A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Messiahs Are from Mars; Syrophoenician Women Are from Venus
September 10, 2006
Pentecost 14 Mark 7:24-37
Every male of the species knows he's no match for a cheeky woman when she wants something and today we learn Jesus isn't either. He is clearly outfoxed by the Syrophoenician woman.
Mark places this story at the end of his account of Jesus' ministry, just before Jesus heads to his certain fate in Jerusalem. It is not a happy time for Jesus. He has essentially gone underground. He has left Israel for some peace and quiet. It is a time for reflection and reassessment.
It is hard to miss the irony that he seeks quiet in what is presently a war zone. He is in what we know as southern Lebanon where we have just witnessed Israel use superior strength and weapons to pound their enemies, the descendants of the Syrophoenician woman, into the ground, only to make them stronger than before.
He has sought some quiet because his ministry is in crisis. In fact it is in shambles. It has gone to the dogs. He is wondering where it all went wrong. At first it seemed to be going great. He was attracting good crowds. He gave some sermons that were well-received. But quickly he came up against increasing surveillance by the authorities who were nipping at his heels, there were public attempts at entrapment, and he was accused of committing capital crimes. The poor, the very target of his ministry, misunderstood him. His neighbours in Nazareth were cynical and disparaging, while his own family doubted his sanity. Saddest of all, his beloved disciples suffered from ideological blindness. No matter how much private tutoring he gave them, they just weren't getting it. He has to face up to it, despite some cracker healings and exorcisms, the kingdom had not arrived. His mission is looking more and more impossible.
While into his reverie, his private pity party perhaps, he is interrupted by a doggedly determined anxious mother. Her daughter is possessed and rumour has it that he can help. What seems to us like the normal and understandable actions of a loving mother is actually quite extraordinary in that time and place. A woman just doesn't approach a rabbi. Perhaps, horror of horrors, she even touched his feet as she kneeled in supplication. And she isn't just any woman. She is a gentile. Not just a gentile, but a pagan. Not just a pagan, but a Canaanite. She represents the people Israel as the chosen of Yahweh had vanquished from the Promised Land. Her gods had lost to their God, and just because they were all now under Roman domination, that reality had not changed. She had no claim on him. A Jewish rabbi, and certainly not one who might be the Messiah, shouldn't even acknowledge her presence. He abruptly, if not rudely, dismisses her with a proverb, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”
In ten years of weekly Sunday school I have only one memory of one class. It was on this Gospel and I was incensed by Jesus. In preparing this sermon I checked out what the scholars had to say about his stroppiness. There were all kinds of suggestions trying to explain away his harsh words. He was only being ironic some said. He said it with a smile and used the Greek word for puppy or pet dog to soften the words. His bark was worse than his bite. Others argue he was testing her faith. Would she persist? Still others explain that Jesus was using this as a training session for his disciples so they would know his message was for everyone, not just the so-called Chosen people. Certainly Matthew's version of the encounter validates this hypothesis. But I think Mark's version is more honest. Until this moment I think he saw his ministry as being only to the Jews. At best he thought, maybe in time it could be extended to the Gentiles.
No, I and a couple of other scholars believe he was just cranky. No getting around it. Calling someone a dog, small or otherwise, is rude. He had much more important things on his mind — like his own misery. He wasn't in the mood to be either welcoming or inclusive, nor did he have the motivation to confront his own culturally conditioned racism and sexism.
Perhaps that is what's going on with the Archbishop of Canterbury these days. Last week he said the church is welcoming but not inclusive. Seeming to contradict his previous more enlightened views on gays and lesbians in the church he argued that the church welcomes all who want to come but they have to conform to church teaching and scripture. Maybe he needs some face time with a cheeky woman too?
She certainly did Jesus a world of good.
As a mother worried about her child, she wasn't going to roll over for a self-centred bloke in a position to help because of some stupid taboos and prejudices. Nor was she going to growl menacingly at him like two alpha males might either. She was too smart for that.
This formidable woman makes herself small on behalf of her daughter. She kneels, begs; gives honour as an inferior. By her actions she is one of the least of those he's been talking about.
Her littleness though is only a posture, a negotiation, a canny playing of how he sees her but not how she knows herself to be. She uses the possibilities of either shame or honour in a verbal exchange that doubles his word back upon himself, by quoting another proverb, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.” One would hope Jesus had the good grace to laugh at her response.
He refuses in the name of children; she accepts his refusal and links human little ones and canine little ones. Their value is in their littleness she implies. Her response allows him an honourable way out. He only has to expand his mission to include her. If he doesn't, he is shamed.
Mary didn't raise any dummies. Jesus gets it. He has been cleverly out-manoeuvred and like any smart man with his back to the wall he takes the route of honour she has provided him. He casts out the demons in her daughter. He doesn't require her to be baptised first or become a follower of Yahweh or even express belief in the kingdom he is trying to inaugurate. In fact, if he perceives any faith in her at all he doesn't mention it, as he does when justifying healing other Gentiles or unclean women. He doesn't welcome her; she just makes herself at home. He doesn't include her, she makes sure she is included, not with power but by simply sitting herself down at the heavenly banquet. She is declaring the reality of her presence not unlike women seeking their rightful place in the church today or cheeky gays who point out “I'm here, I'm queer, get used to it.”
My question is who was exorcised? Yes, the daughter was healed by Jesus, but Jesus was also healed by the Syrophoenician woman. He was brought up short. His prejudices were confronted; his tunnel vision was expanded. Not only did a healing word come from a pagan woman but a whole new approach to his ministry was revealed in her. Like any smart woman she even lets him think it's all his idea, but her influence on his future ministry is clear.
He adopts her approach when he arrives in Jerusalem. He uses Scripture in a way similar to her use of the proverb to silence the outraged priests and scribes after cleansing the Temple. He doesn't claim his authority, he lives it. Her wily ways pop up again when the Pharisees tried to entrap him into either calling for insurrection against the Romans or denying God's authority in their question about is it right to pay taxes to the emperor. I can almost hear him asking, “Now what would that cheeky Canaanite say?” Later he foils the Sadducees attempt to reveal him as a heretic by similar means.
But her ultimate influence is seen in how he approached his immanent death. He did not look or sound like a man defeated before his mission was accomplished. Thanks to her he knew the kingdom had come. Nothing could change that. It's here. Those who think otherwise need to get used to it. He is the evidence. It has broken forth in him. The God of love doesn't differentiate between us, even between him and a pagan Canaanite woman. No one is excluded from that love. Not even tradition or Scripture can change that. Jesus didn't heal her daughter to grant her God's love, but to acknowledge she already had it, no matter what the archbishops of his day said.
As one who society and the church have always invited to the table, I hope those of you who at best have only received the crumbs will not wait for people like me to include or welcome you to the table. Take a chair. You are already there. Those who would deny you do not have the authority to exclude. It's not their table. Your uninvited presence points out the obvious. God reigns. You are the Gospel. Be Cheeky. Live it with authority. We'll get used to it.