crumb of mercy.

For Henson, this is the great lesson of the Syrophoenician woman:

“It teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity — the Incarnation himself — can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy.

“Like many of us today, Jesus would have been reared into a prejudiced worldview. Jesus, given his embedded culture, could not be colorblind (or ethnicity blind as it were). And neither can we.

“But being caught in such evil, however, does not make one an overt racist. It is what happens in the moments afterwards that makes that determination. How we respond, when confronted with the narratives of the oppressed or the Other, reveal who we truly are.

“Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them? Continue to brush them aside with dismissive prejudice…?

“Or do we, like Jesus, do the miraculous and listen to them, being changed by the power of the truth of they are speaking?

“When this woman, in boldness, confronts Jesus and his ethnic slur, Jesus listens. 
And he hears.”

His ears have been unplugged, the scales fall from his eyes, and his embrace has been widened.

He then says to the woman, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

God’s love and power and mercy are limitless…not reserved for the few but offered to the many.

Mark’s picture of God’s Kingdom is often something surprising and unexpected.

This woman, who started out as an interruption and intrusion in Jesus’ life, served as a vehicle for God’s truth to be spoken. Her faith challenged Jesus to exercise his faith in a new way…in a way that flew in the face of his religious and cultural tradition.

When Jesus healed people,
he often restored them to community.

Did the Syrophoenician woman heal Jesus?
Did she restore him to community that he didn’t know he was missing?

Do we receive healing from people who we have discarded as unworthy?

Real change comes through conversation with those who are marginalized…if we are willing to listen and have our ears unstopped and our hearts and way of life enlarged.

Henson words express so poignantly the crux of the matter:

“You see, when Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, he heard not only the truth of her reality. He also heard the brokenness of his own reality.

“Both must happen in order to confront ethnic prejudice in any time — and, yes, racism in our time.

“We must be able to hear the realities of the oppressed and disenfranchised as true.

“This, in and of itself, can be difficult for those of us who are members of a privileged race or gender, to accept a foreign reality without qualifications, to listen without interrupting, to hear without reworking their experiences into the dominant cultural narratives embedded within us.

“…we must also be able to hear the brokenness of our own realities and of our own stories. We must hear our own incompleteness….

“It asks us to do the unthinkable: to own our culture’s hate and to be changed by the realities of the marginalized.”

This past week I received two calls from local business owners who are having issues with our homeless neighbors who become angry and yell when they become drunk. As I was having lunch with a wise friend on Thursday, she pointed out that this in an opportunity to have a conversation about the systemic causes of our neighbors’ homelessness.

Being a privileged person myself, it is all too easy to take another’s story and fit it into my life experience and worldview.

As Jesus was challenged by the Syrophoenician woman, I was challenged to open my ears and my eyes and see from the perspective of our marginalized neighbors. To listen afresh to their stories, their needs, their hopes, their begging for help without my responding with dismissive remarks or thoughts.

The story in today’s gospel, however uncomfortable, is an invitation to new life if we will take its challenge and plead for healing for ourselves and one another.


Read David Henson’s full commentary here.